“There is a revolution going on out in the back country, a quiet one. There is not much rhetoric, but a lot of organizing in traditional ways, and a new found voice to express what was expressed most often in action in the past. Women are coming to grips with what it means to have lived on the land and to want to continue that tradition in the face of almost insurmountable odds.” – Joan Jensen, Promise to the Land: Essays on Rural Women
“The Contemporary American Farm Woman: 1860 to Present” is the title of my undergraduate senior research project about the evolution of the American farm woman. I took an interdisciplinary approach in constructing a history of farm women: from scholarly texts to video to popular novels and images. To get a contemporary picture of real women on farms, I conducted five farm visits and interviews with women farmers in New York state. It was so great to meet all five women and to hear about their farms and their unique experiences with farming in the northeast. (Read the paper in its entirety here via the Central New York RC&D Whole Farm Planning for Beginning Women Farmers website.)
However, a history of women on farms is hard to find. Most of the scholarly texts came out the ’70s and ’80s, and are now sadly out of print. From 1860 onward, women have supported various roles on farms from farm hand to homemaker to farm wife. Women on farms have been, and still are, an integral part of the family farm and farm economies, and yet their contribution is historically under-reported and devalued. This knowledge is particularly relevant today as the number of women farmers is on the rise: According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of women farmers has increased 19 percent from 2002 to 2007, outpacing the meager seven percent increase in the total number of farmers overall. Even more intriguing is the 29 percent rise of women as principal operators versus the 4 percent rise of all principal operators.
Farm women have historically been marginalized from their land, their labor devalued and underestimated. From the days of pioneering agriculture in the 1860s to the rise of sustainable farming in the 1970s, women have contributed to the farm through reproductive labor in the home and productive labor in the field. Yet, because of the family-oriented nature of many farms, the line between work and home is inevitably blurred, and labor is difficult to categorize.
Moving forward, women in both sustainable and capitalist agriculture have opportunities to have their voices heard and their labor documented. Thanks to organizations like American Agri-Women, Women, Food, and Agriculture Network, various grant programs through the USDA, and milestones in the Census of Agriculture’s data collection methods, women have places to turn for support from fellow farm women.