Women as Farmers?

Caricatures of a farmer usually conjure up images of a white, strong, rural man. While almost 60% of farm owners in Maryland are male, and about 70% are white, these statistics paint an incomplete image of what a farmer in rural Maryland actually looks like. Unfortunately, we lack the idea of female, non-white, farmers partly because these groups did not have the resources to pass down their stories. John Mack Faragher writes in “History from the Inside-Out: Writing the History of Women in Rural America that “Some rural women- Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Chicanas, Mexicans, Hispanics- have suffered a historical silence in direct relation to the social conditions that kept them nearly totally illiterate. Even among Euro-Americans, only a few country women left written records, for even white female illiteracy was commonplace until at least the second half of the nineteenth century.” Not only were women without the means to record their experiences, but many had to “Combine illiteracy with farm workloads that kept even ‘scribbling women’ too busy to write much, and cultural attitudes that consistently devalued women and their documents, and it is a wonder that we have any historical materials at all.”

Rural America presented a unique opportunity where women and men did very similar work in order to make a livelihood. In urban areas, work took men out of the house to storefronts or factories, whereas rural men did their work, primarily farming, on their property, thus allowing women to take part. Faragher says “Without question women’s work was essential to successful agriculture. Indeed, abundant evidence demonstrates that from colonial times through the nineteenth century, Euro-American women engaged in from one-third to more than one-half of all the food production on family farms. Moreover, everywhere women were likely to be found helping men with the field work, especially at peak planting times.” Women were also involved in yielding other essentials besides food. “Aside from food production, women were solely responsible for all food preparation, all household chores, all textile and clothing manufacture, childcare, and all work obviously necessary to the reproduction of the farmstead.” If, historically, rural women were deeply involved in agriculture across the nation, why do we not associate them with the farms of rural Maryland today?

As is evident, women have been crucial to the success of American agriculture and food systems. The issue, though, is that they are constantly being left out of the conversation regarding land. This is unfortunate; women have a deep-rooted history in the land we live and work on, especially in Maryland. It has been found that colonial women have been working in gardens since European settlers began arriving in America. Women were in charge of specific produce; “the vegetables needed on a small scale were grown in the fenced-in garden near the house. These included leeks, onions, garlic, melons, English gourds, radishes, carrots, cabbages and artichokes. A variety of herbs were grown among the vegetables, the most aromatic grown to one side so as not to flavor the soil. Vegetables needed in large quantities like maize, beans, and pumpkins were grown in fields.” One thing that was unique to colonial women was their involvement with flowers and the colonial garden. “If the lady of the house liked flowers, she often collected violets and mayflowers from the woods and transplanted them into her garden, for it was she who tended them. Otherwise, only those flowers needed for food, medicine, fragrance or dyes were grown.” This history of growing flowers for enjoyment in America seems to be exclusively female and should be remembered for that.

Not only were white colonial women working the land on the East Coast, but we know enslaved women were as well. Growing up, many American students were taught that enslaved African men worked the land, while enslaved African women worked in the home. This narrative is not completely true, for we have evidence of enslaved women working in plantation production as well. In a depiction of a plantation in the Chesapeake Bay area, it is described that “Out of 100 slaves on a typical plantation in the mid-eighteenth-century Chesapeake, for example, about 40 were children, most of whom contributed nothing to the labor supply. Another 10 or so were superannuated or otherwise disabled, and about 15 were adolescents who had neither the strength nor the ability of an adult. Of the 15 or so prime-age women, a third were pregnant each year and another third had children less than a year old which required them to leave the fields four or five times each day for nursing.”

Enslaved women were not only working the land out of force, but also kept small gardens to produce food for their own families. These plots, or “patches” as they were called, were unused areas of land near enslaved people’s quarters and were worked on by the women after their workday or on their Sundays off. As one can assume, the rations given to enslaved women to cook for their families were nutritiously adequate for anyone working 18 hours a day in a field. Because of this, according to Dwight Eisnach and Herbert Covey writing about slave gardens in the antebellum South, enslaved women grew “lettuce; fresh corn; varieties of peas and beans; radishes; beets; mustard, turnip, and collard greens; sweet potatoes; pumpkins; onions; carrots; asparagus; artichokes; potatoes; okra; peanuts; and melons. Slaves brought seeds of native African plants with them during the Middle Passage and some of the produce from their gardens can be traced to seeds they brought to the New World.” These women who helped to keep their communities alive through growing food made major contributions to early American agriculture.

Indigenous women, some of the first women to work the land we are on, also had a huge impact on the beginnings of agriculture in America. Broadly speaking, they “raised tobacco, corn, and sometimes wheat for the market and gardens for home consumption. Cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys were also raised and meals were supplemented with wild foods.” The women of Indigenous tribes such as the Piscataway and Wicomico were essential to food production as well as for the growing of medicinal herbs. Many women used what they grew in their gardens for healing purposes, acting as caregivers not only for the land, but also for the people who inhabit it.

We need to reimagine the faces of farming. The narrative surrounding women and agriculture needs to be shifted to reflect a rich and diverse women’s history. The Resilience Garden at St. Mary’s College of Maryland aims to do just that by highlighting the crops grown by the women who once toiled upon the land we now use.

RCC Fellow – Lily Riesett – St. Mary’s College of Maryland

RCC Fellow Lily Riesett is a junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland majoring in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Studies. She is interested in environmental justice and is passionate about educating and serving historically excluded communities. On campus, Lily is the managing editor of her school paper, The Point News, the secretary of the Student Government Association, and a founder of the Resilience Garden.

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