I think about agriculture and gender* a lot. I mean, obviously: I spent over a year on one paper about female farmers and sustainable/alternative agriculture, and that was a while before I became a woman involved in sustainable/alternative agriculture.
The academic and the personal, agriculture and gender all slapped me in the face today as Ben and I pitched leaves onto a compost pile. Ben explained to me a better way to hold the pitchfork and told me to grasp it like a baseball bat—when I fumbled to do so, I laughed and said, “I’m a girl—I don’t think I’ve ever actually held a baseball bat.” One little throwaway statement, one lesson in compost, and I was struck again by how thoroughly my sex and gender have shaped my experience of the world. The knowledge and skills I have accrued, the ways I’ve been told or not told to use my body.
I thought I knew what to expect when it came to being a woman who farms. I grin through interactions with men who condescend to me at the farm supply and hardware stores cause the truth is I don’t always know what I’m looking for (but it has little to do with my sex). I accept that I’ve limited my dating pool because I often ape machismo—bragging about the weight I’ve put on in muscle and eating like a horse (except I eat WAY better than any horses I know, and I’m slightly more likely to sleep in a house)—but I don’t think I want to date anyone who doesn’t accept my horsey tendencies, anyway. And I drive a pick-up truck and cuss like a sailor (sorry, B&P), another couple of blows to any hope my family had of me growing up into a nice, normal, feminine female.
Even so, every time I turn around there’s another construction of gender in which I’m cheerfully participating. I think I have the luxury of rejecting the feminine when it isn’t convenient and only putting on its trappings when I want to have my “female and feminine” status accepted and affirmed in public, but it’s not that simple. I put on make-up and nicer clothes to go to market on Saturdays (but always stuff that can get dirty in a pinch and always wearing my trusty shit-kicking work boots) because I might feel perfectly confident on the farm when I’m wearing sweat and grime and a bandana but I don’t feel charming and outgoing and talkative until I fill the part of being a girl—brushed my hair and carefully applied mascara and shiny earrings.
All those complications, ladies and gentleman and everyone in between, and I haven’t even started in on the really messy, miserable question of who is “the farmer” and whose work “counts” as farm work—the outdoor work which directly earns cash money or the endless labor of the home which makes that outdoor work both possible and profitable? Try telling Patricia her work doesn’t “count”—the hours she puts into the website and Facebook and accounting and e mails and planning with Ben, that the physical and emotional and creative labor she puts into feeding us and caring for Elliott is less important or even less difficult than the work done outside**.
There’s absolutely no way this farm—or most farms—could function without someone providing for the “reproductive” work, but it’s women’s work, it doesn’t result directly in cash, and as far as the USDA and our society are concerned, it’s not “real” work.
I wonder if the seductive pull of that idea—outside work is real farm work, domestic work is superfluous—is why it’s so comfortable to ape masculinity when I’m on the farm. “Legitimate work is masculine work, so I will be masculine”—even though I don’t believe that, and Patricia and Ben and I talk frequently about the value of domestic work, and it’s incredibly important to me that I both acknowledge the value of that domestic work and remain just as willing to do the domestic work so that Patricia can spend time outside.
There’s no conclusion here, no sappy platitude. Just a snarled up mess of thoughts which will find their way into future blogs, I’m sure.
*ACADEMIC CRASH COURSE! Gender=behavior (how you act feminine or masculine), and sex=biology (what parts you have; your label of male or female). They’re very much related, but they are not, according to sociologists, interchangeable concepts.
**Go ahead and try. She’ll punch you in the nose, and I’ll glare at you and then write a blog about it.