Front Cover
 Title Page

Group Title: Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extenion, University of Florida, February 26 to March 1, 1986
Title: Women on family farms : their roles and self perception
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00081697/00001
 Material Information
Title: Women on family farms : their roles and self perception
Series Title: Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extenion, University of Florida, February 26 to March 1, 1986
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Smith, Carolyn Abbe
Publisher: University of Florida
Publication Date: 1986
Subject: Farming   ( lcsh )
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00081697
Volume ID: VID00001
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.

Table of Contents
    Front Cover
        Front cover
    Title Page
        Title page
        Page 1
        Page 2
        Page 3
        Page 4
        Page 5
        Page 6
        Page 7
        Page 8
        Page 9
        Page 10
        Page 11
        Page 12
        Page 13
Full Text

--M--- ..i............ .-- *

t-he frUnvers t _______ond

Conference on

Women on Family Farms: Their Roles and Self Perception

Carolyn Abbe Smith

Un diversity of Massachussetts

Department of Anthropology

Amherst MA 01Q03

January 1986

There has been considerable discussion about the institutional

orderestimation of women's productive labor i- agriculture(3eneria

'?82, :eere & De Leon 198). This nr.derestimation is linked to the

types of agricultural work women most often participate in and to

the seasonal nature of this work. Women's farm labor also utilizes

less technology, usually intrepreted as less productive labor. The

second class status of women's work in agriculture is also linked

to the nature of the world economic system which, as a whole,recogn-

ises and rewards men's work as more productive than women's. Thus, we

are given the impression that women have passively allowed a misintre-

pretation of their agricultural labor. The purpose of this paper is

to explore an alternative view to this underestimation of women's

role in agriculture by focusing on women's self perception of their

productive farm labor which results in their own underestimation of

their contribution to agricultural production.

This alternative perspective arose out of a research project on t.

the access to, and participation of women in the decision making

process on family farms in the Connecticutt Valley of Western Massa-

chussetts. From the beginnings of this research I realized that in all

but a few cases(women who were the sole proprietors of farms) these

farm women underestimated the amount of time they spent on farm work

and, the types of jobs they performed. It was only in the process of

logging their daily farm and domestic workthat they realized how much

time they spend enga ged in productive farm labor. I might add that on

the family farm it is not easy to separate farm and domestic work. .

Rather than spending tire ::ciing -h quantitative data of this research

I would. like exlcre s~e zssible reasons fr -his erroneous

self- per e:ci.n. I -will do s .y lcki.g a- the history of family

farms in New England, especially focusing on what I will call the

family farm idedogy, and patriarchy,as it relates to women's self per-

ception. What I mean by farm family ideology is the ideal and goal

of the cooperative labor of all family members to maintain and facil-

itate the eventual intergenerational transfer of the farm property.

I will then shift to the present period discussing economic factors

that impact on contemporary farm women in the Connecticutt Valley.

Finally, I will detail the life of one farm women that I think typi-

fies these women as a whole.

Despite the fact that the data is limited to a small geographic

and cultural.area, I believe that we can and should t.race the self

perception of all women engaged in farm labor. I think that this

is especially crucial data in areas of the Third World that are shift-

ing to more technologically based farm production. It is important

for those engaged in the design and implementation of development

projects to understand both the institutional and self underestimation

of women's contribution to agricultural production.

Family Farms in New England: A Brief History

Family farms in New England are at present not as numerous as in

the Colonial period but remain the maintstay of agricultural production

in the area. Due mainly to geographic location and climatic conditions

farms in New England are small. Historical records from the area show

that farm production pre industrial revolution was for subsistence,

although 2orme oCods we"-r bartere-d r sold thr : 2:; cal and regional

markets. 1Hi-ccricl', labor d e:n s cuttidce _--iidc'-i.tsr have imnactez

on family f-r-s because cS-: are solely depend(n" -cn family members

for their labor needs. The Co.necticutt Valley .;ac one of the earliest

areas to industrialize at the beginning of the Nineteenth century. This

process impacted on the type and level of farm production. Up until

this period inadequate transportation systems and unstable markets

meant that most production was geared to subsistence.Markwted or barter-

ed items such as butter and cloth wereproduced by farm women on a small

scale, and usually represented one of the few sources of cash or

consumer goods. However the influx of laborers and the new industries

created a demand for such products as wood and hay. It is at this .

period that we can document a shift to the production of these goods.

(Paynter,1985)) This industrialization also created a labor shortage

on the family farms. In particular women went to work in these in-

dustries, replacing their consumer goods production on the farm for

the sale of their labor on the market, thus providing their families

farms with much needed cash.

Until the industrial revolution there was little to lure young

males and females off the family farm. However by the 19th. century

it was desirable to send unmarried females off to the factories. The

situation for young males was somewhat different. Not only was their

labor essential, but they were expected to take over the farm and care

for their parents. Senior males held the threat of the denial of access

to family land and property as a means to keep junior males on the farm,

On the other hand junior females were encouraged to get jos off to e

arm, expecting that they would send a good part of their wages h.ome.

Spcorted by the 3ible these senior -aies, patriarchs, threatened and

cajoled their children. Their wives had no choice birt.to support them

in their efforts to maintain their position of dominance.The labor

needs of industry and the lure of wages threatened patriarchy while at

the same time complementing it.In both situations control of the

labor force is essential. Patriarchs remained in control on the farm

by passing property to males rather than females, and by demanding

access to wages earned by female laborers.

Patriarchy would not exist if it were not supported by all in its

sphere. Junior males support it for obvious reasons, but why females

support a system that seems to exploit them is less clear. Delayed

inheritance of property and delayed marriage patterns for males are

two methods that kept anxious junior males on the farm (Folbre,1982).

Mothers also had an interest in keeping their sons on the farm as it

was their only source of old age security. The relationship between

fathers and sons is a naturally conflictual one in most families, but

the property exchange and the close working conditions make this re-

lationship within farm families an especially tense one. Traditionally

women took the role of conflict manager as essential not only to their

survival but the survival of the farm.Therefore women were placed and I

maintain still placed in the position of supporting the dominance of

males, for ultimately it benefits them.

. -i^ ^K: .' '-.**'*

cnte or r ?.a..iL... rrs t ....ey

t resent, ia :

situation of the previous century. Risin- land valuations, cost cf

technology and fuel, poor market prices, "high interest rates, and soil

depletion are just some of the factors that are forcing many small

farms out of full time farming or out of existence. Despite these

strong forces it appears that both the farm family ideology and

patriarchy are still strong forces. However it appears that women

maintain these ideologies to a greater extent then males. Increasingly

junior males see the inheritance of the farm a burden. Senior males

are often lured by offers of developers to buy prime agricultural


Not unlike the farm women Hollywood has presented us in the last

few years (Country, The River), farm women in my study have been less

willing to give up than their husbands. Their responses may well

seem conservative or even irrational in the face of such overwhelming

economic and social forces, but I believe that they are responding

as their sisters for several centuries have been socialized to do, to

keep the family together and work to alleviate the conflict within

and outside the family.A.recent study has shown that farm women are the

least divorced and most satisfied women in the UHited States(Jones &

Rosenfeld 1981). My study also confirms this view. Virtually all

the participants when asked questions about the quality of their

lives as opposed to their urban counterparts, expressed a common

belief that farm life is the '-eaLthi -'t and moct san-. "Tey :-.I
expressed a cormcn theme of f;.yily togeterness ar in al to
work Lth their husbands. None .vculd channel their lives, despite e

fact that they worried about economic issues and children who did not

want to farm. Although in my study most families with sons were lucky
enough to have at least one who wanted to farr the families that worr_
led the most were those that had only daughters.

Yet despite the optimism of these fifteen women, my study revealed

some interesting puzzles. Virtually all my informants when asked if
they would like to participate in the study (with the exception of
two women who ran the farms without men), said that they did not have
Much to offer because they did very little farm work. Most were surpris-
ed to see how much they did do as a result of filling out their daily
work logs, and answering questions about seasonal jobs. Many of the
jobs that they performed they did not consider farm work such as book-
keeping, and running farm errands. All my participants did all the book

and record keeping as well as a variety of both seasonal and daily jobs.
For example, most womsn on dairy operations were in charge of ypung
calves, and some also participated in the milking. All said that they
helped to bring in corn and hay. The one job that they all said they
had nothing to do with was thepurchase and maintainence of farm equip-

ment. This included the two women who ran dairy operations as sole
owners, one relied on her husband who held a full time job as an

engineer, and the other turned to a son whose only interest was
in the machines not farming. All admitted that they could and would

do any job that was required of them to keep th;- farm going. Yet all

the participants with the exceti-on of rhe two wi-hcut male farm. laor,

said that their main ,cb was 'hcmnemaker not farmer. ";cw to understand

this we either have to believe that these women see the label "farmer"

as a derrogatory one, or that they really do not believe they are

farmers. Since all these women expressed pride in their lifestyle I

do not believe that the label"farmer" is for them a negative. Rather,

I believe that they truly see their ma'or role as. that of housewife.

The JOnes-Rosenfeld(1981) study also backs up this point? Granted

some of this labelling as housewife as opposed to farmer is due

to the requirements of censuses that give minimum hourly work re-

quirements for occupational listings, Also im many cases recordkeeping

and running farm Errands do not get included as farm labor. However

I maintain that the self image of farm women as housewife rather than

farmer is self imposed rather than institutionally.

To illustrate this self perception I will give a brief biography

of one of my participants,Mrs. Brown. She exemplifies the life and
attitudes of the majority of my informants and I believe of many farm

women throughout the world. Her openess in talking about the good

as well as the bad aspects of farm life is also typical of these women.

Mrs Brown

Mrs.Brown was not raised on a farm, but she was raised in rural

Vermont and had extensive contact with farming relatives. Mr Brown

was raised on a farm but his father gave it up when he was young. After

their marriage and the birth of their first son, Mr Brown entered the

military and Mrs Brown went to live with her grandmother in the -*


country.W,hen Mr Brown returned from the military they rented a farm

in western Massachussetts from a cousin. EventualUy they were able to

buy the farm with the help of their cousin and th4- -'HA. The farm har.

originally been a dairy enterprise but the cousin hnad raised horses

on it. The Browns converted the farm back to a dairy operation which

has supported them well until the last few years.

In the early years of the operation they added a new milking

barn and opened new pasture areas. Mrs Brown gave birth to two more

sons, and Mr Brown's mother moved in. Until the boys were old enough

to help, they ran the farm without any outside labor. Mrs Brown told

of setting up a playpen in the milking barn while the boys were small.

When they got to old for the playpen she had to constantly run between

the barn and the house. Apparently,mother Brown was of little help

with the children although she did tend a family garden and was the

fencing ace. As the boys were able to assume more responsibility,

Mrs Brown slowly stepped down from her job in the milking barn. Her

main chores by 1983, when the family finally hired outside help were

to care for calves and take care of the books. By 1983, her youngest

son was 22 and her eldest was 30. The eldest son no longer worked on

the farm but carried out a trucking business with his father. In fact,

the father has done very little farm work since his youngest son 2

graduated fron high school in 1979. The two younger sons and the hired

hand do all the work, except for Mrs Browns jobs. However, Mr Brown

still makes all the long term farm decisions and is usually around at

some point in the day to supervise daily activities. Despite the

fact that he has told his sons the farm will be theirs soon, as they

are virtually doing all the work, he seems reluctant to give up his

control. -'.tht:' iav' discussed inc roNti.c, `4 'IScthiC -.:

been dc'.

Mrs Brown spoke of the relief she felt w-hen her husband stopped

participating in daily chores. Apparently Mr Brown and the boys were

always fighting about things. She said they still fight ohce in a

while, but the daily yelling matches in the milking barn have stop-

ped. At the time of the interview in the spring of 1983, the boys were

making a salary of a.hdndred dollars a week and still living at homw.

No will had yet been made out to insure the boys inheritance of the.

farm. As of the fall of 1985 both boys live off the farm but continue

to do all the daily farm labor. They both have other jobs on the side

doing logging and raising replacement heifers. They still draw a meager

weekly salary from the farm, and Mrs Brown does their laundry and feeds

them three meals a day(despite the fact that the youngest has a live-

in girlfriend who also cooks for him. Mr Brown still has not made

out a will, in fact he has been talking about selling the fact because

it has not showed a profit in two years. He claims that the trucking

business he runs with his eldest son has been supporting the farm If

he sells the farm he plans to retire and do some traveling. So far the

two younger sons seem powerless to change the situation. Both sons are

cl9se to their mother and lean on her in the hopes that she will be

able to mediate a successful transfer of the.'farm. They are unable to

negotiate directly with their father who still is the supreme patriarch.

Despite all these problems Mrs Brown is still optimistic about
farm life. She believes that itiis a healthy and satisfying way to

live. Even if she is not able to successfully insure that her sons

inherit the farm, her future well being is insured for the profit from

the sale of e f-:: ll be m:nre 'ar nig for 'a- e'.-re retirement.

Her labcr .ha not .:.n i.n v'a, e':1n if at :hic reint her ideal has

not beer fulfiLlecd. e-r cns t' -.i .oin-t zseem o he t- ones who are

in a precarious position. They have been unable to save any money

and are not sure if they will get any proceeds from the sale of the

farm. However, they do have the skills to start out on their own, just

as their father had done in his youth. Mrs Brown is still in the

position of conflict manager; she is a wife, a mother, and a farmer.

She expresses satisfaction with her life and does not believe she has

been exploited. She has no life outside the farm and her family. She

views shopping for more than groceries a luxury. Her whole adult

life has been spent meeting the needs of others, in the belief that

she was fulfilling her destiny. She does not call herself a farmer,

she is just a housewife. When asked why she simply states that her

husband is the farmer and that it is important for him to see himself a-s

such. This is despite the fact that in the last few years he has not

actively worked as a farmer. For the most part Mrs Brown supports

her husbands and his domination o'er her sons, with the belief that

her husband will in the end do what he is suppose to do and give the

farm to the boys.

Mrs Br~r)n, I believe, is in'many ways typical of farm women
everywhere. By viewing their primary role as that of housewife they

keep the level of intrafamily conflict to a minimum. They do not com-

pete with theLr husbands but rather cooperate with them. This cooperat-

ion means that they must be able and willing to do any job on the

farm if needed. Men on the other hand seem more interested in main-

taining their dominance rather than cooperating. Unlike women they are

unwilling to do many jobs that women perform daily, such as bookkeep-

in an .- ~-hildare. i be-eive '?:at farm women for the most part are very

-aware .f tfleir r-: ; onflict manager, jill of all trades. and house

w ife, t-hese roles -r necessary to keep the family going. This

belief is backed up by the Johes &Rosenfeld study that showed that

farm men were not confident that they could run the farm on their own

if something happened to their wife.Whereas women were very confident

that they could run the farm on their own. It would be interesting to

determine what the ratio of women running farms by themselves as oppos-

ed men is. So what is the issue here? Farm women's pride in their multi

faceted roles on the family farm no matter what they label their occup-

ation has been misinterpreted by government agencies and development

strategists. Instead of really understanding how crucial women's work

both productive and domestic, really is, they have assumed that they

are just housewives who have no knowledge or interest in farming. This

misconception has proved disastrous for the agricultural schemes of

many developing countries. It is my hope that this paper will lend

a new perspective in understanding the role of women in agriculture.

Further cross cultural data should increase our .understanding and in-

sure that future agricultural development programs are sensitive to

women's view of themselves.

cot notes

Accc dirn t he 2 a.ssachussetts .'en.sus 570 farms o' of a total

5384 were owned by we.... hi3 is :; f'r the 1978 census fiqujare

of 3"3. o c.t cf t'e fifteen p..i.-ants in my study were ~'c

sole owners of their farms.

SMassachussets:-census data shows this decline most dramatically

in a thirty year period from 1950 to 1982. In 1950 there were

22,220 farms in the state with holdings of more than 1.660,389

acres by 1982 the number was 5384 of which 4541 were family owned.

In 1982 the average farm size was 113 acres. Even with farms of

over$10,000 of farm income the average acreage was only 221.

SAlthough Massachussetts census,1982, shows an increase in the

number of farms in Franklin county(My study areaZ)from 456 in

1978 to 521 in 1982 the number of arces under production was down

slightly from 23,772 in 1978 to 23,364 in 1982. The average income

from farm production was also lower reflecting low market prices and

the fact that many of these farms were only partially supported

by agricultural production.

5 Two thirds of their study group of 2000 farm women listed their

occupation as housewife. 69% of this group said that they had the

skills and ability to run the farm on their own. : -


Beneria, Lourdes

1982 "Accounting for Women's 'ork". in Women and Develonment

New :York.

eere, Carmen & DeLeon

1980 Women in Agriculture:Peasant Production and Prolitariani-

zation in 3 Andean Communities. ILO Geneva.

Folbre, Nancy

1983 "'0f Patriarchy Born: The Political Economy of Fertility

Decisions" Feminist Studies, 9 no. 2.

Henretta, James

1978 "Families and Farms:Mentalitie in Preindustrial America"

William and Mary Quarterly 35: 3-32.

Paynter, Robert

1985 "Surplus Flow between Frontiers and Homeland". The Arch-

aeology of Frontiers and Homelands.

University of Florida Home Page
© 2004 - 2010 University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.
All rights reserved.

Acceptable Use, Copyright, and Disclaimer Statement
Last updated October 10, 2010 - - mvs