White Americans have long possessed vivid imaginaries of what it means to use, occupy, and own the land. Even relatively radical landholders, such as those in the alternative food movement, still draw on Jeffersonian notions of democracy rooted in the idealization of a citizenry of independent yeomen.1 Many historians have written of the extreme violence upon which the practice of such agrarian ideals have depended. As the environmental scientist Jeff Romm has observed, even as the federal government bestowed free land to whites in the American West, Native Americans were rounded up onto reservations or exterminated while state efforts at postslavery land reform in the South failed miserably.2
This post, however, reflects on a form of oppression that had to occur within the farm unit for the logic of settler land use to advance in the twentieth century: namely, gendered oppression of women on the farm. The Jeffersonian agrarian ideal posits the white, landowning male as its assumed subject but the farm family as its operating unit. We often talk about the white men who owned the land, but an imagined nation of independent landholders does not rely on farmers alone; it relies on self-sustaining farm families. Such farm families requested and took advantage of support from the state, which not only provided access to land but also to farm services. By producing technical knowledge, labor expertise, and other forms of support, as well as the latest innovations in agriculture, government farm services categorized knowledge and expertise by separating the work of farm families into “men’s work” and “women’s work.”3
By examining the redefinition of farm labor in an industrializing economy, it is possible to elucidate a central moment in the transformation of gender in America: the moment when the state’s categorization and separation of men’s work from women’s work on the farm instituted the discipline of “home economics.”
Feminized labor (“women’s work”) has nearly always been devalued compared to sectors of the labor force dominated by men in the United States. Feminist Marxists argue that the economic conditions of capitalism, which naturalize the family as the basic unit of reproduction (following the Jeffersonian ideal) delegitimize women’s labor—especially reproductive labor—by making it invisible to the formal economy. The disappearing of “women’s work” was not inevitable; in fact, it is relatively recent. By examining the redefinition of farm labor in an industrializing economy, it is possible to elucidate a central moment in the transformation of gender in America: the moment when the state’s categorization and separation of men’s work from women’s work on the farm instituted the discipline of “home economics.”
A good portion of state-financed farm services originated at land grant universities. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, following upon and capitalizing on the industrial revolution, financed the creation of agrarian research universities focused on the development of knowledge in agriculture, science, military science, and engineering. The new universities’ agricultural arms strengthened and expanded the already existing agricultural societies that had sprung up across the country during the nineteenth century as a way for farmers to share agricultural innovations.4 Federally funded extension agents were hired to work in local communities, traveling to neighboring places to share the research and knowledge developed in land-grant universities in informal settings. These forms of so-called modernization were termed “extension services.”
For the purposes of this post, the most important piece of the professionalization of farm knowledge and education lies in the categorization of the work that had to occur to make farm labor measurable and therefore improvable by land-grant institutions. At the turn of the twentieth century, this process led to a novel question for researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): What counts as farm work? The answer to this question resulted in a profound erasure of women’s work on the farm.
The only study of farm women sponsored by the federal government during the first half of the twentieth century was an enormously ambitious report written by Emily Hoag titled “The Advantages of Farm Life: A Study by Correspondence and Interviews with Eight Thousand Farm Women.”5 The study was never published, but it is reanimated, alongside an analysis of personal letters, family archives, and public records, by Joan M. Jensen in a recent book called Women in Agriculture: Professionalizing Rural Life in North America and Europe, 1880–1965 (2017), which narrates the untold history of women as agricultural professionals.6
Hoag was an assistant agricultural economist at the USDA in the 1920s when “modernization” exploded with the adoption of tractors and other forms of farm mechanization. This, paired with what historians call the “country life movement,” informed USDA extension services and research in rural America. Spurred by a fear of lessened food production as more Americans moved to cities, the country life movement was an effort by the federal government to make farming more appealing and profitable. Bureaucrats envisioned the improvement of country life as a movement for national health and security, romanticizing the white American family farm as the beacon of model citizenship. Extension services were provided almost exclusively to whites, constituting a crucial form of government aid for the nation’s self-declared iconic citizenry, while the nonwhite communities denied aid were depicted as illegitimate and undeserving.
The categorical separation of women’s and men’s work was officially tasked by the Office of Farm Management to a research team in which Hoag took part. Within the project design, Hoag was the only one assigned to interview women about the conditions of their work. In her report Hoag wrote that women saw the farm as a joint business enterprise principally producing food. They saw the home as a second economy in itself and the community as a space of activism for the welfare of others.7 The women Hoag interviewed wanted the government to think of the home as part of the farm business. As they saw it, the farmer did not exist in a vacuum but as part of a farm family. Women not only shared in farm work outside the home, they were also responsible for feeding the family, keeping house, and raising children, often also educating them at home. The men Hoag interviewed did not separate women’s work from farm work either. In fact, men included both women’s and men’s roles in their descriptions of the labor that ought to be supported by government infrastructure.8
Jensen’s finding is corroborated by Grey Osterud in a recent work that includes interviews with women born before World War I who lived on family farms in south-central New York. Many of the women recounted to Osterud their experiences with farm extension services provided by Cornell University. “Women,” she writes, “and, to a striking degree, men shared a perspective on family farming that emphasized cooperation and reciprocity rather than differences and divisions, even when gender distinctions were presented as complementary rather than restrictive.” 9 Osterud notes that in most USDA reports about rural life prepared in the midst of the country life movement, women were not recognized as partners on the farm by urban people (often the experts doing the research). They were seen as “drudges,” homemakers for their husbands, the real farmers.10 This was quite a departure from the farm family unit most rural families recognized as the basic producer. One report went so far as to suggest that “every woman should have an outdoor hobby,” a request that would have seemed absurd had the researchers better understood the lived experience of women on the farm.11
In her final report to the Office of Farm Management, Hoag recommended that USDA’s extension services include an expansion of cooperatives to help with everyday tasks such as laundry and baking, the disbursement of funds for women’s clubs, which would foster mutual aid in communities while combating the isolation of rural life, and the implementation of schools for a broader range of students, an initiative that would lighten the burden of caring for children. This would help women to balance their two kinds of work: work in the home and work on the land. Moreover, women wanted the centrality of their work to be recognized by the USDA in the same manner as new farming equipment technology. Farm women saw their work as integral—just as integral as men’s work—to the household goal of producing food for the nation. They urged the USDA to recognize with its resources that food does not get produced if farmers do not have houses to live in, prepared food to eat, and children to be the next farmers.
The words of the farmers themselves in Hoag’s report illuminate that even as the buzzword home economics seeded itself in USDA depictions of women’s work, the subjects of that characterization had little use for the term. They were oriented toward practical knowledge that transgressed the gendered division of labor. When I go with my husband to Farmers’ Week at the Agricultural College,” wrote a woman from the Southern Appalachian mountains, “I do not spend all my time in the home Economics Department. I attend the lectures on soil chemistry and animal husbandry. I go to see the new agricultural machinery and watch them judge the stock, because I am interested in everything that goes on at the farm.”12 Another woman demonstrated even more clearly her resistance to the state’s categorization of her as a mere helpmate to her husband rather than a partner in production: “The farmer and his wife lead a life of cooperation,” wrote a Massachusetts farm woman. “We do not call it an addition to our own affairs to be interested in our husband’s work. It is part of the farm life.”13
In marked contrast to the USDA’s picture of knowledge dissemination, which envisioned ideas flowing from the city to the country and from the university to the field, the farm women seem to have schooled Hoag herself, whose recommendations mirrored the sentiments of her study subjects. Hoag observed that at the National Agricultural Conference arranged by President Warren Harding in 1922 female farmers had placed their world picture on record, presenting the idea of farm production as a partnership. “In these last few years, there has been a repeatedly-expressed desire among earnest, thinking rural women that the farm woman’s real attitude towards farm life should no longer be misrepresented,” Hoag wrote in her report, “lest in these days of publicity and critical unrest, this misconstruction of her attitude may have more influence than her actual daily unprejudiced courage and contentment.”14 Sharing a vision of the farm family as a partnership, a vision that contested the gendered norms of agricultural science, Hoag championed the women whose voices she recorded in her report.
At a time when women’s work was already devalued in most arenas, however, this vision of a holistic farm resource policy would scarcely register, even in Hoag’s own department. Changes in the political landscape at the USDA put the project Hoag had joined on hold in 1922. Instead, in 1923 the USDA established the Bureau of Home Economics, firmly distinguishing “women’s work” from farm work. Whereas once women had been acknowledged as farm producers—makers of products for the market and possessors of labor power—now they were relegated to the roles of mother and homemaker and redefined as consumers. No longer recognized as part of the formal economy, their labor was mystified—as if it originated from the very nature of womanhood. By solidifying a gendered approach to labor in a patriarchal order, home economics devalued much labor that is essential to running a farm, segregating and devaluing “women’s work.” Even Hoag herself, who had never considered herself a home economist but a rigorously trained agricultural economist who studied women’s work in the farm enterprise, saw her work separated, devalued, and discarded.15
The home economics movement had virtually no competition, and many social and economic factors led to the erasure of Hoag’s study and the role of women’s work it represented. When Charles Galpin, the lead author of that project, wrote about his group’s contributions to the field of rural sociology, Hoag became a hidden figure—much like other women doing “men’s” work—unmentioned in men’s accounts of rural sociology and even in their histories of the early USDA, despite the department’s enthusiasm in recruiting her.16 Nevertheless, in her brief time at the USDA Hoag managed to create a lasting record of what farm women believed. Now that the story of their erasure is known, it is easier to see the noninevitability of a world in which work in food preparation and childcare are devalued and separated from the “legitimate” economy.
Joselyn Walsh (she/her/hers) is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. Her research excavates the agrarian imaginaries relied on by conceptions of “the future of food” in the United States, opening up categories of alternative food, regulatory regimes, and food’s relation to the body. She cares for a tree named Fernando.
- The alternative food movement encompasses growers, farmers, and activists who eschew the conventional industrial food system by instituting community-supported agriculture (CSAs), farmer’s markets, and organic practices. On the Jeffersonian imaginary, see Julie Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 208.
- Jeff Romm, “The Coincidental Order of Environmental Injustice,” in Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications, ed. Kathryn M. Mutz, Gary C. Bryner, and Douglas S. Kenney (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), chap. 5.
- Joan M. Jensen, “Good Farms, Markets, and Communities: Emily Hoag and Rural Women as Producers,” in Women in Agriculture: Professionalizing Rural Life in North America and Europe, 1880–1965, ed. Joan M. Jensen and Linda M. Ambrose (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), 63.
- Alfred Charles True, A History of Agricultural Extension Work in the United States, 1785–1923 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1928), 114.
- Jensen and Ambrose, Women in Agriculture, 37.
- Joan M. Jensen, “Good Farms, Markets, and Communities: Emily Hoag and Rural Women as Producers,” in Women in Agriculture, ed. Joan Jensen and Linda Ambrose (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017), 34–64.
- Jensen, “Good Farms, Markets, and Communities,” 50–57.
- Jensen, 57–61.
- Grey Osterud, Putting the Barn Before the House (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 212.
- This stereotype originated in the midst of industrialization and the depopulation of farmland at the turn of the twentieth century. It is debunked by Amy Mattson Lauters in More Than a Farmer’s Wife (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009), 163.
- Broome County Home Bureau Program for 1925–1926 (Binghamton, NY: Broome County Cooperative Extension Archives, 1926), 21; Osterud, Putting the Barn Before the House, 216.
- Emily Hoag, The Advantages of Farm Life: A Study by Correspondence with Eight Thousand Farm Women: Digest of an Unpublished Manuscript (Washington, DC: National Agricultural Library, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1924), 3.
- Hoag, 5.
- Hoag, 28.
- Jensen, “Good Farms, Markets, and Communities,”35.
- Jenson and Ambrose, Women in Agriculture, 47–48.