Women in Agriculture: The chapter missing from our history books

By Danielle Cooper, Member of Care About Climate's Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee

In the patriarchal society we have lived in for centuries, women were always working in the kitchen, right? Wrong! Female work started on the farm and ended in the kitchen. As the World Bank Group put it: "As the primary caregivers to families and communities, women provide food and nutrition; they are the human link between the farm and the table."

Audra Mulkern, a former Microsoft employee from Seattle, Washington, is searching for historical documents and pictures to prove women have been in the agriculture industry since the very beginning. In her research, she has found that women have been on tractors, milking cows and tending crops just as often as men. Nevertheless, the ladies seem to have been erased from agricultural history as we know it.

The history of agriculture is a long one, and still, less than 1% of women have been represented by its narrative.  Women were left off property documents, equipment receipts, and tractor titles, simply because they were female. This shows why obtaining pictures or documents of women in agriculture - especially from the past - is so difficult. Women have been in this sector since the start, but they were somehow left out of the history books.

During World War II, women took over all kinds of farming and agricultural jobs. As stated by journalist Lisa Foust Prater, in an article about the history of women's work, between April of 1940 and July of 1942, two million men left farm jobs in the United States. 1.5 million non-farming women were then moved to agriculture and farm jobs between 1943 and 1945, which dramatically changed the agricultural sector.

These ladies had the courage to do a job unknown to them to help their country in times of war. That is nothing short of courageous and noble. Brave females like these have left their mark on the history of agriculture, and this strength that they acquired from being involved in agriculture lives on until this day, passed from generation to generation. 

As mentioned, although women have been a huge part of the farming industry, they have been kept in the dark. Women's Land of Army for America (WLA) was a branch of the U.S. Crop Corps, where women were prepared to take over farm jobs: they were given training, wore uniforms and were called “Farmettes” or “Land Girls”. Most people are unfamiliar with this group but recognize the iconic Rosie the Riveter, which symbolized women in the workforce, yet not specifically agriculture.  

Women in agriculture are protagonists of the history of our planet's lands - but it is not just in the past that they have been relevant. Women farmers currently represent ¼ of the global population - and in developing countries, they constitute over 40% of the entire agricultural workforce. In 2012, India hosted the Global Conference on Women in Agriculture, and this July (2019), the Women in Agriculture Conference took place in Tucson, Arizona. 

This illuminates how women are involved in agriculture on a local scale. Audra Mulkern is  great example of national involvement with women in agriculture, as she continues to provide historical pictures and documents of women farmers. In Africa and Asia, women are still considered the vast majority of the agricultural labor force, which once again proves that women's empowerment is very present in the farming industry. 

This August, in Brazil, 100,000 women will gather for the 6th March of the Daisies, the largest movement of women farmers in Latin America. These women march to defend their lands, their forests and their waters. The movement is inspired by Margarida Maria Alves, leader of rural workers in the 1970s, murdered 36 years ago. Margarida became symbol of this large-scale action by Latin American women; women from over 27 countries who are speaking up for social justice and equality.

Female representation may be lacking in our history books, but we are making sure that these agents of change in the agriculture of their local communities are being talked about. From local, to national, to global involvement, women have been working on crops, milking the cows, and driving the tractors with grace for decades. It is time for the world to recognize the transformative power of women in agriculture, making our lands more sustainable and resilient for the future generations. 

Cover photo credit: ONU Angola