Farm Women; Farm Crisis

By MacDonald, Kathryn | Canadian Dimension, October 1990 | Go to article overview

Farm Women; Farm Crisis


MacDonald, Kathryn, Canadian Dimension


FARM WOMEN> FARM CRISIS Farm women have always laboured -- in the field, with livestock, kepping books and other administrative responsibilities, running errands and feeding work crews, in addition to raising children and doing domestic duty -- without pay. Many women continue these responsibilities and have added off-farm employment in order to subsidize the farm. Because the farm man usually claims the role of "operator," the farm women's contributions go unacknowledged in any compilation of statistics, resulting in a misrepresentation of women's contributions.

Farm women's work has always been invisible. The prairie suffragette, Nellie McClug, wrote in her memoir: "On the farms before electricity and labour-saving devices lightened their loads, women's work obsessed them. Their hours were endless, their duties imperative. Many broke under the strain and died, and their places were filled without undue delay. Some man's sister or sister-in-law came from Ontario to take the dead women's place. Country cemeteries bear grim witness to the high morality rate in young women."

Dust storms and Depression created even greater hardship for farm families and considerable burden fell on the shoulders of farm women. The Second World Ward saw an exodus from the farms as parochial boys went off to the "great adventure," frequently returning to their farm homes with immigrant brides who were as ill-equipped as their pioneer sisters had been for the physical demands and alienating experience of rural life.

Off-farm work

In important respects, not much has changed for farm women. According to the 1989 Statistics Canada release, the income of farm families, when averaged, is 100 to 110 per cent of that of other Canadians. The figure is misleading. It refers to gross income -- income before expenses, such as land, equipment and production costs. Farm "income" is about equal to that of all Canadians primarily because of off-farm income, not as a result of a fair return on farm labour.

I resent very much the fact that off-farm income has, in so many cases, become essential to keeping the farm afloat. I resent the fact that off-farm income must subsidize the farm and in turn the manufacturing and consumer sectors of Canadian society. If the farm wife and/or the farm husband work off the farm in addition ot farming, if farm children contribute labour in the form of regular chores or seasonal work, we not only compound the overall persons hours of work but we add the appalling element of unpaid/unacknowledged labour.

Geoffrey York, in a Globe and Mail article, "Farm wives' other lives," notes that "it is women who are sustaining prairie farms... Many of the women are juggling three difficult responsibilities: They work at a job during the day, they work on the farm during the evening, and they stay up until midnight doing the housework... The pressures on farm wives are likely to continue and increase, as some experts are predicting that the majority of prairie farms will become part-time operations, supported largely by off-farm employment."

And in an editorial in The Whig-Standard, community editorial board member Helen Forsey says: "Rural Canada is dying. The most dramatic events marking this trend...hit the news briefly and then fade to the back pages. Urban people, caught up in their own pressing problems, can hardly be blamed for failing to notice the ever-deepening crisis in our food system. But it is a crisis that affects us all, and this decade will be a decisive one in determining whether our children will have food to eat by the time they reach adulthood."

The question of food security is not the only one which unites rural and urban people. Women share another bond. "As farm women in Canada," says Nettie Wiebe in the National Farmers Union publication Weaving New Ways: Farm Women Organizing, "we share with out urban counterparts the economic and social disadvantages of being women in a patriarchal society: fewer job opportunities, lower wages for the jobs we do and the danger of being physically harrassed and abused either at home or out there. …

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