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GENDER ISSUES IN FARMING SYSTEMS
RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
Women on Family Farms: Their Roles and Self Perception
Carolyn Abbe Smith
Un diversity of Massachussetts
Department of Anthropology
Amherst MA 01Q03
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 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 -.:
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.
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. : -
1982 "Accounting for Women's 'ork". in Women and Develonment
eere, Carmen & DeLeon
1980 Women in Agriculture:Peasant Production and Prolitariani-
zation in 3 Andean Communities. ILO Geneva.
1983 "'0f Patriarchy Born: The Political Economy of Fertility
Decisions" Feminist Studies, 9 no. 2.
1978 "Families and Farms:Mentalitie in Preindustrial America"
William and Mary Quarterly 35: 3-32.
1985 "Surplus Flow between Frontiers and Homeland". The Arch-
aeology of Frontiers and Homelands.