Gender roles in agriculture

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Gender roles in agriculture are a frequent subject of study by sociologists and farm economists. Historians also study them, as they are important in understanding the social structure of agrarian, and even industrial, societies.

North America[edit]

United States[edit]

The "classical" farm gender roles in the United States, although varying somewhat from region to region, were generally based on a division of labor in which men participated in "field" tasks (animal care, plowing, harvesting crops, using farm machinery, etc.), while most women participated primarily in "farmhouse" tasks (preparing and preserving food and feedstuffs, and maintaining the farm compound).

According to agro-historian Jane Adams, the middle 20th century brought a change in which the centralization of agriculture eliminated many of the tasks considered part of the "female" role. This changed the perception of women from being active "housekeepers" to passive "homemakers". Some began working off the farm, or joined their husbands in fieldwork, but the majority, per Dr. Adams, simply became more like urban housewives. This trend continued until the 1980s farm crisis, in which economic downturns obliged many of them to take jobs off-farm.


Gender roles in Canadian agriculture futhi to the region and community.

Alberta, and particularly Southern Alberta, has traditionally had highly defined gender roles similar to the late 19th-century United States. Men worked together and women worked together, but there were few tasks in which both men and women participated together. On most Alberta farms up until the 1970s, decisions about matters such as planning and insurance were done by fiat of the husband, rather than by joint venture of husband and wife. Some writers have considered Alberta's highly gendered division of farm life to be not only inefficient from an agricultural standpoint, but deleterious to the integrity of marriage relationships as well.

In the agricultural tradition of Central Canada there is an emphasis on conjugal (husband-and-wife) collaboration. Major decisions are normally made together, with each spouse having equal decisive power. When extended families live and farm together, couples within the extended family are considered as working "units". This style of family farm management is rather common in the rest of Canada as well.

Quebec agriculture is based on the historic seigneurial system, vestiges of which exist today in the organized district system. Gender roles are sometimes more pronounced in areas where the Catholic influence is strong.

In Southern Ontario the history of agricultural gender roles parallels that of the U.S.A. almost precisely.

Besides these regional generalities, traditions vary among different ethnic and religious communities, such as First Nations (aboriginal), Anabaptist, or historic immigrant settlements.

Across Canada, and also in the United States, the assignment of roles tends to be more egalitarian on organic and Certified Naturally Grown farms than on "conventional" ones.


C.I.S. (former U.S.S.R.)[edit]

Agricultural society in what is now the C.I.S. goes back thousands of years, and entails numerous distinct cultures. Slavonic-speaking societies tended to follow the general Indo-European pattern of patrilineality, passing down property and rights from father to son. In agriculture this meant land and livestock. The gender roles on the farm presumed that the farm and all its contents belonged to the father or grandfather. Uralic-speaking societies, on the other hand, had a relatively egalitarian system in which land was considered to be the domain of a larger extended family or folk group, without rigid boundaries between individual homesteads. Division of labour was not rigid, and spouses often worked alongside each other, or helped each other with various tasks.

During the Russian Empire period, Slavonic patriarchy was emphasized and promoted to a greater extent across the board. This was especially the case in southern and central Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries, where every farmer or farm labourer was considered to hold a position in the feudal hierarchy of the Empire, until this system was modified in the later 19th century. Men were the official landowners and decision-makers, though women often had a significant amount of unofficial influence in decision-making (on the free peasant farmsteads).

In the years leading up to the Revolution, as the remnants of feudalism disintegrated, many Russian farm families joined artels (артели), or cooperatives. The cooperatives practised (at least in theory) equal consideration of men's and women's opinions in making collective decisions, which was a sharp contrast to the feudal method. Moreover, as the Empire became more connected by rail and road, the rural residents of central and southern Russia gained knowledge of Uralic-based farm operation systems (which had survived in the north and east). These northern and eastern traditions contributed to the emerging cooperative practices.

After the Revolution, the government was initially supportive toward the artel movement (since it is "collectivist"). When the Stalinist government took power, however, many of the artels were superseded by state farm units (sovkhozy or Совхоэӣ) under control of the central government. The effect on gender roles varied: workers of both sexes were assigned to do similar tasks, but managers and overseers were mostly male, though there was no fixed rule or custom that established this as absolute. Fieldworkers often worked in mixed-gender teams, though in the Caucasian and Middle Asian republics an informal segregation by sex was maintained, following local (and ultimately Islamic) traditions. Throughout the Union, state-farm administrators tended to have little regard for marital relationships: marriage was considered part of the workers' personal lives, which needed not enter into the world of economic labour. Children born or conceived on a state farm were considered "bound" to it, in a concept lent from feudalism.

Later governments, from Krushchev's onward, eased the central control of farms, though certain republics (such as Tajikistan) took up this control into their own state governments, and retain much of it even to this day.

With the 1960s loosening of central administration over agriculture, the cooperative system became once again the main system of large-scale farmland operations in much of the U.S.S.R. This condition has remained ever since, with only minor changes.

Where small and extended family farms exist in the C.I.S., consensus is often a major mode of decision-making, and cooperation a major mode of work. On collective farms as well, conjugal collaboration is a respected and encouraged part of the overall dynamic, and couples often work as units within the larger framework. Exceptions include the Chechenya/Dagestan/Naxcivan region, where all areas of life are highly sex-segregated, and marriage is often an arranged contract by the parents.


Finnish agriculture tends to follow a modern form of what is recognizably the Uralic system, though the influence of western Europe (particularly in Finland's west half) has brought a greater consciousness of private property. Conjugal collaboration and joint venture are major characteristics of the Finnish farming tradition.

Latin America[edit]


In Mexico, the most important crop has been and still is maize. It is the main ingredient in tortillas, which is a staple in Mexican cuisine.[1] Additionally, for many Mexicans, especially those living in rural farming communities, maize symbolizes the origin of life. Women, therefore, are usually the ones responsible for tending the maize crops, although it is not unusual for a man to farm the maize.[2]

Although women have traditionally been responsible for the entire tortilla process, from farming the maize to grinding the maize into flour and cooking the tortillas, this takes a substantial amount of time. Because of this, recently some women have been purchasing bags of tortilla flour or even pre-made tortillas in local markets to better fit their busy lifestyle.[3] This has been controversial among individuals living in rural communities, as many people see the tortilla making process as having high importance in the traditions of their culture.[4]

Another recent controversy in Mexico has to do with the type of maize being grown and consumed. Maíz criollo, or landrace maize, is the most common type of maize grown in Mexico, although recently genetically modified crops are becoming more widespread. In a focus group meeting conducted among Mexican farmers, the men tended to feel that the genetically modified maize was better, as it was easier to farm, while the women tended to say that the landrace maize was better because it was more nutritional and better tasting than the genetically modified maize.[5]


In Brazil, large plantations and fincas are often worked by several families. Fieldwork is a large portion of the workers' time, in the case both of men and of women.

In areas of more scattered agriculture, running water is often unavailable. It is usually women who must carry large water containers home from the stream or well in these cases, even though it is men who usually lift most other heavy loads on the Brazilian ranch, such as harvest sacks.

Among inland indigenous peoples, varying forms of the pan-Amazonian (or pan-Amazon-basin) gender role construct are seen. In these societies, especially those in which polygynous marriage has been practiced, the family unit is considered on two levels, the matrifocal and the patrifocal. Crop plots are owned by the brothers of any patrifocal family collectively; thus, if a man plants a field of any crop, all of his brothers and paternal half-brothers are considered to automatically own an equal share of the harvest.[6]

Chile and Argentina[edit]

Agriculture is varied but consists largely of ranching activity. There is very little emphasis on gender roles in Argentina and Chile, compared to the rest of South America. Names for most agricultural "job descriptions" and individual roles are gender-neutral, with only the final letter changing according to the sex of the individual. The @ symbol is sometimes used, in lieu of either "o" or "a", to describe the general occupation without specifying gender, as in Buscamos puester@s para... (as might be written in a help-wanted poster).


  1. ^ Maize diversity and gender: research from Mexico
  2. ^ "Si No Comemos Tortilla, No Vivimos:” Women, Climate Change, and Food Security in Central Mexico
  3. ^ Maize diversity and gender: research from Mexico
  4. ^ Maize diversity and gender: research from Mexico
  5. ^ Maize diversity and gender: research from Mexico
  6. ^ Chagnon, N. 1972
  • The Farm Journal's Discourse of Farm Women's Femininity. Adams, Jane. Southern Illinois University.
  • The Home and Farm Manual, Jonathan Periam, Commissioner of USDA, pub. 1884, reprinted 1984.
  • "Si No Comemos Tortilla, No Vivimos:” Women, Climate Change, and Food Security in Central Mexico. Bee, Beth A. Agriculture and Human Values 31.4 (2014): 607-20. Web.
  • Maize Diversity and Gender: Research from Mexico. Hellin, Jon, Alder Keleman, and Mauricio Bellon. Gender & Development 18.3 (2010): 427-37. Web.

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