Old Photo of Lisa Pruitt on the Buffalo River
Lisa Pruitt on the Buffalo River in 1993 (Image Credit: Submitted by Lisa Pruitt).

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Dr. Lisa Pruitt, the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at U.C. Davis, was raised in rural Newton County, Arkansas. She writes about silences on rurality in academic legal literature in academic journals and on her blog, Legal Ruralism.

Her research is wide-ranging, but it all centers around pointing out gaps in legal scholarship and doing her damnedest to fill them. When I discovered her work, I flushed with recognition.

If I’d known about her paper “Toward a Feminist Theory of the Rural” when I was 12, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But if I’d known about it I probably wouldn’t have thought that feminism was only for city girls with pink hair, either, a message I absorbed from Rookie Mag—covertly—in “computers” class.

Pruitt’s research covers the effects of simplistic rural stereotypes on parental rights, anti-poverty policy, and teen drug use. She studies the tangible struggles of the rural poor when it comes to abortion access, attorney shortages, and housing disparities.

And she’s writing a memoir. One of those accounts that merges the author’s personal journey from the sticks to the city (or, in Pruitt’s words, from the “white working class in rural Arkansas to the chattering classes in California”) with the story of our nation’s growing rural-urban divide.

It’s a tricky format but, given the fact that Pruitt’s academic work could very plausibly stand alone as a comprehensive account of modern rural legal issues, I’m excited to see what comes of her endeavors.

Enjoy our conversation about rural patriarchy, intra-racial resentment, and ecotourism, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: As a first-generation college student, how did you view your duty to the place you come from? Did you intend to take up rural issues in your law career when you were first getting started?

Dr. Lisa Pruitt: I didn’t see the difference rurality made to how law operated when I was in law school—probably because I wasn’t far enough removed from rural places. But later, after I’d lived in uber-urban places—some of the largest cities in America and Europe—I started to observe the ways in which legal scholars and appellate judges tended not to understand rural people, rural places, rural realities. Law suddenly looked urban-normative, so I decided to undertake the project of peeling away that metro-centricity, of figuring out how rurality was legally relevant—because legal scholars only write about that which is legally relevant. That’s what I’ve been doing for a few decades now—teasing out when and where rurality makes a difference in legal settings, regarding legal issues.

One reason I undertook this research agenda was because I held my rural community of origin in great affection. I appreciated the values I’d learned there. My academic work, especially that on rural poverty and other aspects of rural disadvantage, has been an effort to understand those forces. I hope that my work can help inform policy interventions that will serve rural communities like the one that raised me.

I feel I owe all #firstgen youth whatever I can do in terms of advocacy and solutions that will get them the information they need to get to and through college, to get the financial and academic supports to help them make that transition and realize their potential. I don’t believe that a college education is for everyone, but it was for me and is for many rural and first-generation kids who don’t get a meaningful opportunity to reach for it. I’m acutely aware that I could well have wound up not going to college, but I was fortunate when I was finishing high school—tuition at public universities was low and financial aid programs like Pell grants and Work Study were generous. Looking back now, I know that made a difference for me. But the access landscape has changed dramatically, and it’s deterring rural youth and other would-be first-gen students from pursuing higher education. We know also that the pandemic has lowered college applications among vulnerable populations, and we need to figure out how to reverse that trend. One thing that’s new in California is requiring all high school seniors to complete the FAFSA, so at least that hurdle is cleared.

DY: You write a lot about cultural ignorance of rural issues, and in particular those issues that intersect with poverty. In your article “Welfare Queens and White Trash,” you write that “white poverty remains largely undiscussed in legal scholarship and in the media.” I think for most readers of the Yonder, the problems with depictions of rurality in the media are clear—can you speak to the problems this silence creates in law? What are the systemic implications of legal scholarship’s silence on rural issues?

LRP: Legal scholarship’s silence on rural issues means judges don’t have a full opportunity to understand how spatiality—distance—and the social consequences of that distance—including lack of anonymity—influences how rural people engage with the law—or choose not to do so at all. These dynamics are important and may explain a great deal about rural attitudes regarding self- sufficiency and even antipathy toward the government.

DY: You’ve been writing about feminism’s exclusion of rural women for at least 15 years, by my count. What was your entry point into the topic and how have your views on it evolved?

LRP: I grew up a rural woman, and I saw in my own family how the particular form of patriarchy—that is, male dominance, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle—in rural America influences the choices women have. My own experiences—and those I observed of my mother and grandmothers—provided me insights into issues such as domestic violence and how rural spatiality and crummy rural job markets limit women’s agency and keep them beholden to men, even abusive men. I’ve recently enjoyed reading Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics because they bring a truly intersectional analysis to the study of how southern states turned “red.” The process involved leveraging not only race, but also gender and a particular view of Christianity. Parts of it are an academic analysis of some of the social forces at play in my own upbringing, which makes it fascinating reading.

DY: What do you wish liberals better understood about intra-racial resentment?

Pruitt and sister Sheila, riding Jenny (Image Credit: Submitted by Lisa Pruitt).
Pruitt with maternal grandparents, the Shatwells. (Image Credit: Submitted by Lisa Pruitt).

LRP: The main point I would like to make is that intra-racial resentment exists side by side with inter-racial resentment. I am absolutely not saying racism isn’t a force in American society, though my work sometimes gets (mis)-cited for that proposition. When I talk about intra-racial resentment, that’s where people often go. They assume it’s a choice between intra-racial resentment and inter-racial resentment—as if the two are mutually exclusive. No, both are forces to be reckoned with. And in racially homogeneous, all-white communities, the class-based animus, often between “those who work and those who don’t” is a social dynamic that looms large. That dynamic has both social and political implications, and the divide may become more dramatic as we move into an era where artificial intelligence further reduces the number of jobs available.

DY: How do you attempt to center the voices of rural people in your work, since that work has taken you so far from your rural roots? How do you continue to trust your perspective on rural issues?

LRP: This is a great question. I don’t entirely trust my perspective on rural issues now that I’m so far removed from rural living myself. But I do remain open to rural voices, and I seek opportunities to hear them and understand the underlying longing in what rural folks are saying. The tendency now, on the left, is often to hear only rural anger, but I try to look for the underlying longing. What is it rural folks need and want? Very often, they want to be seen and appreciated for their contributions, and that is surely not so much for anyone to ask. I don’t think it’s too much to ask by those who feed us and so much of the world. They also provide many other materials and products associated with extraction, of course, and rural America is increasingly associated with recreational opportunities we value. Most of us actually consume the rural when we visit a national park or engage in some form of ecotourism. We’d be sad if the infrastructure for doing so disappeared.

So, we need to listen and even to keep saying to rural folks, “tell me more” until they’ve said their piece. Sadly, our nation has become so sharply divided that it’s increasingly hard to find the middle ground, which only increases the need to actively look for it. Seeking that common ground means that rural and urban folks—among other cross-cutting groups and identities—must keep listening to each other with open hearts and open minds.

DY: What are you reading right now? Any recommendations? What books do you recommend for folks interested in your area of study?

LRP: I really appreciated Senator Jon Tester’s book, Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America, the most recent book I’ve read which uses the word “rural” in the title. It resonated with me so deeply that I reviewed it for the Daily Yonder. I am in the midst of reading Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, which is quite a tome, so I’m taking it slowly. The chapter about his campaign in Iowa in 2007-2008 is fabulous and should be deeply resonant with rural folks.

As for fiction, I’m a huge fan of Yaa Gyasi, and her Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom feature rural vignettes and insights, some historical, some contemporary. Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman is one of my favorites from the past year, and it led me to circle back and re-read The Round House, which is extraordinary. She is writing about the contemporary Native American experience, yes, but/and these books have so much to teach us about rural spatiality and community as well.

On the more academic side, Nicholas Stump’s new book, Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law is on my bedside table right now.

For pure page-turning pleasure, I recommend Jane Harper’s books. She is an Australian of Welsh descent who writes the rural experience “down under.” You’ll see lack of anonymity and rural spatiality play out in all of her books, so she brings home my theorizing about the legal relevance of rurality without labeling it as such. Her most recent is The Survivors, set in Tasmania. My favorite is The Lost Man. I’m currently writing a book, so I’m always reading for models and inspiration and to study craft. My book is a hybrid memoir that draws on my trajectory from the white working class in rural Arkansas to the chattering classes in California. In one short half a lifetime, I’ve made a rather extreme journey socioeconomically and geographically, from a persistent poverty county in the Ozarks to the capital city of the fifth largest economy of the world and a job as law professor at the nation’s largest university system. My journey has echoes of Smarsh’s Heartland, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Westover’s Educated, but I’m telling my story in the service of explaining how our nation came to be so divided and how we can begin to heal these acute contemporary political divisions.

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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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