Women Marching Through Time To Produce America’s Food

Written by Kayla Williams ’17, Student Fellow, GW Food Institute

I participated in the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington, a historic event that gathered roughly half a million people in unity here in DC along with millions more around the nation and globe. For many of us, the march was a declaration about what really matters: an appreciation for diverse experiences. And just last week on March 8, the same coalition that organized the Women’s March organized “A Day Without Women,” a strike to symbolize the powerful force of women throughout the world. Both of these events left me reflecting on the much forgotten but important history of women’s involvement in American agriculture.

Cartoon portraying enslaved women in the field

“Farmerettes” during World War I

I don’t need to tell you how important women are to domestic life in America and around the world. But the stereotypic notion that women “belong in the kitchen” is false, even in the world of food and agriculture. Although farming in America is stereotyped as rural and male dominant, women have always worked the fields. Enslaved American women performed 60 percent of the field work on the coastal plantations, picking cotton and tending to other crops in the fields for as many as fifteen hours a day. Mount Holyoke College, the first women’s college in the US, participated in wartime efforts to farm and deliver milk in WWI and WWII. The WWI “farmerettes” wore pants, which was rather revolutionary and they were paid 20 cents an hour for their work. Three million women made up the “Women’s Land Army” during WWII, sending volunteer women to farms, canneries, and dairies to feed the nation as men fought overseas. After the war ended, many women stayed in their positions.

WWI-era women farmers in the field

Land ownership for women only became fully available in 1974 (literally only 43 years ago) with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, when women could first take out credit from a bank to pay for a mortgage on land. Land could be inherited from their fathers or husbands but for most women, especially because women make less money than men, it was nearly impossible to buy land without loan/credit assistance.

It is difficult to discern the number of women who own and/or operate farms. It wasn’t until 1978 that the USDA Census of Agriculture began differentiating between genders on its survey. In 1978, the Census found 128,170 women working as primary operators in America. In 1987, 131,641 women were recorded as primary operators, and the average female farm operator had spent 18 years farming. Twenty-five years later, in 2012, 288,264 women were found to be principal operators, that’s 14% of all principal operators. Only 21,143, or 8% of all female principal operators, were women of color. Some of the overall increase in the number of women identified as principal operators is due to more women coming into agriculture, but more of it is due to changes in how the Census counts farmers and ranchers, which has improved over time. Although imperfect, this information nevertheless tells us two important things. First, we need to do better at documenting the breadth and depth of the roles that women play in agriculture. Second, we need to put more funding into organizations that support women (and gender non-conforming) farmers of all races, such as the Women Food and Agriculture Network, National Women in Agriculture Association, Women Involved in Farm Economics, and American Agri-Women.

It’s important to look at the different histories of Americans to understand the diversity of agriculture, and the important roles that women have always played in all sectors of American life.