Ending “Farmer’s Wife” Syndrome

Sharon February 6th, 2012

Fairly often, when someone comes to our farm to make a purchase or do a job, the implicit assumption is that they should talk to Eric. The first time I remember seeing this was when we were farm shopping back a decade ago - we met our first realtor and visited our first farm, and the realtor led me into the house and then turned to Eric and said “Let me show you the barn.” My husband’s very calm response was “Sharon knows much more about barns than I do, I’m going to take our son for a walk.” This was the beginning of my experience with “farmer’s wife” syndrome.

Now on virtually all farms I have ever visited, everyone who lives there farms. The children help in the barns, the spouses share the duties - even if there is a gendered division of labor much of the time, as on Amish farms, the harvest or peak canning season overwhelm this and everyone who is present pitches in. It should go without saying that no farm can have anyone who isn’t competent to recapture lost livestock, fix a fence, handle an emergency birth or a medical crisis - because some days one person isn’t there. Nor can all knowledge rest in one person - because who milks or picks the beans when someone is ill, giving birth, caring for a family member or making the money that most farms don’t provide to pay taxes and bills?

Yet we cling stubbornly to the idea that instead of a family of farmers, all equally engaged with the land, if sometimes in largely different ways, that a farm family consists of a “farmer” and a “farmer’s wife” - and that the female partner is necessarily secondary. Gene Logsdon has a great essay about both why this is, and how that presumption is being disrupted by the growing number of independent women farmers:

Women rarely did the plowing however, and that seems to be the key difference. Lots of plowboys, nary a plowgirl. In other field work, women did more than their share. (I have theories but will leave it to someone smarter to explain why women didn’t plow.) The notion that males were the real farmers probably was rooted in the hunting and gathering stage of civilization where men brought home the game from afar (adventure time) and the women did the rest of the work at home (boring).

At any rate, after the plow became the symbol of agriculture in America, the role of women in farming did recede from the public eye. Women were supposed to stick to the kitchen and leave the real business of farming to their menfolks.

This prejudice was astonishingly apparent even at farm magazines. As a journalist working for Farm Journal magazine, I often sat in farm kitchens interviewing farmers and their wives about their business. It was amazing how often the wives answered my questions much better than their husbands and how they so often did this by diplomatically and cleverly putting words in their husbands’ mouths. It was obvious that most successful farms got that way because the wives were smarter and more articulate than the husbands. But the wives knew how to keep the male crest from falling by seeming to defer to their husbands on every occasion. The wives knew they had to make their mates look like top operators so that they could borrow the money they needed to keep on going. Bankers were no different from farm editors. They wanted to deal with men: women weren’t smart enough to run a business like farming.

The answer to the question about why women didn’t do the plowing is anthropological - when tillage was done with digging sticks and handtools, in many societies women were the primary tillers of soil. But as anthropologist Judith Brown long ago observed, there is virtually no society in human history where women’s primary work is incompatible with the care of young children - and plowing behind draft animals is tough to do with a babe in a sling, and hard to do when you may have to stop and nurse, or chase a toddler away from the horse’s feet. Tractors are not good places to haul babies and young kids for long stretches either, and I know from experience you don’t fit well behind the wheel in late pregnancy. Moreover, in the era of chemical agriculture any number of things that are part of the farm experience are best not touched by women who may be pregnant or nursing. For most of women’s history, being pregnant or nursing was a normative experience for many years.

Most of us don’t have a baby every three years anymore, so there isn’t any reason why tillage or organic no-till agriculture can’t be done by women (chemical agriculture is still tougher for women of childbearing age, since so many things accumulate in body fat and breast milk). So is small-scale farming without large equipment - with the modern digging sticks. In the meantime, independent women small farmers are the only fast-growing segment of American agriculture - an entity that we all know is going to have to grow fast just to keep up with the aging population of farmers, and all the more if we are to remove the fossil fuel inputs from our agriculture and untie food and oil.

We have used language to write women out of agriculture - out of its history, out of its present, engaging in the “housewifization” of real agricultural work. The implication that the farmer’s wife is not a farmer, and is thus knowledgeable about only kitchens and babies (as important as those things are) is a diminuation, an act of linguistic violence that erases the multiple competences of farm women, partnered or not.

I look around me at the farm families I know and see women and men with a host of skills that step outside of gender. Sherri, who lives with her aging mother cuts hay for a living. Alice handles the thousand pound draft horses on their farm with skill and grace. The sheep are Rosa’s, not her boyfriend’s, as is the market garden. Louise milked fifty cows a day to her husband’s fifty and drove the tractor while he tossed the hay bales for forty years.

This started out as my farm, with my husband who was happy to give me credit, happy to do the heavy lifting, but not so interested in plants. It has become a project of two overlapping people with related interests and the ability to do one another’s work. The bees are his. The native plants and herbs are mine, the livestock are both of ours, the work is shared inside and outside as preference, pleasure and ability define. The daily applied science of agriculture is worked out between us. The pride in it is shared, and neither of us would demean our contribution by suggesting it comes primarily through the other, as “farmer’s wife” does.

The question of where the next generation of farmers is going to come from is an important one, because we’re engaged in an experiment with no historical precedent - for the first time in history, the majority of new farmers will have to come from off the farm - for decades we have been able to reduce the number of farmers by drawing off many and destroying farm cultures and communities, while still having enough to meet our needs, but the farm population is rapidly aging, the next generation of farmer’s children have already left the farm, and now we must ask who will replace them?

The answer so far is that women are a part of the answer, and I hope this will be the end of farmer’s wife syndrome and the emergent recognition of the fact that farmers come in many packages, and that a way of life is something that circles round and encompasses everyone who lives it.

10 Responses to “Ending “Farmer’s Wife” Syndrome”

  1. Dorothy says:

    As noted in Gene Logsdon’s essay, the ‘public face’ was that the man in the family ran the show… the reality was that women ruled the world… women started the churches, the schools, the aid circles. And women plowed…

    I grew up in a pioneer family where it was common knowledge that my great aunts had skin cancer that came from plowing as young girls. While the women ruled the kitchen, it was no secret that EVERYONE ate in the kitchen, and they ate what was prepared. Period.

    I grew up on the prairies, around farms and cattle and tornados and NO where did I ever meet a successful farmer whose wife was not integral to the operation and the decisions made. Those women took over without a hitch when men were gone to war, cattle roundups, or whatever. Most, including me, threw bales of straw, pulled calves, fought fires, rebuilt and plowed, and drove grain and cattle trucks, and…

    The old custom, yes, was to publicly defer to the ‘head of the house’, and yes, that is going away in the face of increasing numbers of women farmers and ranchers today. Part of that is that women are now legal owners and inheritors, on the deeds, and on the bank notes. I think that what is changing is the ‘public face’, and the public perception that women ARE ‘real farmers’. But it will go as the older generation goes, and as our daughters take over.

  2. Dorothy says:

    P.S. Good for Eric! I have a couple of friends where one of the couple is the farmer (manages crops) and the other is the rancher (manages the cattle operation)… ;-)

  3. Anisa says:

    Gorgeous, lovely, wonderful.
    I always admire the way you and Eric share duties. Real partners. I feel the same about Rick and I. He grew up gardening, but beyond that, I dragged him into this. Over time the line that separated my projects from his are long blurred. We’re in it together and while he has the muscle for certain projects, I usually have put him up to them. Often, he doesn’t have time to get to certain things and I find myself doing the heavy lifting, because someone must. And at least half the time, that someone is me. ;)

  4. harriet fasenfest says:

    There are good reasons to debunk the status of farmer as male - certainly those gender specification have little baring in what we are seeing all around us today. Women are, and as another poster mentioned, have always been, in the field. But I will add that before agriculture became synonymous with crop farming the kitchen garden was vital to feeding the family and was most often the domain of women. They were laid out by the house and were planted and tended by women. As crop farming took over however, more time and hands were required to meet the demands of market agriculture. Women were called to cook for more and more farm hands (“get big or get out” meant lots more workers to feed) and to work in the fields at the expense of their kitchen gardens, small orchards, bee hives, flocks of chickens, milking cow and homes. So while many women wanted and were in the field, others resented it. The demise of the kitchen garden, along with its impact on the overall health of the family, is well documented and frequently lamented. So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Which is not to suggest these roles must be gender specific but women who were not in the field were definitely knocking it out in other parts of the overall farm operation.

  5. Tracy says:

    This happens the world over I’m sure. In our case not from within our farm but from those looking in from the outside. Evem my mother in-law has asked how my husband handles all of the farm work and a full-time career. To which he replied he doesn’t, it is our family farm and we all work towards out common goal. If it was big business with workers without a vested interest then perhaps it would never work but for us it is a family project and lifestyle which means that love is the binder and no one is taken advantage of or over worked (for too long anyway).
    Thanks for this post

  6. Sarah says:

    In her book, Women’s Work, the first 20,000 years, Elizabeth Barber follows Judith Brown’s thesis to explain why textile production usually *is* women’s work (although certain aspects of it, like dyeing cloth, or laundry in crocodile infested rivers, are not). As well as the incompatibility of certain tasks with nursing, some traditional farm task demand greater physical strength, making them more appropriate to men, on average. That bias is to some extent no longer the case with machinery, but it will be interesting to see whether post-peak oil, the traditional divisions become more rather than less marked.

    As well in Judeo-Christian culture, there are strong traditions about who does what task - Adam delved and Eve span. That may have reflected earlier realities - medieval images show Eve nursing as she spins - but I think the idea also helped to define a ‘proper’ order of things. Of course, while Eve was spinning, she was also doing all sorts of other essential tasks - feeding the chooks, feeding the family, looking after the garden, trying to keep the kids from fighting (not too successfully as it turned out), and coming to help with all the difficult, blokey tasks when Adam couldn’t manage on his own …

  7. TJ says:

    I will keep my guesses as to the reason plowing was not (may not have been) done by women… it would have to do with physical dimensions, like weight maybe…
    But I would like to suggest an older, more prosaic reason, one not limited to farming - the right to own property was not afforded to women.

    It would be hard to explain any other factor thing taking precedence over this - a woman alone would not be farming since she would not be able to own the land.

    Of course this is from a rather remote historical perspective, but that’s where the roots of it must be.


  8. Anna says:

    Around here, it’s simpler than that — men are the ones who do business. When I first bought my farm, it drove me crazy how the men in our rural community would barely talk to me in a business setting. I’d go into the local hardware store that had been run by the same family for a couple of hundred years, and I felt like they really didn’t even want my money.

    At the time, I thought it was because I was an outsider (having moved here from all of 50 miles away — the mountains can be insular.) But after acquiring a husband (from much further away) and slowly letting him take over some business transactions, I realized that these country guys just don’t feel comfortable making transactions with women. Sure, they’re fine going into the Dollar Store and paying the female clerks, but the mechanics feel odd talking about the insides of a car with a woman.

    To be honest, I eventually just got used to it and wrote out checks for my husband to hand to the guys. :-) But I think the solution, at least in a place like this, is to have more women involved in the businesses themselves. If there were a woman mechanic, I’ll bet she’d be willing to talk to me.

  9. Sue says:

    As a soloist female farmer, I find very few incidences of gender bias when dealing with smaller farm business, the guys at the local produce store seem to enjoy talking farm with me and my stock agent is a sweetie who maybe tries harder to get me a good deal because I am a woman (and need to be taken care of?).

    Where I do find bias and condescention is as blatant sizeism by large chain ‘agri businesses’ employees who treat small scale farming as a joke and organic/permaculture farmers as fools. They don’t get my money because of this attitude and I have sourced supplies elsewhere, so a bad business decision on their part.

  10. worldclock says:

    The Chatelaine's Keys » Blog Archive » Ending “Farmer’s Wife” Syndrome - just great!

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