My Kansas hometown was straightforwardly named for what surrounded it: good land. I grew up on some of that good, if somewhat hillier than prime, land, about fifteen miles beyond town as the crow flew, through sunny skies over sunlit plains, up toward the Colorado and Nebraska borders.
My father always assumed that one, if not both, of his two boys would eventually become farmers like him. They’d been trained in the occupation, driving endless tractor rounds throughout their teen years. They considered this pure drudgery. I, on the other hand, thought it would be fun to drive tractors. But in those days only boys became farmers. My father hoped that I would do the next best thing, and marry a farmer.
He encouraged me to get a teaching or nursing degree, just to “fall back on,” as he said, since he assumed that my husband would be the provider. I had no interest in these occupations, the only ones he considered suitable for a girl. When I was eight, the Russians had fired the first volley in what had become a fervent space race. At night on the farm, we would watch their satellite, Sputnik, track across the sky, threatening to colonize the galaxy before we’d even gotten off the ground. In that climate of national paranoia, I vowed to become a nuclear physicist, the most prestigious “male” occupation I could imagine.
By the time I graduated from high school, though, with many of my male classmates heading off to fight in Vietnam, I had lost interest in winning the Cold War. I wanted to help end all war. Perhaps I would become a diplomat. Or maybe I’d be a journalist.
While I resented the limitations my father put on my abilities and worth, I failed to question the most limiting perception of all—that a girl’s main goal in life was to find a good husband. To heck with the space race. The only race I’d ever been in, as it turned out, had been the race to find a husband. When, during my second semester in college, a city boy proposed, I felt like I’d reached the finish line without even having to complete the first lap. His parents were wealthy, meaning I would never have to worry about making my own way in life, or so I thought.
So much for my father’s well-laid plans. To his bafflement, he watched each of his kids, in turn, reject the life he’d imagined for us. It is a story as old as the hills, or in our case, as old as the plains. Livelier places, greater prestige, and greater ease to be had elsewhere prove irresistible to farm kids and kids from small rural towns. But could part of this problem derive from attitudes embedded in rural culture itself?
When I was sixteen, my father traded that good land I’d grown up on for some other even better land and built a new house in town. When I asked him why he hadn’t built on the new farm, he said it wouldn’t have been fair to ask my mother to make that sacrifice. When had farm life become a sacrifice in our minds, and not a privilege?