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A History of ‘Women’s Work’

When Audra Mulkern (pictured here) left her job with Microsoft in Seattle, Washington, in 1999, she had no idea that her life would change focus so dramatically. What began as the simple question “Who is growing my food?” turned into an exploration into the history of women in agriculture and the eventual development of the Female Farmer Project. 

The seeds for the project were planted when Mulkern, who lives in a farming community in the Puget Sound, wanted to buy fresh, local produce. “This was before there were accessible ways to find people, like Facebook,” she says. “I could see farmworkers in the field and wondered how I could get to them.” There was a new CSA at a farmers market in Seattle, so she went once a week to get a basket of vegetables. “I was driving an hour each way to buy vegetables grown right here in my neighborhood,” she says. A list of farmer-suppliers was included with her CSA vegetables, which made her want to know more about the people who were growing her food.

By 2011, there were two farmers markets much closer to Mulkern, and she had become a regular customer. “I’d walk around and talk to farmers. With my phone, I’d take pictures of radishes and other things, and the farmers thought I was crazy,” she says. “I developed a self-published book of pictures I’d taken, along with essays I’d asked farmers to contribute.”

On one trip to the market, Mulkern had a revelation. “I was people-watching, and I realized that there were women behind every single table,” she says. “I wondered where the men were, then I wondered what made me think farmers should be men.” 

That set her on the path to learning more about female farmers. When she started researching the history of women in agriculture, she came up empty-handed.

“It was like they had disappeared from history. Less than half of 1% of history is represented by women,” Mulkern says.

Industry Shift?

Mulkern says she stewed on it over the winter. “By spring, I wanted to do more. I wondered if the rise in female farmers was happening just in this community or if it was a bigger trend, a shift in the industry.” A friend loaned her a professional camera, she spent a few days practicing in the garden, and her quest began.

“I happen to live in a bubble where the farms are smaller here in western Washington. There’s not a lot of land access, and it’s very expensive to live here, so there are many small farms, which women tend to run,” Mulkern says. “I started finding other bubbles around the country where the majority of farmers were women, and I visited them.”

Mulkern’s style is to follow female farmers while they go about their business and to capture them at work. Photos aren’t posed. “Every person says they don’t take good pictures. Everyone has that insecurity,” she says. 

After sharing some of her work at a women in ag conference, a participant told her that seeing the photos was like looking in a mirror, and it made her realize how beautiful she was. “If you feel beautiful, that’s an unquantifiable result,” she says.

Digging up Roots

The Female Farmer Project has taken on a life of its own, exploring the rise of women in agriculture. Mulkern still photographs female farmers, and her work has been displayed at the United Nations in New York and the Maison Rouge Gallery in Paris. It is on permanent exhibit at the USDA offices in Washington, D.C. The project also includes stories, essays, a podcast, and an upcoming documentary film, Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers, which she hopes will be released in March 2019, during Women’s History Month.

Mulkern has also done investigative reporting into subjects including the mental health crisis and farmer suicide. “I’m looking at a lot of things through the gender lens: farming, leadership, tracking female farmers running for office,” she says. “Yes, there are women farming. That’s established. Now let’s talk about them being at the table.”

The Female Farmer Project now has a small volunteer staff. One of its tasks for the documentary film has been to learn more about women in agriculture throughout history, namely during the world wars. 

“You really have to dig for information on women during the wars,” Mulkern says. “The Library of Congress has a few images, but many are just women standing by chickens, and you have to make that leap that maybe they’re a farmer.” The group has had some luck going through regional and local books put together by historical societies or museums. (See “Fighting From Home” at right for more on the wartime role of female farmers.)

The lack of historical images has inspired Mulkern to continue documenting female farmers today. “There aren’t many pictures showing women working as farmers, and if you don’t see it being done, you don’t know it can be done,” she says. 

One place female farmers were featured in the 1940s was in Successful Farming magazine, pictured here. Darline Graf, 17, was on the cover in September 1943. 

An article by C.E. Hughes told how she and her mother stepped up to work on their family’s 460-acre Nebraska farm when the hired man left for a defense job. They helped plant and harvest corn, wheat, barley, oats, and alfalfa, in addition to homemaking, school, and 4-H.

“It’s a quiet sort of battle these folks are fighting in the Nebraska grain fields,” Hughes wrote. “No badges, no trumpets, no fancy titles. Like their neighbors and millions of other farm people over the country, they’re carrying on.”

Learn More

• The Female Farmer Project: femalefarmerproject.org

Women’s Work Documentary: womensworkdocumentary.org

Background: Fighting From Home

When World War II broke out in 1939, farmers abandoned their plows in droves to join the military or to work in more financially lucrative wartime industries. 

The Bureau of Agricultural Economics reported that more than 2 million men left farm jobs between April 1940 and July 1942. By the time the war ended, that number had climbed to 6 million, and U.S. food production had grown by 32% over prewar levels, according to the USDA.

The government brought in foreign labor and assigned prisoners of war and furloughed military personnel to farm, and 2.5 million young people volunteered for the Victory Farm movement. Much of the work, however, was done by millions of women.

Wives and daughters instantly stepped up to do what was needed on their home farms. The USDA Extension Service says 1.5 million nonfarm women were placed in agricultural jobs between 1943 and 1945, and at least that many were hired directly by farmers. 

Many of the women who did wartime farmwork were members of the Women’s Land Army of America (WLA), an arm of the United States Crop Corps. The WLA was formally established for World War II on April 10, 1943, although training had been in the works for years. It had previously been enacted during World War I. The women serving in the WLA received training, wore uniforms, and were known as land girls or farmerettes.

The May 1943 issue of Successful Farming magazine featured Mary Grigs, a British farm magazine editor who came to America to talk about the WLA in her country. (Check out the series Land Girls on Netflix, about the British WLA in World War II.) Grigs spoke to a women’s group in Warren County, Iowa, encouraging them to support the idea of an American WLA. She said many British farmers didn’t think women could handle threshing, milking, driving tractors, and running excavators, but it wasn’t long before the doubters were asking for more WLA workers. She proudly said, “They surprised the farmers.”

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