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
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
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.
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