When my grandmother, Mary Guenther, was 30 years old, her life changed drastically.
Mary and her husband, Chuck, were ranching south of Maple Creek, Sask., and raising six kids. In 1959, Chuck’s tractor rolled, killing him, and Mary was widowed. But instead of giving up and moving to town, she kept on ranching.
My grandmother was interviewed several years ago for an anthology called A Voice of Her Own. The book includes interviews with western Canadian ranch women. It should be required reading for anyone who thinks agriculture is solely a man’s world. It’s certainly not today, and it wasn’t 50 years ago, either.
Farming and ranching have always been family affairs. As my grandmother put it, “women on farms and ranches have always done what needed to be done.” In her day, that meant working in the fields, milking cows, cooking for threshing crews and driving teams.
Today’s farm women are just as busy I’m sure, running combines and pulling calves. Others might hold an off-farm job, all while managing farm finances, gardening, cooking, volunteering, caring for elderly parents and doing a good chunk of the child care.
But for years Statistics Canada’s data collection methods excluded most married farm women from being counted. Before 1991, each farm could only report one farm operator. So with the exception of widowed women or the rare single female farmer, the stats ignored women who shared in the daily farming decisions.
This is a shame, because although the gender split isn’t even, it’s not as skewed as people might think, either.
In 2011, 27 per cent of farm operators were women, according to Statistics Canada. That’s over 80,000 female farmers. Most were on farms with two operators or more, but 10,740 were sole operators. These percentages have held steady since 2001, when women made up just over 26 per cent of farm operators in Canada. And the farm women who don’t see themselves as operators make important contributions, too. Family farms are usually partnerships, not solo acts.
Then, of course, we have the women working in other areas of the ag sector, in everything from plant breeding to finance.
No double standards
I don’t remember my grandmother complaining much about anything, including her own experiences of discrimination. I know she had good friends. In the book she mentions her neighbours, Lloyd and Irene Coleman, as supportive. And I’m sure there were others.
But not everyone liked what she was up to. In the book, she noted her father warned her that hired men wouldn’t like working for a woman. “Some of them I remember very fondly and some I don’t,” my grandmother said.
Not much stopped her, though. She persisted on that ranch, which one local has told me was probably the windiest spot in the Cypress Hills. She embarrassed her mother and mother-in-law by writing pro-choice letters to Chatelaine. She raised her family as she saw fit, and that meant no double standards for her five sons and one daughter.
“If I wasn’t going to make the boys do dishes, I didn’t make her do dishes. If the boys were going riding, she went riding,” she said. “I felt right from the start that my daughter was going to have to look after herself just as well as any of the boys, and there wasn’t very much her brothers ever did that she couldn’t.”
My grandmother was born just when things were really starting to change for Canadian women. Some women had gotten the vote about a decade earlier, my grandmother pointed out in the book. Emily Murphy was declared a person by the British courts a year before my grandma’s birth.
And my grandmother took full advantage of the opportunities those early feminists gave her generation. She went to RM meetings, even though she was the only woman there at first. She was membership chairman of the Shaunavon constituency in the 60s. When the boundaries changed, she became president of the Maple Creek constituency. She served on the SaskTel board of directors.
Things have changed since my grandmother was a young woman. Although it would be nice to see a few more female faces on some boards, it’s not unusual for women to hold leadership positions these days. And though some might view the typical farmer as a man in overalls holding a pitch-fork, most of us in the industry understand this isn’t an accurate picture.
My own experiences in agriculture have been generally positive, too. I’ve heard others say one of the best things about this industry is the people, and I agree. For me, sexual harassment on the job has been rare since my early 20s, and nothing as severe as we read about in the media.
But I don’t want to pretend we live in a utopia, either. Sexism and violence still exist in Canadian society, and it must still happen in our industry as well. An Angus Reid survey reported a million Canadians — mostly women — reported being sexually harassed at work between 2012 and 2014, according to the Toronto Star. A 2011 Statistics Canada release noted that women are 11 times more likely than men to be sexually assaulted and three times more likely to be criminally harassed. This is based on police reports, so it’s hard to know how many crimes go unreported.
Rural communities aren’t immune, either. A 2010 Statistics Canada report noted that family violence rates are generally lower in metropolitan areas than small cities, towns and rural areas. Women and girls are more likely to be the targets of family violence, although men and boys are victims, too.
I don’t cite these statistics to be a killjoy, but to point out that we shouldn’t be complacent. We still have big problems to deal with. And there are a few among us who’d like to push us into the dark ages.
Mary Guenther died 10 years ago this February. Her generation’s greatest legacy is the knowledge that it’s a woman’s world, too.
A Voice of Her Own was published by the University of Calgary Press in 2005. Details on the book are available on the U of C Press website.