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GENDER ISSUES IN FARMING SYSTEMS
RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
Technology and Change in Israeli Farm Women's Productive Roles
Susan H. Lees
Hunter College. City University of New York
Prepared for Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems
Research and Extension:
Feb. 26-March 1. 1986
Israeli women's roles in farming are the outcome of a combination of
ideology and practical conditions which together govern their opportunities
and constraints.1 Although they are unique in many respects, their case
is particularly instructive with regard to the outcome of planning. In
Israel. mass immigration permitted the carrying out of a major social
experiment, whose outcome touches on many of the issues of fundamental
importance to us here today. This experiment involved the creation of a
rural society according to a design which would bring about not only the
development of a rural economy, but a major alteration of human
relationships, including relationships between women and men. I would
contend that while the planned change did not come about as expected by
the planners, major transformations did occur. Some of these shed light
on the ways that social ideals and ideology do--and do not--affect
behavior, and help us to anticipate the possible outcomes of social design
and experimentation in other areas of the world. It should be noted that
something like a tenth of the Israeli rural communities, containing perhaps
as much as a third of the entire rural population, is comprised of Arab
Israelis whose settlements and lifestypes were not the product of planned
design, these too were affected, albeit indirectly, by the social engineering
which shaped the majority.
That social engineering was itself governed by a set of ideas about men
and women, social equality and justice, and the relation of humanity to
agriculture and the land itself. The ideas themselves were first expressed
in the earliest form of communal rural society in Israel. the kibbutz.
Here. the general idea was that. first, human redemption lay in the
dignity of manual labor, particularly on the soil: second, that human
exploitation of all forms, including capitalism, private property ownership.
and the exploitation of other forms of social inequality, were all deplorable
and must be abolished: and third, social equality, including gender
equality, which was fundamental, could be achieved only with the abolition
of the private family.
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The final statement proved objectionable to most rural settlers, and some
form of private returns for personal labor also turned out to be of great
importance as well; some ten years after the founding of the first
kibbutz, the first moshav. or small farm cooperative settlement was
founded, in order to carry out some of the ideals mentioned above, but
also conserve the family as the fundamental unit of the society. Two
thirds of the Jewish rural settlements of Israel are of the latter, or
moshav. type. It is this type on which I shall be focussing my
discussion, though I shall make reference to others from time to time.
With respect to farm women, as well as much of the organization of
production, they have features in common with the traditional (unplanned)
Arab rural communities of Israel. While the moshav is an ideologically
socialist institution, more than half of the moshav settlements were
comprised of immigrants from Islamic countries, primarily in North Africa
and the Middle East. and it is not surprising that, at least initially, they
shared many ideological and social characteristics with the Arab
communities of Israel which were organized along traditional lines.
Two ideas related to women are important here. First, women should be
equal to men-in work, and in power. Second. physical labor-farm work-
is an ideal, and should be accorded highest status. These ideas were
fundamental to the design of the small farm settlements by the
movements which were responsible for them.2 The original concept for'
these settlements was that each farm would be devoted to mixed farming.
would be of a size appropriate to the labor supply and support of a
nuclear family. The size, in the end, worked out to about 10 acres or
about 5 hectares. This was comprised of an infield, near the house, an
outfield at some distance, which was supplied with water for irrigation if
possible, and a third lot, often not supplied with water, also at some
distance, for communal cultivation for the support of the cooperative.
Although women and men were expected to work side by side at the
various tasks, commonly the division of labor worked out to a sanctioned
separation between infield and outfield tasks, such that the women tended
livestock and gardens near the house and the men worked in the field and
orchard far from the house. The participation of each in agriculture was
presumably equal, though women carried the additional burden of
housework, since that was never assigned to men. and the men generally
produced the more lucrative cash crops in the outfield. Several important
deviations from the ideology were prevalent even during earlier times-
many farm holders in fact did not devote themselves full time to farming.
and indeed worked at various forms of wage labor from the start, with
the consequence that they were unable to farm their entire holding.
particularly by themselves. Second, despite formal injunctions to the
contrary, many made use of hired labor, almost exclusively Arab labor, for
production-not only at peak seasons but throughout the annual cycle. As
far as I could tell, this included both men and women-generally not
together-and this was not an innovation, but applied equally to the non-
cooperativized. non-planned traditional Arab communities as well.
Several important technological shifts called for behavioral changes, often
not accompanied by ideological changes. The second stage of
development was in the direction of mechanization of agriculture. The
use of tractors for field preparation allowed for more extensive cultivation-
-which initially called for more hired help. Perhaps even more important
were developments in irrigation technology. At this point, virtually all
irrigation had been brought to the point of pressure control--that is,
pumped from underground and conveyed by pipes to the farming
communities and farm gates. From here it was conveyed by metal pipes
to sprinklers in the field, which were transported from field to field
continuously during the growing season, by tractors. This work was heavy
and demanding, and allocated to men. More effective irrigation resulted
in both larger crops and more labor demands for weeding and harvesting.
This became true not only of the Jewish settlements, but also of the
Arab settlements which had been the primary suppliers of wage laborers.
They themselves had begun to intensify production.3 The,largest and
smallest farms were reduced in number-middle-sized farms cultivating less
land more intensively had greatly increased labor demands. Meanwhile.
wage labor opportunities in very lucrative fields such as construction had
opened up. attracting many Arab men away from farming. This
exacerbated labor scarcity in agriculture, placing more pressure on women
available to work in the fields, to engage in agricultural production.
But at this time. kibbutz and moshav women had begun to retreat from
participation in agriculture altogether. They had reached a level of
prosperity in which their standard of living was such that their homes, as
well as their children, were perceived to be demanding a great deal of
time and work and attention. Levels of profits were sufficient to free the
farm from the need for their direct attention. For most. continued
attention to farmyard stock rearing was not sufficiently profitable, so it
was abandoned. At the same time. farm work was of the sort defined as
men's, not women's work. or even neutral. For many Arab women, on
the other hand. particularly Moslems. traditional ideals of female seclusion
competed with the desire to increase household income: but when
sufficient levels of income were reached. Arab women also tended to
retreat from agriculture, when possible. It is likely that the choices in
these cases were less their own than in the case of the kibbutz and
Increased and competitive production, and yet other economic factors led
to increased specialization in specific types and branches of farming, and
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the expertise required for participation also served to exclude women from
participation. That is. they felt that the demands of domestic
responsibilities did not leave them enough time to keep pace with
knowledge of the technical changes that were essential to make decisions
about farming-these were left to the husbands, who not only made the
decisions but carried them out. Similarly. on the kibbutz, despite ideology
to the contrary, a high degree of specialization in production required such
specialized knowledge that equal participation was impossible. Not only
did women retreat from farming altogether, but men did not participate
equally in farming either. Dependence on outside experts continued-and
most experts in farming were men. The most visible women in the fields
were foreign volunteers, who worked on kibbutzim primarily during peak
The tight labor squeeze, as well as other scarcities, including competition
for scarce water, resulted in a third stage of development, the stage in
which we now find ourselves. This is the stage of automation. In
agriculture proper, it is directly linked with irrigation: a farmer can set a
water guage to open for a predetermined period of time at a certain level
of pressure. Perhaps more important, this is linked with the use of other
water dispersion technology than sprinklers. The main device is a
dripper-a thin plastic hose which is laid out in rows at the time of field
preparation: it has tiny holes at regular intervals, through which water
leaks slowly to the plants. Pesticides and fertilizers are added to the
water. This is clearly extremely labor-saving, except, again, during peak
periods of field preparation and harvesting. During the growing cycle.
anyone, man or woman, can supervise irrigation, fertilization and pest
control by checking and adjusting the automation device.
This. in and of itself, has not signalled women's reentry into farming on
any large scale. Indeed. it has provided for the exit of more men. as
well as women, from farming proper-more than two thirds of the men
have full time jobs off the farm. and many women without small children
do as well. Farming has become such a specialized job that a small
proportion of the community are trained to do it as a career. (This is far
less the case in Arab communities but they are following the same trend
and for the same reasons. However. family labor remains much cheaper
for them. diminishing the attractions of automation.) In some
communities, not only kibbutzim but moshavim as well. new irrigation
devices allow one individual to take responsibility for the watering (and
fertilization and pest 'control) of an entire crop--say, all the cotton
produced by the community. These machines are large automated
The release of men from farming, and concentration of male experts on
running field crops. has still left the houselots open for consideration.
Where dairying is a specialty, this may be a full-time occupation of men.
But certain intensive crops, particularly hothouse flowers, but also to a
limited extent, poultry are very much the domain of women. Hothouse
flowers are believed in many areas to require women as sorters--as
managers and employees. Arab women work in hothouses where Arab
laborers are employed: and women farmers manage the hothouses
themselves. sometimes recruiting their husbands for certain types of work
on a temporary or part-time basis. Women say-this is my hothouse: my
husband helps me here. The hothouses themselves are heavily capitalized-
-they are fully automated for watering and temperature control. They
require a great deal of technical expertise for management--women who
grow flowers in hothouses devote themselves to this sort of production as
a career. It is the sort of career which can be compatible with
housekeeping, however. Usually. the hothouse is located at a few feet
from the kitchen door. Most women who manage and control their
hothouses are married to men who have full time off farm jobs. Where
the men do not. and earn little at other types of farming, they may
participate more in hothouse production and tend to control it. The
exceptions are where hothouse production is the only form of production:
here. men are the primary controllers and managers, with their wives
working for them. Otherwise. with the men away at non-farm jobs. and
the farm's holdings cultivated by others, the primary income producer on
the farm itself may be the hothouse, hence the primary income producer
on the farm. the farm woman. This is a major role reversal.
Flower production was initiated earlier on kibbutzim, in many instances, to
give productive work to women who felt they did not want to work too
far from the settlement proper (on account of their children). and were
excluded, in any case. from roles in mechanized field agriculture by their
own and their men's definition of women's work. But today, the most
important income producer on kibbutzim is industry. Again, it is not only
mechanized, but much kibbutz industry is automated-which makes it
clean, often light work. requiring knowledge and expert training in many
cases. Women. particularly younger women, often work in these factories
rather than in farming. However. because of absences for pregnancies.
childbirth and early child care. interruptions in their careers obviate
maintaining expertise in a continuously changing technical milieu. While
rural women are now more than ever likely to be involved in industrial
production, it is rare if ever that they play managerial or expert roles.
However, the exclusion of women from expertise seems to be changing.
Though they are still the exceptions, increasing numbers of women have
taken training in and now hold positions in various fields of agronomy
and agronomic engineering. For the most part. they interact with men as
colleagues and clients. What their effect on women as farmers may be in
the future is unknown.
In very new moshav settlements, wives often work side by side with their
husbands, sharing not only labor but interest and responsibility. And yet.
they admittedly play a secondary role. rapidly losing interest, quitting as
soon as they become pregnant, and later looking for different careers.
They say it is economic necessity that keeps them working with their
husbands on the farm. but they look forward to release from the physical
hardships of farm labor. This labor is supplemented by the labor of
volunteers, who apparently do not mind the physical hardships-for a
while. Their whole vision of farm work is entirely different from that of
the Israelis. Arab or Jewish--you could not expect to find an Israeli
volunteer doing farm work. Many of the volunteers more nearly express
the ideology of Zionist attitudes toward physical labor than do any of the
farm wives, though few of these volunteers are even Jewish.
As some have pointed out. Zionist ideologies of equality and redemption
of the soul through physical redemption of the land of Israel are in direct
conflict with an earlier ideology which prevails today, as it has in the
past. which values the family and family life. The small-holding is a
direct expression of this value, though it attempts to provide for
expression of the other-in the conflict, family ideology unquestionably
prevails. Just why this is the case is not simple to understand. It
cannot be explained away as a matter of the need to invest in children.
as might be the case in other areas of the world where people are
reducing the numbers of the children they rear and committing themselves To
the health and education of these children as part of a strategy of
upward mobility. In Israel. facilities for social investment in children
abound-nearly every community provides for some group day care for pre-
school children, and educational and health facilities are excellent in most
rural areas. The fact is that the country is so small that no rural area
is truly remote, and virtually all the country is urbanized in the sense of
having urban services. What. then. is the reason for rural women's wide-
scale commitment to domestic life and domestic work?
This issue has been raised repeatedly in discussions of kibbutz women.
who have had more opportunities than rural women elsewhere to
participate as equals in agricultural production. For the most part. the
evidence shows that they are engaged not only in domestic services as
their jobs, but that they are increasingly opting for the reestablishment of
family- life in "private." in direct opposition to kibbutz ideology.
Some have sought to explain the emphasis on domestic roles in small
farms by pointing to the ideology of ethnic origins-since the majority of
small-farm holders are of Eastern origin, hence conservative with regard to
the family and women's roles. But both the Kibbutz and the behavior
patterns of many ethnic western settlements belie this explanation. I
doubt that the current patterns can be accounted for by looking to the
past. The explanation must lie in the dynamics of contemporary Israeli
life. both in the countryside and in the urban areas.
It seems to me that the emphasis on domesticity is in part. at least for
the farm woman, a rationalization for avoidance of farm work which is
not her preference as a career. More and more. farming is not a way of
life but a profession. In Israel. this profession has always been highly
esteemed-for men. in any case. The social status of the farmer is higher
here probably than anywhere in the world, and it is clearly higher in Israel
than any blue-collar occupation-and most white-collar occupations as well.
Women are pleased to have their husbands be farmers, if it brings in
income, for they can identify with their husbands' status. Because of this
identity and earning power, these women give their husbands' career in
farming primacy over their own. On the other hand, farming is riot an
occupation they have chosen for themselves. Given a choice, younger
women elect to go to school and train for some career or occupation with
which they can identify as individuals-separate from, if secondary to. the
careers of their husbands. But some, the minority, opt for farming-not
usually in general, but in a branch they can call their own. The reason
why many do not do either is that they have not yet found their callings.
or ways of implementing them-and for the meantime, they justify their
existence in terms of domestic service to their families. This justification
works for them because the family itself continues to be valued.
In conclusion, the social engineering which governed the design of Israeli
planned rural settlements had a number of unexpected sequential
outcomes. Technical shifts led to the retreat of most rural women from
full participation in agricultural production. Initially, mechanization and
specialization of prediction had this result: later, automation and a high
degree of required technical expertise contributed to the same process.
All this was underlain by increases in household income which permitted
the luxury of women's full-time domestic work for the majority of farm
families. Now. farming has become a career for a minority of rural
people, one requiring expert training. Only about a third of the men who
have farms, and fewer women, opt for this career. The high status of
the farmer in Israel, and the fact that women continue to identify with
the status of their husbands, has the effect of encouraging women to
subordinate their own career preferences to those of their husbands when
their husbands opt for farming. Most farm wives find it hard to discover
a career for themselves compatible with their husbands' and the demands
of raising a family. However, when given the opportunity, increasing
numbers of women do establish separate careers, especially among the
younger generation. While technological shifts resulted in women's
unequal participation in farming, increased wealth resulted in their freedom
to develop alternative careers for themselves.
A final word: my subjective impression after talking to many farm men
and women over the past year about this subject was that, while farming
as an occupation was recognized to have high status, nearly all women
and many many men expressed a distaste--often covert--for the actual
work of farming--its pressures, physical demands, long hours, and
uncertainties. While farming is viewed as a largely masculine occupation.
neither men nor women like it all that much. Women are not denied the
opportunity to participate-their husbands more often than not urge them
to do more on the farm. and their communities urge them to participate
in management of farm business--yet they resist, despite the glamour
associated with farming and the power its control may bring. While it is
true that Israeli farm women have never attained equality of participation
or control in productive activities overall, the meaning of their different
roles has changed along with changes in both the character of farming
and the character of rural life in Israel.
1. This paper is based on the author's fieldwork in Israel,
primarily during 1985-86, supported by a grant from the Research
Foundation of the City University of New York. The author owes a
great debt to the Israeli anthropologist, Naomi Nevo, who offered
help and ideas to sociologist Yael Noam, who introduced her to
areas she might not otherwise have seen; and to sociologist Chaya
-Graf, who suggested some important new interpretations of the
material. To these individuals and numerous informants, the
author is grateful none are in any way responsible, however, for
any errors of fact or opinion offered here.
2. Nevo and Solomonica (1983) look at this matter and its variant
expressions for different .ethnic groups and movements as they
changed through time. Nevo (1983) offers a detailed examination
of women's work in a special type of settlement, the moshav
shitufi, which is something between a kibbutz and a standard
3. Shifts in production and labor demands are one of the foci of
Arnon and Raviv (1980).
4. Katzir (1983) looks
power relations between
in detail at the economics and associated
Israeli Yemenite women and men in moshav
Arnon. I. and Raviv. M. 1980
From Fellah to Farmer: A Study on Change in Arab Villages.
Rehovot: Settlement Study Centre.
Katzir. Y. 1983
"Yemenite Jewish Women in Israel: Rural Development: Fema
le Power vs. Male Authority." Economic Development
and Culture Change 32 (1): 45-61.
Nevo. Naomi 1983
"Women's Place in a Moshav-Shitufi: Structured Gender
Differentiation of Work-Roles in an Israeli Village."
Presented to 12th European Congress for Rural Sociology.
Nevo. Naomi. and Solomonica. David. 1983
"Ideological Change of Rural Women's Role and Status:
A Case Study of Family Based Cooperative Villages in
Israel." Women in International Development. Working
Paper #16: Michigan State University.