Farmed Out: A Case Study of Differential Oppression Theory and Female Child Farm Labor in the Early 20th Century

Rachel Bandy, University of Colorado at Boulder
Robert Regoli, University of Colorado at Boulder
John D. Hewitt, Grand Valley State University

The hardships faced by children in early American history have been well examined in contemporary sociology (Bremner, 1971; deMause, 1974; Dolgin, 1997; Empey, 1978; Platt, 1966; Pogrebin, 1983; West, 1996; Youcha, 1995; Zeliver, 1985). It is understood that few social safety nets existed for children in the late 19th and early 20th century--especially for those children who resided in the isolation of rural Western America. The programs, shelters, schools or other assistance that were offered to children existed mainly in the large cities of the East. A guiding principle of these programs was that in order to "save" these unfortunate souls from a life of sin and degradation, they must be raised away from the wicked influences of the city; their developmental needs would be best met by embracing the Protestant Ethic, hard work and fresh air--none of which could be found, it was thought, in the urban environment or within any of the newly developed child-institutions or houses of refuge. A 1910 annual report of the New York Children's Aid Society noted that, "For bringing the child into normal, healthy, and practical relations with the world, there is no asylum equal to the farmer's home." It was thought that a life on the farm was a life of virtue.

This paper offers a rare opportunity to learn about farmed-out orphans--in particular female, farmed-out orphans. It provides a content analysis of Wisconsin state records kept of orphaned children whose lives were overseen through a formal system of child-welfare as well as a case study of one family of rual, orphaned children whose assistance came via the information system of "farming-out." More importantly, this paper applies the theory of Differential Oppression to rural, female, orphans in an effort to explore the dual nature of the oppression they experienced due to their status as both children and as females and to examine the mode of adaptation to said oppression utilized by these children.

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Updated 05/20/2006