Women as Sustainable Advocates and Environmental Activists

On Monday night I attended the NYU Hunger Banquet sponsored by Oxfam NYU, Slow Food On Campus, and the Gallatin Cooking Club. It was a great event that included a discussion of the farm bill by two very important men: Mark Dunlea from the Hunger Action Network of NY State and Rev. Robert Jackson, an urban farmer from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy Farm.

The two discussed problems with the current farm bill that threaten to continue with the new bill in 2012. These issues include (among many others) unfair farm subsidies, insufficient school lunch nutrition, and drawbacks of the SNAP program. But as I looked around the room, I noticed a discrepancy in demographics between who was listening and who was speaking: out of about 25 people in the room, only seven were men, two of whom were speaking. This moment felt emblematic of what I was seeing in the current food movement’s gender dynamics.

This exploration of gender and the sustainable food movement began with a research paper. Last year around exactly this time, I was beginning to write a final paper for one of my food studies classes about women farmers. I was prompted by a 2007 Census of Agriculture statistic:

Between 2002 and 2007, the total number of women operators increased 19 percent, outpacing the dismal 7 percent increase in the overall number of farmers.

The number is staggering. However, no one seemed to be talking about the issue. Why was there a sudden rise in women farmers? And who are these women? Out of this paper rose my current senior project on The Contemporary Farm Women. The more I read about women farmers throughout history, the more aware I become of the discrepancy between women in sustainable agriculture and the men that lead it.

This brings me back to the Hunger Banquet and my current experience with food centered non-profits. The offices are comprised mainly of women, yet we’re supporting the men who lead the organizations.

But as a friend pointed out, why should I complain about men being the face of the movement? Shouldn’t I be thankful that any work is being done, regardless of who’s doing it or how it’s progressing? Yes…and no.

This is not to say that I am against men’s participation in the cause. I think it’s important for men to participate in a movement that is largely feminine, and I would be genuinely excited to enter a room of advocates that includes more men.

Currently the movement is largely perpetuated by women, but its men who seem to hold the positions at the top of these organizations and they’re the ones getting media coverage. Men are the face of a largely female movement. Again, this isn’t to discourage men from contributing, but it’s rather to make women aware that we have this knowledge and we should claim it as ours. This needn’t be an aggressive awareness either because neither party is particularly at fault. The existing power structures (yes they exist even in non-profits, just at a less active level) foster typically masculine attributes as modes of promotion.

A few others have written about this issue, including a recent article on Grist by Tom Philpott and a book by Temra Costa. This is why I’m studying women farmers, because their voice has been silenced throughout history. I’ll write more on this issue later, but for now women, come out from behind the man and lay claim to your knowledge!

The Women's Land Army, circa 1944


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