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History Major Unsure When World War I Started, Steers Conversation Towards Attitudes Around Women's Sexuality and Agency in Rural Arkansas in 1954


Photo by Tulane Public Relations / CC BY 2.0

Cold calling is the worst. Deborah Tanner (C '19) was caught off guard earlier this semester when her professor, hoping to throw a history major a softball question, asked her what year World War I started in their seminar class. 

Tanner did what she knew best and bullshitted her way through the question as best she could. After muttering "meh something Franz Ferdinand," thus exhausting her knowledge left over from high school AP World History, she changed lanes into a topic she was truly comfortable discussing. 

Although Tanner didn't know when World War I started or ended or when the French Revolution happened or when the Declaration of Independence was written, she had written twenty pages on birth control access and women's sexuality in rural Arkansas in the year of 1954 for a research seminar. 

Tanner bravely plowed through, adding, "You know what? World War I brings to mind another striking historical example of things just getting out of hand."

Taking a deep breath she continued,"On April 5, 1954 a local newspaper in Wilson, Arkansas published advertisements for tractors that would attract a ladies, erm, romantic attention. On April 7th, Cady Taylor, upset by the ad and the many other ads like it she saw in her day and age, had a small group of women over to her house to discuss their sexuality and other taboo topics. This gathering of women led to a protest in the town square in which a group of women advocated for better sexual education in their tiny town, a striking incident that reflects smaller ways that women negotiated their sexual agency, even in rural spaces, in the U.S. in the 1950s."

She finished strong with "And you know, I'm sure some of these women knew exactly what year WWI started! Wow, history, so many connections." 

Her professor sighed and her classmates taking the class for a requirement stared at her, trying to understand why she was like that.