Jenny Barker Devine, author of On Behalf of the Family Farm: Iowa Farm Women’s Activism since 1945, is an assistant professor of history at Illinois College.
1. How did you get interested in farm women’s political activism?
Looking back, it was a pretty unlikely topic for me. I actually grew up in town and my last relatives to live on farms were my great-grandmothers—both of whom left in the 1920s. My first exposure to the topic was as a college senior, when I interviewed ten farm women about their experiences during the Second World War. Those women, with a really strong self-identification as workers, inspired me to entirely rethink what I had learned about feminism in women’s history courses. They were more interesting to me than urban wage-earning women because on a farm you negotiate work roles and economic resources with a husband or other family members, rather than a boss. The social and family dynamics involved are still incredibly fascinating to me.
2. Why focus on the decades after 1945?
When I first started this research, there was a wonderful literature on activism before 1945 as well as activism during the farm crisis of the 1980s. I was curious to know what happened between those years. Scholars of the farm crisis asserted that women’s activism was something new, but I had this hunch that it was actually quite old. I wanted to know what happened as the dramatic changes related to mechanization were actually unfolding, and how those changes affected farm women and their perceptions of appropriate roles on the farm.
3. You argue that the Iowa farm women who participated in the Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, the National Farm Organization, and the Porkettes in the 1950s and 1960s were feminists, even though they probably wouldn’t have called themselves that. Why do you think this is so?
In my line of work, as an academic who studies and teaches about gender issues, saying “I am a feminist” is an asset that enhances my credibility in scholarly circles. But this is not true everywhere, and even in 2013 identifying as a feminist carries certain risks. Depending on the crowd, you risk being ostracized as a disruptive, anti-male, anti-family radical. For women working to better conditions in the countryside, feminism wasn’t the primary issue. They saw improving women’s lives as one part of a much larger whole, so they drew from and developed feminist strategies, but standing up and publicly proclaiming one’s feminism was not a priority. This is not to say the women in these organizations wanted to identify but were too fearful. It simply wasn’t rhetorically necessary for them or their success as a group.