Farming Made Me a Feminist

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.




It is a question we ask ourselves as artists, as individuals, as humans, every waking day. An obvious example for anyone employed in the arts, or who has traded profit for passion, is the "Why" that seems to rear its ugly head every time the bills are due, or the car breaks down, or the gig gets cancelled, or attendance is disappointing. Or when the gig pays well and the room is full, but the audience is loud and drunk and either wants to hit on you or hear Journey covers. Or both.

Then there is the "Why" of what brought us to this whole music/art thing in the first place. Some of us were too young when we started out for any critical thought deeper than, "I want to!" We just knew it was something we really, really wanted to do. Had to do. And even years on, "Because I want to," is still justification enough on so many levels. Once we journey further down that road, however, we (hopefully) become aware of the layers of responsibility that being an artist brings. And as an artist coming from certain long-held musical traditions, traditions which often directly reflect the suffering and experiences of those who had hands in their creation and perpetuation, I'm beginning to realize more and more just how those responsibilities are not to be taken lightly.

Anyone who's heard a murder ballad, a protest song, or had a "soundtrack" to a breakup can attest to the power of music and musical tradition. Though music has entertainment value beyond compare, it can be dangerous to completely divorce a song from its historical context. Songs are expressions of humanity set to melody and you risk losing that humanity by just focusing on the entertainment side of things (not trying to be a killjoy here, as there are certainly loads of songs meant for nothing more than fun. And fun is necessary too!) But consider that many of our most beloved songs have a dark history, whether personal or political. To try to sugarcoat that is to do a vast disservice to the times that created that music and the people who suffered and struggled and were inspired and comforted by it.  

I've been thinking a lot recently about the difference between being an entertainer and carrying on a living tradition as a musician. Having grown up playing traditional music, I can't help but feel the weight of responsibility to those that have gone before; those that have taught me, and those that have taught them. It's jarring to see this respect sacrificed for the sake of a cheap laugh, applause, or a quick buck.

One recent instance I found very upsetting was a holiday show in which the set list included John Lennon's "Happy X-mas, War is Over", immediately preceding the IRA-supporting football song, "Up the RA."  I'm not sure which was more shocking to me: the musical/ethical clash of those two songs back to back, or the audience response. (Audience: "Yay, X-mas, peace on earth." ----> "YAY! Carbombs, terrorism, religious and sectarian violence! But there's clapping and fist pumping! YAY!") And this was at a matinee show at a very nice performing arts center. This wasn't a bar gig. Similar arguments could be made for many songs from the Civil War era, or the more modern example of talking whoopee cushion Mike Huckabee condemning Beyonce for setting "a bad example" for young women while himself cavalierly accompanying Ted Nugent on a marginal-at-best rendition of "Cat Scratch Fever." Playing a song without learning and taking responsibility for its meaning and history is something I'm finding more and more offensive these days.

Bear in mind, I'm certainly not bashing going out to see some live music and just have a good time. There's no entertainment experience on earth that can replace seeing a live show and it's something that needs supporting now more than ever. And not every concert needs to be a profound social and musical commentary. There are some songs that exist purely for the purpose of fun and enjoyment, and those are no less valid than the "heavier" musical numbers that are out there. I just think it's our responsibility as musicians, artists, and entertainers to distinguish and respect the difference.

Music has power to change an individual or collective consciousness. Let's try to use it wisely.

P.S. On a simpler note, to anyone who's ever come up to me (or any artist) after a show to say how much a certain song meant to them: That's Why.


Observations on Being an Artist. And a Woman. At the Same Time. (NSFW)

Welcome to my blog, a collection of random outbursts, recollections, rants, and the odd recipe! Sit down, pull up a chair, and pour yourself a nice glass of single malt. Then pour me one too, please. Neat. OK, here we go...

<WARNING: language throughout parts of this opening salvo may not be suitable for work or children.>

As a lifelong artist (I started studying the craft of my instrument from the age of 4 and never looked back), image and identity are two concepts pretty deeply entwined with artistic endeavors and the definition of "success" in such (I put it in quotes because this is a pretty fluid and bullshit-filled concept particularly in the music world these days.) If you happen to be a woman and you're thinking, "Hmm, sounds familiar...", well, those two concepts are pretty insidiously anchored in society's take on what it means to be female as well.

When I met my childhood country music idol, Clint Black, years ago as a star-struck fan, he gave me some of the only truly excellent career advice I've gotten. "So, you want to be a professional musician?" he asked. "Yes", I said. "Then you better have a thick skin."

Go out into the world as an artist, and you will get reams of unsolicited advice about what material to play, how to dress, what to say, how to market your product, etc. Some of this will be constructive. Most of it will not.

Go out into the world as a female, and you will get reams of the same bullshit. Very little of this, too, will be constructive. Most is so quietly entrenched that you may not even notice until long after the fact- like those snappy comebacks that always come to you right after the offending person has walked away. Much of this sneaks by under the guise of that lurking bastard : "politeness." To be clear, I absolutely, unequivocally support treating each other as fellow human beings worthy of respect and empathy. To me, that is true politeness. But how many times have we as women been encouraged to not be too loud? To not speak up to ask questions? To not take the lead? To not take up too much space? To not take credit for our accomplishments? To not call out the "compliments" that are meant to demean, to possess, to belittle? To say "sorry" rather than "excuse me" as a sentence opener- when we haven't actually done anything to apologize for?

Go out into the world as a female artist and there's a perfect (shit)storm waiting for you to arrive so it can tell you all the ways you could be doing things "better." More "successfully." More "marketably." (This does not take into account the REALLY blatant sexism in music: the "you play as good as a guy" "compliments", or the assumption that you're just the girlfriend of the guitar player etc. That's for another blog!)

But here's the thing: the outside world does not have any justification to dictate what each person's narrative, identity, or experience is. Everyone's personal narrative is different. And if, as true artists, our personal experiences and narratives are what inform our art (as they should in honest art-making), then the only people truly qualified to comment on that are: OURSELVES. The rest of the world needs to just go off somewhere to shut up; whether it be a suggestion to "smile more" (on the street or on the stage), "advice" on what to wear, or more outwardly successful artists telling the up-and-comers what they ought to do. What worked for one person may have no bearing on another, and the business environment is changing so fast that in the words of investment pros themselves: "Past results do not guarantee future performance."

Here's a petty little example:

Why should I wear a sundress and cowboy boots when performing? They were never part of my personal narrative (except the boots, but only when I was actually working in a barn.) Why should they be now- apart from the fact that they look an awful lot like the "uniform" of the chick roots music singer these days. And that's my problem with it- the whole concept of "uniform." It means "sameness." And I'm even less comfortable with that notion that I am with actually wearing the damn dress. (I'm not all that comfortable in anything you can't hike in.) Now I'm not judging other people's fashion choices. It all comes down to the WHY. If you're wearing a dress and boots onstage because you like it and it makes you feel good, great! That's your narrative. If you're doing it because it's a thing that people who play that sort of music do... well, that's a little awkward. Same goes for the skimpy cocktail dresses and skirts and high heels. If you feel naturally happy in those clothes, excellent! (I'm quite jealous of my friends who do! Because they have way better balance in heels than I do.) But you can't pretend the dominant paradigm isn't one that encourages women to market themselves by appearing a certain way. It's a fine line between "hot girl next door" and "slut" and I don't think women are the ones drawing that line most of the time. And that's troubling.

Take enough daily bombardment of this conflicting (and unsolicited) input, and eventually your ability to tolerate it just plain short-circuits.

The day I was "mansplained" to about "artistic responsibility" from someone whose success was due far more to luck and connections than hard work and actual responsibility (after having watched that person abdicate and delegate much of said work and responsibility) was the day I ran out of fucks to give. Because that was when I realized that little gobshite actually had zero authority over the narrative of my life, my inspiration, and my trajectory as an artist. And that's when I realized that the main reason all this input always feels a bit "off", is because the issue here is with THEM, not with ME. THEY would prefer I smile more, or wear a short skirt, or write a certain type of song, or feel bad about myself if I choose not to.

So next time you run into a woman (in music or society at large), consider that perhaps she's not trying to be "cold" or "aloof" or "angry" or "bitchy." We're just out here doing our thing, trying to be authentically ourselves, and have simply run out of fucks to give.