How Farming Made Me a Feminist
I grew up on one of the last remaining vestiges of "traditional" family life here in the Good Ole US of A- the family farm. Mom and Dad worked together, that was for sure, but it was a lifestyle that would have been instantly familiar to the "Archie Bunkers" of the 50s, the America that some want to go "back to" so desperately, although I'm fairly certain it never existed for them in the first place. And yet- it made me a feminist. (Well, that and some critical thinking, the examples of incredibly strong women who surrounded me, empathy, a good education, and the opportunity to travel and think quite a bit.)
Mom and Dad met at Ag school- in an animal husbandry class, I believe, the first generation of each of their families to go to college. They're also first generation farmers- neither of them inherited the farm we still work today, although they both grew up around farming (as a teenager Dad worked at the dairy farm down the road, and Mom spent a lot of time on the horse farms around her part of southern Vermont). After college Dad worked as a diesel mechanic and Mom as a veterinary technician until they purchased the farm that's now ours. I don't know if they ever wished for a firstborn son to help with the work; by the time I came along they had probably given up wishing for anything. But there I was- (surprise!) the eldest daughter, followed 9 years later by my brother, who now works the farm with Dad full time (in addition to being a talented diesel mechanic in his own right).
Needless to say, I spent a lot of time outdoors growing up. And because it was a farm, there was no shortage of work to be done. And work we all did, from mucking the animals to mowing the grass at the age of 9 (I graduated to bigger tractors a year or two later.) We had occasional hired help as well, a position filled equally by women and men over the years.
Yes, Dad and his generation were "old school": I remember being sent back to the house at the age of 16 because the "guys" were putting hay up in the mow that night and would be using language unsuitable for a "young lady." Given that I had already been playing fiddle in Irish bars for the past year, it was pretty much a given that my vocabulary of obscenities far surpassed anything the local township might have come up with (I could draw from a vast well of multicultural references, after all!). I dragged my arse back to the house, not sure whether to be indignant at being kicked out of the barn over an obvious double standard or relieved to have been let off of a hot, exhausting job thanks to outdated cultural paradigms.
But the guys also had a deep respect for any woman laborer sharing the job with them. Mom was at home for much of my childhood, but she also worked as a veterinary technician, a school lunch lady, and simultaneously logged more hours on the farm with Dad than any of the hired help ever did. She took no guff from anyone; man, woman, or child. Especially man. The only time you could use the word "settle" was with the word "up". There was no settling "for" or "down". And blue language issues aside, Dad was always and often the first to note that his most reliable workers were women. Women were consistently careful, efficient, and less likely to complain. Turns out the masculine urge that leads guys to show off to one another also led to a high rate of equipment breakage and crop losses...
Social roles might have been gendered, but labor sure wasn't. If a box trailer showed up that needed to be loaded with 600 bales of hay (each weighing between 35-45 lbs), then whoever was available was loading that box trailer, and differences in anatomy never mattered much. (The only time that mattered was if your knees were sticking out of shorts when you were loading hay. No one ever loaded hay in shorts more than once. Do NOT load hay in shorts.)
So farming gave me a great deal of self confidence, of common sense, of a love of the natural world, and so many other things. I hope every child can get some sense of that growing up- it's among the most valuable life experiences I can possibly imagine. And it made me a feminist.
It was my first experience of that conflict, that dichotomy of being treated differently when it came to the social aspects of work life while still fulfilling all the expectations of the actual work itself. It led me to think long and hard about my options for making my way in life as I came of age. When I went out into the world as a professional musician the differences only got more dramatic. The options presented weren't that plentiful, in terms of social currency. Traditional female roles were pretty limited: Good Girls or Bad Girls. Good Girls were the "girls next door", "damsels in distress", or "cute ingenues." Bad Girls were "wild", "man-eaters", "sluts". None of those options seemed all that great, to be honest, being as they all depended on another person's reaction for happiness and success. There was one other path that presented itself: the one all the guys were on. Since guys seemed to have all the power and options, that seemed to be the way to go. So many of us went out onto the guys' playing field. We worked longer, we lifted heavier stuff, we played faster, we drank harder, we cussed bluer. Because if you were accepted as "one of the guys", maybe you had a chance at the opportunities they all took for granted. And then one day you didn't, because someone noticed you weren't one of the guys after all. And then you had to figure it out all over again, and then you realized there still aren't that many options.
And compared to all of that, loading 600 bales of hay into a box trailer on a 90 degree day seems pretty easy.