Auntie Em did the laundry and the cooking, and was referred to as a “farm wife.” But farm women today bristle at that term. Now farm women consider themselves farmers, too. And well they should: They manage and care for calves, milk and feed the cows, take charge of farm finances, and do artificial insemination. They also have a much larger role in decision-making than economists give them credit for. Until agricultural economist Lydia Zepeda did her research, all the economic models of technology adoption assumed that farms had one decision-maker, typically the male head of the household.
“What I found was women involved in every task on the farm except crops and machinery,” said Zepeda, professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison”s School of Human Ecology. Zepeda”s observations were drawn from two studies of Wisconsin dairy farmers. In the first, she surveyed 600 couples to determine how men and women spent their time and made decisions. In the second, she interviewed 19 couples from the survey in four focus groups, separating men and women. She asked all participants to describe a long-term decision they had made about the farm, and to imagine what they”d do if they had an extra $500 per month.
Zepeda”s survey, which was supported by the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, revealed not only that women have undertaken a diversity of tasks, but also that they spend longer hours at work than men do. Women spent 61 percent of the day doing the combination of farm work, housework and off-farm work, while men spent 55 percent of the day in those jobs. For both men and women, the rest of their day was devoted to sleep, personal care and leisure activities.
Men said they spent 45 percent of their day on farm work, two percent on off-farm work and eight percent on housework. Women spent 21 percent of the day on farm work, 11 percent on off-farm work and 29 percent on housework. Some of the women worked 40 hours a week off the farm.
Women”s off-farm work not only helped provide benefits, but also gave the women a sense of pride. “It gives them a better bargaining chip,” Zepeda said. “Naturally they have more clout with money.”
What do they do with that bargaining chip? They use it to expand their role in making decisions. Some women said that when they were children, there might have been only one decision-maker on the farm, typically the father or grandfather. Now, couples tend to make long-term decisions together, while the spouse who performs a daily activity makes the decisions about that activity on a day-to-day basis.
One man said, “On a major decision, we both make the decision. But I don”t consult her on what bulls I”m going to use, and she doesn”t consult me when it comes to raising the calves. If she sees a sick calf, she doesn”t have to check it out with me before she takes care of it, you know.”
Similarly, a woman said, “I do most of the stuff with the cows, and I basically make our decisions there. The crop stuff, he basically takes care of that.”
On the other hand, a man recalled a major mistake he”d made early in his marriage. He and his wife had been discussing another site for their double-wide mobile home, but hadn”t come to a decision yet. One day when she was at work, he just decided to move it. The other farm men in the focus group shook their heads and asked him, “How could you have done that?” And that, in stronger terms, was exactly what his wife asked once she found the home.
Both men and women in the focus groups stressed the need to have common goals and share decision-making. Men, however, thought their wives had equal roles in making decisions. Women weren”t as convinced. Some women thought their role was to approve decisions their husbands had made. Others laughed as they mentioned manipulating their husbands into making decisions. One woman said, “I think sometimes you have to push a little here and there, let them think it”s their decision.”
Zepeda”s focus groups showed that women make decisions about milking and caring for calves, while men made decisions about feed. The survey found the men responsible for most of the decisions about crops, pastures and feeding. On the other hand, the survey found that women made most of the decisions about child care, their own off-farm work and family leisure time.
As for the budget, most people said it was either a joint decision or a woman”s decision. Most farmers now own computers for financial records. “The women knew more than their husbands did about computers,” Zepeda said. The men knew how much debt they carried, but because women did most of the bill-paying and shopping, they knew how it affected purchasing decisions on a day-to-day basis, Zepeda said.
While farm women may not be recognized off the farm as farmers yet, at least their husbands express appreciation for them. Zepeda said she was moved by the way farm men talked about how much their wives meant to them. One man said, “When I got out of the service in ”58 the first thing I did was find a wife. It didn”t take long. That was the best decision I ever made.”