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Winter reading recommendations

CHERYL TEVIS 01/13/2014 @ 12:40pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

As we settle into the new year, don’t forget that you’ll need nourishment for both body and soul to weather the winter months ahead. My suggestion is to stockpile some good books and to keep your e-reader handy.

One of my favorite topics is strong women throughout history and especially strong women in agriculture. That’s why I was delighted to come across the book On Behalf of the Family Farm; Iowa Farm Women’s Activism since 1945. I was even more excited when I happened to meet the author, Jenny Barker Devine, at a recent National Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Devine says the inspiration for her book grew out of a college senior thesis, based on an interview with her roommate’s grandmother, a Missouri farm woman.

Devine’s personal interest in agriculture stems from stories told to her by her great-grandma, who raised and sold chickens so she could afford to attend high school.

“Her experiences motivated me to look deeper into the lives of farm women, who often encountered difficult choices as they sought to make better lives for themselves,” she says.

Devine, a history professor at Illinois College in Jacksonville, opens her book in April 1970, with the stirrings of women who wanted to participate in the public discussions of farm policy and production. “In the early 1970s, small groups of women began to assert that organizing could and should become woman’s work, as their husbands became consumed with the demands of modern agricultural production,” she writes.

She examines their involvement in four organizations: Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, National Farmers Organization, and the Porkettes.

When I crossed paths with Devine at the conference, she told me that most of the women leaders that she profiled wouldn’t have described themselves as feminists, but she felt that they fit the mold.

In her book, she traces how the rise of modern appliances and packaged foods transformed the lives of women. As their household chores diminished, women assumed other work as farm bookkeepers, off-farm wage earners, and political activists.

“Women’s work often became a matter of personal preference, losing the general homogeneity that had been shared across time and space for more than a century,” she writes. “Regardless of the roles and types of work they chose, most women remained closely connected to the farm and vested in its success. And in order to be successful, women had to interact with agribusinesses, organizations, government personnel, and financial agents, all of whom operated in the public spaces that had largely excluded women.”

Yet, Devine points out that most of these women would not have identified sexism at the root cause of their marginalization. “Over the past century, farm women have consistently placed agricultural issues such as land and commodity prices, government policy, and farm safety well before issues of gender equality,” she writes.

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