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Cows, Cars, and Criminals:
The Legal Landscape of the Rural Midwest, 1920-1975
Law does not land on all spaces equally. Despite the attention to the relationship between space and power that urban and suburban historians of the twentieth century have brought to the fore, there is remarkably little scholarship examining rural communities on their own terms—not as aspiring cities. Cows, Cars, and Criminals: The Legal Landscape of the Rural Midwest, 1920-1975, tells a nuanced narrative of rural communities that is entangled with, but far more dynamic than, narrative tropes of rural decline and nostalgia. Like their counterparts nationwide in urban downtowns and suburban cul-de-sacs, twentieth-century rural Americans confronted challenges of inequality, but the legal efforts to maintain and improve rural communities in the face of those challenges took distinct forms shaped by rural geographies, economies, and social norms.
The dissertation argues that the process of legally reconstituting the rural was a central feature of twentieth-century America. Five case studies examine the remaking of the rural Midwest around issues typically considered quintessential twentieth-century urban challenges: policing and prosecution, land use and zoning, infrastructure and mobility, labor and economic opportunity, education equality, and local community organizing and advocacy. Each case study considers how legal power was gained, lost, and distributed in the rural context with respect to race, class, and gender. Together, the case studies illuminate meaningful, if circumscribed, ways many rural communities were able to continue to assert rural values and identities through legal mechanisms and adapt to an increasingly urban national landscape. At the same time, those rural norms, especially around issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, were contested through individual uses of, and resistance to, the law.
There are still millions of Americans living under local governments that are neither urban nor suburban—communities for which current legal and historical scholarship inadequately accounts. Thus, the dissertation provides a new legal history of the rural Midwest that reveals neither a story of linear decline nor growth, but one of constant remaking.
Table of Contents
1. The People's Pendleton:
Bracero History Archive. BraceroArchive.org.
Michigan History Center. Lansing, Michigan.
Michigan State University Libraries, Special Collections. East Lansing, Michigan.
Michigan State University, University Archives. East Lansing, Michigan.
Minnesota Historical Society. St. Paul, Minnesota.
Newberry Library. Chicago, Illinois.
State Historical Society of Iowa. Iowa City, Iowa.
State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Madison, Wisconsin.
University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library. Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University. Detroit, Michigan.