Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

"I Wanna Have My Own Damn Dairy Farm!": Women Farmers, Legibility, and Femininities in Rural Wisconsin, U.S.*

Academic journal article Journal of Rural Social Sciences

"I Wanna Have My Own Damn Dairy Farm!": Women Farmers, Legibility, and Femininities in Rural Wisconsin, U.S.*

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The number of women farming in the United States continues to climb, even as the number of farms has been relatively stable in recent years. Nevertheless, women often face an uphill battle in asserting themselves as farmers, particularly if they are living and working in communities in which masculinities and femininities have been shaped over time by the gendered symbolic categories of farmer and farm wife. In light of the discursive power of the title of farmer this article examines women's pathways into farming to ask: 1) To what extent do women encounter difficulties in being legible as farmers, and how do they manage these difficulties?; and 2) How do women farmers reshape rural femininity in being recognized as farmers? Drawing on interviews and ethnographic data from 12 Wisconsin women farmers, this article shows that many women farming sustainably and conventionally faced considerable obstacles at the institutional, interactional, and symbolic levels of the gender system as they attempted to be recognized as farmers; managing these difficulties through persistence. Some women contested the gender regime of farming by constructing an alternative rural femininity through insisting on the title of farmer, drawing on the symbolism of hegemonic rural femininity and masculinity in the process.

A major U.S. Department of Agriculture court case involving discrimination against women farmers, Love v. Vilsack, is coming to a close after nearly 15 years. As an alternative to litigation, women and Hispanic farmers and ranchers who believed they had been discriminated against by the USDA based on gender or race were invited in September 2012 to submit claims to the government agency, which had announced it would provide a settlement of at least $1.33 billion to eligible farmers (USDA 2012a).1 Plaintiffs alleged that discrimination had occurred at local USDA offices, where farmers inquired about loan programs but were systematically denied application forms and loans, or experienced other types discrimination based on their gender or race. Government representatives did not "read" women and racial minorities as farmers. As such, Love v. Vilsack centered on the politics of legibility-the ability to be socially recognized and "seen"-at the state level, in this case, at the local offices of an arm of the state. Considering the systematic nature of this discrimination at the local level, we must understand other kinds of obstacles women farmers face in being recognized as farmers in the communities where they live and work.

This article traces women's pathways into agriculture to understand the importance of gender in being recognized as a farmer. The number of women farmers who are principal operators in the United States continues to climb, increasing by 46 percent from 1997 to 2007 (USDA 1999; USDA 2011a).2 This change has occurred as the number of farms remains somewhat stable in recent years compared with larger shifts in the past, though the number of small-acreage farms has increased and large-acreage farms have become even larger and more profitable (Hoppe and Banker 2010). Simultaneously consumer demand for organic foods, the number of organic farms, and the popularity of farmers' markets have increased dramatically (Greene 2013). Farms in the smaller sales class with operators reporting farming as their principal occupation are more likely to adopt organic practices than other operations (Bagi 2013). Despite these structural shifts, women, whether they farm using sustainable or conventional methods, often face an uphill battle in asserting themselves as farmers; particularly if they are living and working in communities in which masculinity and femininity have been shaped over time by the gendered symbolic categories of farmer and farm wife. An emerging literature has paved the way for analyzing rural masculinity, yet the same cannot be said for femininity. Although gender sociologists with non-rural interests have begun to analyze multiple femininities (e. …

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