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At last, the plowgirl has arrived

The most obvious and promising sign of the new agriculture is the leadership that women are taking in the movement. Women have always played the key role in farming but at least in the last two centuries in America, they have rarely gotten credit for it. Farming is a man’s world, American culture wants to believe, and, as is true of all culturally-treasured myths, no amount of plain everyday evidence to the contrary matters. Oh sure, women were the milkmaids of yesteryear but men pretended that milking cows wasn’t farming. Few males wanted to be tied down to what they considered boring barn jobs if they could escape it. Chickens too were “wimmenswork”. No real he-man farmer wanted to get off his tractor or step from behind his team of horses to do sissy work with a bunch of clucking hens.

Fieldwork was real he-man stuff, the men insisted, even though women ended up doing a lot of that too. 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.

Farm Journal felt the best way to handle the situation was to have a Farmer’s Wife section to appeal to the women with recipes and folksy charm about farm life. The real hardcore business of farming went in the front of the magazine. Amazingly, no one seemed to see the dreadful prejudice on display. I asked one time what would happen if we put a section in the back of the magazine designated as The Farmer’s Husband. All the men editors laughed, thinking that as usual I was making jokes. The women editors did not laugh.

The best evidence of the prejudice against females in farming occurred when Successful Farming, our rival magazine, decided to drop its women’s section altogether, under the notion that womenfolk matters had no place in the real he-man world of modern farming. What did women know or care about 300 horsepower tractors? The decision cost Successful Farming a bundle of money because readership dropped precipitously. As it turned out, farm wives knew quite a bit about 300 hp. tractors, especially about whether their husbands could afford them or not. It also turned out that the wives read the whole magazine far more closely than the husbands. Successful Farming soon reinstated its women’s section and asserted how important women were to the “decision-making” process on the farm.

Eventually, however, Monster Farming did make farm wives more or less disappear. Of course it made farm husbands disappear too. Now in the vanguard of the new wave of caretaker farming in country, city and suburb, women are leading the way. No surprise really. Women have traditionally been the caretakers of the food that finds its way to our tables. Why should it be any different today?

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