Before moving to Minnesota for college, I spent a majority of my childhood on a small ranch in south central North Dakota. If you had asked me then what my politics were, I would have said conservative, similar to most of my family and community. While attending St. Cloud State University, I experienced a strong shift in my beliefs and understanding of the world. I found feminism in Women’s Studies classes, and learned about vast cultural differences in Anthropology courses. I decided to end my long-planned medical school trajectory and declared a major in Women’s Studies.
My family was shocked by this transition. Visits home became contentious and I vowed that I would never go back for more than familial visits. I had no desire to live anymore in a place where the political landscape was so different from my own. I could not understand the people who chose to stay.
It was this lack of understanding that led to my research on progressive politics and feminisms in the state of North Dakota as a graduate student at Brandeis University. During the summer and winter of 2017, I spent six weeks conducting anthropological fieldwork. I stayed with family in the small, rural area of my childhood, and spent most of my time traveling throughout the state, speaking with self-identified feminists and progressives about their experiences living and working there. I wanted to learn how they negotiated political differences on an everyday basis.
Of course it was personal — but it was also impeccably timed, as it fell shortly after the 2016 election.
Post-election, the general urban liberal viewpoint was that the results were due to a lack of understanding of the conservatives who voted for Donald Trump, particularly those in rural areas. My belief is that we also do not understand the small group of progressives who live among them.
I wondered: What would it mean to expand our understanding of a place like North Dakota to include its voices of feminist and progressive politics? And, what would it mean to expand our notions of feminism and progressivism to include places like North Dakota?
As is common in research, I left with more questions than answers.
When I visit home now, I still struggle to negotiate myriad political differences that surround me. What I have come to appreciate, however, is the immense importance of the stories I encountered while in the field.
There is a tendency, particularly among urban progressives around the country, to get comfortable inside our political bubbles and to disengage with political differences. While I understand why this is at times a necessity, I also believe that now, more than ever, it is important — for those of us who safely can — to engage with those who differ from us.
All of the individuals I met through my research are working to enact change in a place where they are severely outnumbered. They are all engaging, at times, in difficult conversations with people they disagree with. In many ways, they are doing the work that feminists and progressives elsewhere refuse to do.
If we are to work toward improving the current political divide in the United States, we need to step outside of our political echo chambers and engage with those who differ from us. Doing so not only helps foster better understanding of different perspectives, but also works to disrupt stereotypes about what it means to be non-urban and to amplify voices that have been traditionally ignored by mainstream feminist and political movements — in particular that of rural women
Understanding, of course, does not mean agreement, nor should it. While we may not always get it right, or walk away feeling that we know more than when we arrived, it is in small moments of both understanding and misunderstanding that we might learn the most — about others, about our world, and about ourselves.
Ashlee Moser recently returned to Minnesota after earning a M.A. in Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Brandeis University. Her fieldwork was used in her thesis and delivered at conferences in Massachusetts and Ohio. She lives in St. Paul with her partner Craig and their new puppy Donovan. She currently works at Minnesota Women’s Press.