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Winter reading recommendations

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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.

She touches on women’s county and township clubs, the role
of the Cooperative Extension Service in organizing women’s activities, and the
rise and fall of farm women’s auxiliary groups.

Devine discusses how major farm magazines dropped women’s
sections, and how the first issue of Farm Wife News appeared in 1970. (That was
five years before I joined its staff.)She notes that Women for the Survival of
Agriculture was formed in Michigan in 1972, followed by United Farm Wives in
Missouri in 1973. She mentions the National Farm Women’s Forum organized and
hosted by Farm Wife News, and how American Agri-Women was launched there in
1974. Women Involved in Farm Economics formed in 1976 in Nebraska.

Devine highlights the campaign to allow widows to prove
contribution to jointly held property. In 1977, I was privileged to travel to
Washington, D.C., with Nebraskan Doris Royal, who mounted a nationwide petition
drive.

Visit uiowapress.org to buy Devine’s 204-page paperback for
$19.95; it’s also available on amazon.com as an e-book.

A head for policy and A heart for people

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The second book I recommend also focuses on this era. That
Cotton Pickin’ Woman: How One Lady Farmed Farmers, Politicked Politicians and
Made a Difference
is Nita Gibson’s first book at age 87. Gibson and her
husband, Charles, grew cotton in the south Plains of Texas. She was raised
during the Depression, married, had children, and graduated from college in
1971.

After watching cotton prices dive from $1 per pound in 1973
to 13¢ in 1974, she testified before Congress about the issue. In total, over
her years, she testified 23 times before agriculture committees in the House or
Senate regarding the farm bill.

She had met Ronald Reagan in the 1960s while he was
campaigning for John Tower, and she knew George H. Bush. “I got acquainted with
various congressmen. I made the rounds,” she says.

She weighed in on the $50,000 payment limitation, as well as
payment-in-kind eventually endorsed by President Reagan.

I met Gibson in the 1980s when she was president of Women
Involved in Farm Economics. She also founded Cotton Pool, Inc.

Recently, I called her at her home in Lubbock. She told me, “I
miss the politics and the people, but I have some wonderful memories.”

Her book sells for $19.95, plus shipping and handling. Visit
cottonpickinwoman.com to order.

Both books do a great job of shining a light on women’s past
contributions to agriculture and farm policy. I’m looking forward to seeing
women build on this tradition in the future.  

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