Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The first women farmers in the Great Plains were Native Americans who grew corn, beans, and other crops. Mandan and Hidatsa women who lived near the Missouri River in the Northern Plains, and Pawnee women along the Platte River, tended gardens and controlled the distribution of the crops. A surplus of corn contributed to the creation of trade centers near agricultural villages in the Plains. Though the wars of the late nineteenth century and reservation life contributed to the loss of this important economic role for Indian women, some continued to farm in the twentieth century.

Non-Native women who farmed the Plains, usually with husbands and children, provided labor or management skills for field crops as well as a small, stable income from barnyard and garden surpluses. Women's work in the wheat fields of the Plains was necessary during the early years of settlement, though most American families and some immigrant cultures considered it a temporary departure from desirable gender arrangements. Women plowed, planted, shocked, and pitched wheat bundles, hoed sugar beets, made hay, and hauled rocks out of the fields. Rarely did women have the opportunity to operate early threshing machinery, but they did operate tractors and trucks as soon as those machines became common in the Plains. Some women preferred fieldwork to housework, but others were glad to have their growing children take over in the fields so that they could return to the house, where they generally asserted authority.

Housework, however, cannot be distinguished from farm work. Farm women housed, fed, and cleaned up after hired helpers. In the days before combines, a farm woman who fed the threshing crew, often with the help of neighboring women working in an informal labor-exchange system, reduced the per bushel costs of threshing. Even farm women who did not work in the fields or feed hired help had to arrange their work around the daily and seasonal demands of the farm.

Farmyard work, routine for women until 1945, consisted of planting and tending vegetable gardens, raising chickens for meat or eggs, milking a few cows, separating the cream, and churning butter. In many farm homes these products served family needs as well as provided a surplus for trade at the nearest store. While the income from these commodities was relatively small, it was a reliable source of cash when the field crops failed (a common event on Plains wheat farms) or when crop prices were low.

Women on Great Plains farms apparently felt a greater need for this income than farm women in other parts of the United States, because they raised more chickens per farm and increased poultry production at a greater rate than the U.S. average between 1910 and 1930. They also were more likely to churn butter in the mid-1920s than were farm women elsewhere in the country, who by then were selling milk or cream to commercial creameries. These activities, vestiges of a frontier economy, continued to be economically useful to Great Plains farm families during the Depression. Farms where women continued to pursue productive activities tended to be more prosperous than others and more likely to enjoy continuity of ownership.

Women in the Great Plains also had more children than women in most other parts of the United States. Only the South had consistently higher birthrates than the Great Plains. Though data were collected only irregularly until the 1930s, where figures are available the birthrate tends to be higher in Plains states than in the nation as a whole and for the national rural population specifically. Cultural traditions of many of the Plains ethnic groups probably accounted for some of the tendency toward large families, but large farms requiring a lot of labor and the availability of inexpensive land were contributing factors. With large families, Plains farm women had more housework and greater need for home gardens and poultry and dairy products, but they also more hands to help with the workload.

Plains farm women did not allow distance and cultural differences to interfere with their social interests and obligations. Women organized Ladies Aid societies in rural communities, often before the organization of the church congregation. Rural Ladies Aids served as the social and political center of rural communities, with whole families attending meetings, especially during winter months, and whole communities attending Ladies Aid. sponsored celebrations. Before automobiles were available, women walked, drove wagons, or used farm equipment and draft stock to get to meetings.

Plains farm women sought to improve their economic situation as well as to foster social relationships through organizations such as the Grange, the Farmers Alliance, Farmers Institutes, and the County Extension Service. Though women rarely took a leading role in these organizations (though since the 1980s, the Extension Service has seen more female leadership), they did provide a platform from which women could challenge the notion that farmers were always men and assert their own ideas about women's roles on farms as wives, producers, and operators.

If widowed, farm women often found themselves operating the farms they had previously shared with their husbands. In 1900 farming ranked sixth in a national list of employment for women. However, in the Northern Plains, farming was the second most important job category for foreign-born women. Most of these women were widows past the age of forty.

After World War I the Extension Service encouraged women to give up farmwork and concentrate on housework and child care. After World War II, many women sought off- farm work. In recent years there is a trend toward women becoming actively involved in farming once again.

Barbara Handy-Marchello University of North Dakota

Handy-Marchello, Barbara. "The Main Stay: Women's Productive Work on Pioneer Farms." North Dakota History 63 (1996): 17-27.

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

Wilson, Gilbert, ed. Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

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