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Jensen, Joan M. (1934–) - U.S. Western, Women’s, and Rural History

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Joan M. Jensen was born on December 9, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of an Italian immigrant father and a German first-generation American mother. Her father, who served in the military, also worked as a landscape engineer and a salesman. Her mother worked full time as a homemaker. Joan was raised in California, without much influence from her father’s urban Italian Roman Catholic family or her mother’s rural German one. As a historian, however, she would later go back to her rural roots. “One of the things I’m trying to do in my writing now,” she told Roger Adelson in an interview for The Historian , “is to talk more about myself, because it’s important for historians and other scholars to let people know how their background might influence what they write.”

When Jensen was in high school, she did not know a single person who had graduated from college. Her mother had only finished the seventh grade, her father the eighth, although he later completed high school through a correspondence course. Jensen never went inside a public library until she got to college. Her mother encouraged her to follow the college track in school, though, and Jensen attended Pasadena Community College and then the University of California at Los Angeles. She studied history because she was interested in comparative literature and philosophy, and felt that history encompassed both. Jensen also earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in history at UCLA, facing discrimination as one of few women pursuing graduate work in history at the time.

Jensen’s first academic appointment was at U.S. International University, in San Diego, California, from 1962 to 1971. Events outside the university, however, especially the war in Vietnam, had an impact on Jensen, and she left her job to join a farming commune in southern Colorado. Unlike many other communes, she recalls, this one attempted to practice gender equality. The group of five split up after two years and Jensen returned to the city. “I didn’t necessarily plan to remain a historian,” she states, “but there were few alternatives and I still really liked history.” From 1974 to 1975 Jensen was visiting assistant professor at Arizona State University at Tempe, and from 1975 to 1976 she taught at the University of California at Los Angeles as a visiting lecturer in history. From 1976 until 1992, Jensen was at New Mexico State University, where she was assistant professor, associate professor, and professor. She also directed the women’s studies program from 1989 to 1992, and since 1992 has been professor emerita at New Mexico State University.

Joan Jensen combined her interests in feminism and history and began to write women’s history, focusing, as she later put it, on those people who were “the least literate, those who had written the least, and those who had contributed the least to high culture.” She has been a leader in her field and in encouraging others to write more inclusive, multicultural history. Jensen’s most famous essay is “The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the History of Women in the American West,” published in Pacific Historical Review in 1980. This prize-winning article called for a revised approach, a multicultural approach, to studying women in the West. The essay was the focus of a panel ten years later at the 1990 Western Historical Association Conference and then of a special issue of Pacific Historical Review . While some have criticized Jensen for centering white women in her analysis in this article and for not looking at power relations among women, she has also been praised for asking the initial questions and opening up the field to the study of women. Jensen, argues Lois Scharf, has mapped out the path that “will enable us to create an exquisitely detailed, inclusive women’s history.”

Joan Jensen has written, edited, or co-edited eleven books, among them two award-winners. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750–1850 , won the Western Association of Women Historians Sierra Prize and the Old Sturbridge Village Research Library Society-E. Harold Hugo Memorial Book Prize. New Mexico Women: Intercultural Perspectives won the New Mexico Presswomen’s Zia Award and the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation. Her most recent work, One Foot on the Rockies , explores how women of diverse backgrounds have found a voice in the modern West. Jensen has also written over forty articles addressing theoretical issues about writing western and women’s history, sexuality in rural America, rural women and economic development, and East Indians in the West.

Jensen has secured a number of awards, including a United States Information Agency lecture tour in India, a Rockefeller fellowship, a Senior Fulbright in Germany, and a Newberry Library fellowship. She has also served as president and vice president of the Agricultural History Society, on the Board of Editors of the Pacific Historical Review , and on the History Committee of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

Although Jensen has retired from her academic position, she continues to write. “Writing history is hard work and very labor intensive,” she tells Roger Adelson. “My study of rural women has helped me when I am tired because then I think how hard they worked and for such long hours. Remembering those women and saying to myself ‘Come on Jensen,’ I can continue at the task before me.” Jensen lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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