Grad Student Discovers Texas Reality, Circa 1867

By Josh Richman

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 12, 2006.
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‘Wanted: Young single woman to cook, clean, launder, sew, garden, milk cows and tend chickens. Some cattle driving required; affinity for searing heat and harsh terrain preferred. Entry-level servant’s job; pay is room, board and passage to the frontier.”

It doesn’t sound like an ad that an intelligent, 21st-century feminist would answer. Yet this is the job that Maura Finkelstein took last summer, and now the result can be seen on “Texas Ranch House” a historical reality television series airing this month on PBS stations across the nation.

Finkelstein, 26, put her Columbia University master’s degree in anthropology to the test as the “girl of all work” — that is, all-purpose maid and low person on the totem pole — on the circa-1867 ranch of the Cooke family on which the show is set. Together, Finkelstein, the Cookes and a small herd of cowboys lived for three months as pioneering ranchers, eking out a life on the far edge of Western civilization with period tools, technology and clothes.

“Fifteen strangers came together and tried to create a community,” she told the Forward. “It was fascinating to see how we tried to do it, and how the roles we were playing and the clothes we were wearing started to dictate the ways we interacted with each other.”

“I don’t think that I changed that much, but I definitely held my tongue a lot more than I usually do,” she added. “I found myself in a position where I did have to consider myself subservient.”

A few weeks of “boot camp” together prepared Finkelstein and the Cookes for frontier life, but they didn’t meet the cowboys until the show began shooting in remote West Texas. Finkelstein and the cowboys ended up like oil and water; she found them far too eager to embrace 19th-century sexual stereotypes.

Still, the Maryland native and experienced equestrian said riding out on the big cattle drive that capped the series was an experience she’ll never forget. “I’ll still see Westerns through an entirely different lens, but I’ll hold on to that romance.”

And being so closely watched and studied for three months has given her a new perspective on her own career of documenting other cultures. Now working on her doctorate in cultural anthropology at Stanford University, Finkelstein said she’s having the “surreal” experience of seeing her face on bus-stop advertisements and, of course, on television.

But she said the summer’s best moments aren’t in the show — moments when the film crew wasn’t there, or during the one day a week when the cameras went dark, as she and the Cookes sat around reading, writing, playing guitar and singing. She even made the observant Baptist family a Sabbath dinner and led them in the blessings, a cultural exchange on the barren ranchlands of West Texas.

“That’s what I took away with me,” she said, adding she has kept in touch with the Cookes — who actually hail from Dublin, Calif., just 25 miles from Stanford — since returning to 21st-century civilization. “We e-mail all the time.”

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