Let me say up front that sexism in agriculture rarely reaches the Harvey Weinstein level but every profession has its share of people who just don't get it, or simply refuse to get it. Call it the insensitive male's prerogative if you must, or chalk it up to good ol' boys being good ol' boys, but ag has been traditionally dominated by men. Accepting women on an equal footing? Now that might prove to be a tough row to hoe.
But the times, they are a changin' said a poet half a century ago. Let me take you back to a curious thing I noted at the turn of this century (2001). I was writing a series of interviews and noticed the predominant number of emailed 'letters to the editor' commenting on those lengthy stories were from women. Because most of the subscribers to that publication were men, it didn't make sense.
So, I picked up the phone and started calling. Turns out most of those men spent their days out in the fields doing farm work while their wives were in the home office handling the 'business' of farming. They were in charge of the books, buying supplies and communicating with the public. Let's call him the COO and her the CFO/CEO. More and more, women were becoming the real voice of agriculture.
A quick survey of 'agvocates' on social media shows the majority of them are women, too. A review of the actions of women's auxiliary organizations attached to ag associations and how they've evolved shows an inexorable move from the 'tea and cookies' social activities of the mid-twentieth century to today's hand-on policy pursuits.
Of course, there were always outliers like Joann Smith, the first female president of the National Cattleman's Assn. 34 years ago. Strong women like her were newsworthy because of their rarity, though. Now, there are many women taking charge of farms, ranches and trade organizations. Even today, all of them still face sexism; some of it subtle but too much of it is egregious.
One of the most outspoken voices against sexism in agriculture is my friend, Megan Brown. She dislikes the subtle snubs and hates the more obviously dismissive 'little lady' approach some men take. It's the "Now look here, little Missy" approach often attributed to John Wayne.
In her blog (thebeefjar.com), Facebook and other social media, Megan Brown is quick to point out the insidiousness of sexism. She insists on taking her hard-earned place at the head of the table and accepts no disrespect from anyone. Her comments, though, often rile her male counterparts who insist they're not 'like that' or she's reading way too much into their words and actions. So, when I decided to take a serious look at sexism in American agriculture, I called on one of the toughest people I know.
Q. Megan, today's uncomfortable subject is sex, specifically sexism in agriculture. You've often talked about the subject and it usually gets you lots of snarky comments. Let's break things down into some of its parts. Talk to me about sexism in agriculture. How pervasive is it?
A. Sexism is still very much part of the American culture. I mean our very own Vice President of the United States, a man whose job requires him to serve a country where half the people are women, won’t dine alone with a woman that is not his wife. Society is still condoning sexist behavior. It’s no surprise sexism still exists in agriculture, a historically male-dominated industry. Women farmers were not even counted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture until 1978.
The fact that when I do talk about sexism or misogyny in agriculture, I still do get snarky comments or at times even worse, tells me we still have a lot of work to do. I am an educated, white, land-owning woman and I still face backlash when I talk about sexism in agriculture. I can only imagine the hardship women that don't have my privilege face.
While many people claim sexism is getting better in agriculture it is still a widespread problem. As a society we have been indoctrinated to accept some gender roles without question. I think agriculture tends to cling to some of those especially because “it’s how it has always been done” and many of us subscribe to a faith, that on some level, still subordinates women. Some women who have claimed to “never have experienced sexism in agriculture” might not even be aware of what it is or how it affects them because we are so conditioned to it. Patriarchy is strong.
Q. Give me a cogent definition of a new word: ‘mansplaining'.
A. Despite what some people believe, mansplaining has been officially added to Merriam-Webster dictionary. They define it as “to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic.”
Before I knew there was a pop culture term for it, I called it being “Little Ladied.” Usually it entailed a man asking to talk to my dad instead of me, or explaining to me my job, talking over me or not even acknowledging my existence. It was harmful.
Not only did it ebb away at my confidence and make me question my knowledge and experience, sometimes I would physically get hurt. Men would insist I needed their help working with my animals, only to not do it properly which would result in me getting mucked-out. I know my job, my animals know me and interlopers often throw us off.
I think the word mansplaining tends to evoke more of a reaction in people, that’s why it has gotten popular. I have used the word several times on social media and it gets far more attention than using “little ladied” ever did. When I used the word online, certain people have reacted very poorly, hashtags were started, names were called, men asked to speak to my dad. I think they feel like it is a personal attack instead of a behavior. It makes having this difficult conversation even harder when men and some women are so quick to take offense when their poor behavior is rightfully being questioned.
Q. You’re the top hand in a multi-generation ranch. How often do men, and maybe a few women, look past you and direct their questions and comments to your father or any other man in the room? What stops them from recognizing you?
A. I have often had men and women look past me. But, as my confidence as grown, I’ve become much more vocal about my role on the ranch over the years, and made it clear that I am a force to be reckoned with. It has gotten a lot better because I had to have many difficult and awkward conversations and even fired some vendors. However, there are still a few neighbors and such that continue to ask for my dad, even when plainly told he is not who they need to deal with anymore.
To be honest I know I don’t look like your average rancher. I’m blonde, petite and young. When people are typically used to dealing with an elderly male farmer, it can be a whisper shocking. Women like me are still not considered normal within our industry. I try to realize this, and not take things too personally but again it’s 2018, I feel like we should be past this.
Q. I’ve been associated with an organization that recognizes academic achievement in meat sciences and there has been a huge gender shift in the last 20 years. Ten people are honored every year and initially almost all of them were male. Now, the great majority are women. Does this represent a cultural shift that eventually might level the field in agriculture and put men and women on a more even footing?
A. I certainly hope so. As women are becoming more empowered, we are starting to play a bigger role in agriculture. I know we will continue to see more and more women in all aspects of agriculture because it slowly is being normalized.
When I was a little girl I can think of only one or two women that were the 'rancHers' of their operations, now I can think of a bunch of us. Heck there is even a TV show about us. Seeing women gain recognition, receive accolades and even have representation in this industry is key to continuing down this path.
Q. How do you personally handle sexism and do you think it's worse in agriculture than other professions? Maybe it's just pervasive?
A. How I handle sexism has changed as I’ve gotten older and learned more about the topic. When I was younger I was only aware of the really blatant sexism I faced. I tried to not make a big deal out of it because I wanted to be accepted and considered “one of the boys”. But that did nothing to change how I was treated or how I felt. The cycle repeated itself over and over again. The narrative ‘give respect to get it’ doesn’t work when you aren’t even considered an equal to begin with.
As I have learned more about feminism, misogyny and patriarchy my approach evolved because I started seeing how pervasive it is in our ag culture and in society. I started talking about it… a lot. I started calling it out. In certain circles, it has not made me popular. I’ve been called names, blocked, harassed, threatened by my own agricultural peers. While not all of my peers have done this, many have sat complicitly by when it has been done. Again, a big problem we need to tackle.
Many people have told me talking about sexism, especially on social media, is not appropriate. That we need to “not see gender or labels”. I think that is a form of policing in an attempt to control. Social media gives us a voice. It gives us a platform. If I can’t talk about inequality and sexism online, where can I talk about it that will give me an equal platform? Where is the appropriate place to challenge the status quo?
I have learned that this topic makes many people deeply uncomfortable and because of that many people will make it personal and hurtful.
Q. Suggestions, please. How should women handle sexism?
A. It’s not something that just women should have to handle. It is not the job of the marginalized individual or group to educate the masses. We live in a world where information is at our fingertips, we have the resources to educate ourselves. Men need to be aware and actively engage as well. Sexism has a lot to do with power. And people with power do not like to easily give that up.
But I will say internal misogyny is very much alive and well within agriculture and society on a whole. That is something that women can handle and we need to start recognizing. It is hard to break these ideologies that have been around for thousands of years, but change will not happen unless we start it.
I think many of us need to focus on being better allies rather than telling activists how to tell their story. If a woman says there is a problem, believe her. Ask how you can help. Do not dismiss her experience. I think the quote by Margaret Atwood is an eye-opening snapshot of how a lot of people feel: “Women are afraid to speak up because we get killed, men are afraid because they get laughed at.”