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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
Rural Women's Activism
Women have long played an important role on the farm, whether it is through work in the home, preparing or preserving food, childrearing, raising vegetable gardens, tending chickens, laboring in the fields alongside their husbands, or working outside the home to provide financial support. Because of this, many women believed that they shared an equal stake in the success of the family farm, and they eagerly joined clubs, organizations, churches, and social groups to address important issues in their communities, governments, and in agriculture overall.

During the 1890s, for example, when Western wheat farmers faced an economic depression, many farm families responded by becoming active in the Farmer's Alliance, or the Populist Party. Populists addressed issues associated with the high cost of transporting agricultural goods, inflation, political representation, and land reform. Two women, Luna Kellie of Nebraska and Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas, both became prominent members of the Farmers Alliance and the Populist Party. They worked to organize their communities, write songs, publish articles, and speak out for farmers. Lease, an accomplished orator, is best remembered for demanding that farmers "raise less corn and more hell."

Most rural women activists have not been so outspoken, however, and primarily joined local clubs, churches, and organizations. For many women during the nineteenth and twentieth century, it was easier to address political concerns through women's organizations rather than in the male-dominated electoral arena and political parties.

During the 1920s, when the women's club movement encouraged volunteerism and community service across the country, more and more rural women joined local "homemakers" clubs. This was one specific way women contributed to rural organizations throughout the twentieth century, without challenging male leadership or conceptions of femininity. As part of the Extension Service programming, homemakers clubs played a special role in bringing rural women together for socializing and learning, as well as new opportunities to learn leadership skills. For some women, this provided a chance to work their way up to leadership positions at the state and national levels. One such woman was Ruth Buxton Sayer, who served as the president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation Women's Committee from 1937 to 1948, then went on to serve as the president of the Associated Country Women of the World.

Throughout this time, a few rural women also served as legislators and addressed agricultural and rural issues within the government. During the 1950s, for example, Gladys Nelson was a representative from Jasper County, Iowa, who fought to legalize yellow oleomargarine in Iowa. This seemingly insignificant issue had the support of the American Soybean Association, brought protests from dairy farmers, and fueled debates among legislators.

Overall, rural women chose to act upon issues that had relevance to their daily lives. Though a few joined more radical organizations, such as the National Farmer's Organization (NFO), most joined homemakers and women's clubs as means to ease rural isolation and learn new skills that would enhance their abilities as homemakers.

As American society changed, so did some rural women's expectations of political organizations. By the 1970s and 1980s, a few women felt compelled to find a new voice in recently established, more liberal, female-led groups. Some of these included Women in Farm Economics (WIFE) and the American Agri-Women.

When economic crisis threatened their way of life in the 1980s, many women who had not previously sought leadership positions in traditional organizations shifted their focus to saving their farms and their families from financial ruin. Women led lobbying groups to Washington, D.C., organized crisis hotlines, set up mental health counseling centers, and gave speeches to farm groups. Over 150 new rural organizations appeared in the first five years of the farm crisis, many of which were local groups based on the efforts of women to save their family farms.

Jenny Barker-Devine


Fink, Deborah. Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change. Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1986.

Friedberger, Mark. "Women Advocates in the Iowa Farm Crisis of the 1980s."
American Rural Farm Women
, ed. Joan M. Jensen and Nancy Grey Osterud. Washington, D.C.: Agricultural History Society, University of California Press, 1994.

Jellison, Katherine.
Entitled to Power: Farm Women and Technology, 1913-1963.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Jones, LuAnn.
Mamma Learned Us to Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2002.

McDonald, Julie.
Ruth Buxton Sayre: First Lady of the Farm. Ames: Iowa State
University Press, 1980.

Miller, Lorna Clancy and Mary Neth. "Farm Women in the Political Arena."
In Women
and Farming: Changing Roles, Changing Structures
, ed. Wava G. Haney and Jane B. Knowles. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988.

Nelsen, Jane Taylor, ed.
A Prairie Populist: The Memoirs of Luna Kellie. Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Neth, Mary. "Building the Base: Farm Women and the Rural Community and Farm
Organizations in the Midwest, 1900-1940," in
Women and Farming: Changing Roles, Changing Structures, ed. Wava G. Haney and Jane B. Knowles. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988.

Neth, Mary.
Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Osterud, Nancy Grey.
Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth Century New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Rosenfeld, Rachael Ann. "Community and Farm Voluntary Organizations and Political
In Farm Women: Work, Farm, and Family in the United States. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Schenken, Suzanne O'Dea.
Legislators and Politicians: Iowa's Women Law Makers.
Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995.

Schwieder, Dorothy. "Changing Times: Iowa Farm Women and Home Economics
Cooperative Extension in the 1920s and 1950s."
Midwestern Women: Work, community, and Leadership at the Crossroads, eds. Lucy Eldersveld Murphy and
Wendy Hamand Venet. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1997): 204-222.