Front Cover

Group Title: Conference on Gender Issues in Farming Systems Research and Extenion, University of Florida, February 26 to March 1, 1986
Title: Technology and change in Israeli farm women's productive roles
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00081735/00001
 Material Information
Title: Technology and change in Israeli farm women's productive roles
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: Lees, Susan H.
Publisher: University of Florida
Publication Date: 1986
Subject: Farming   ( lcsh )
Spatial Coverage: Asia -- Israel -- Middle East
 Record Information
Bibliographic ID: UF00081735
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
        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
        Page 14
        Page 15
Full Text

~ -- ,-,- ._- T,.'. ....-. ~.--- .. -

Conference on

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:

Gainesville. Florida

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.

l Z.0' -

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

1q o0'

Ear\y so's

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

La' Sols;

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

moshav women.

Increased and competitive production, and yet other economic factors led

to increased specialization in specific types and branches of farming, and

k It 0($J

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.

Lok (93.C5-'S
Iq 8o$

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
poultry production.

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.

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