Women own nearly half the farmland in the US today, but are rarely represented on commodity or policy-making boards. Women indeed are already involved in agriculture across the globe, and at an increasing rate, though many still lack access to the centers of power where decisions are made. It was from this recognition that Women Food and Agriculture Network began over 16 years ago as a community of women farmers, landowners, researchers, students, advocates and consumers who are passionate about sustainability on Midwest farms and beyond.
It is this passion for a more sustainable and just food system that prompts our response to Sonia Faruqi’s “Agriculture Needs More Women” article recently published online in The Atlantic. In making a “psychological case” that our engagement is biologically determined, Ms. Faruqi avoids confronting the systems of power that present real and serious barriers to women. Ms. Faruqi’s reductionist approach avoids the real questions we must understand if we are to transform our agricultural system to be more inclusive not only of gender, but of any diversity that challenges the dominant corporate narrative of production agriculture. Ms. Faruqi’s argument is limited in its understanding of human behavior, gender, and current corporate and policy influences that drive industrial agricultural production.
The research of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network has found that women must overcome gender barriers when engaging in decision-making about their land or accessing information from agencies, institutions and even family members. Over the past 16 years, WFAN has recognized and celebrated the way many women tend to approach agriculture and land ownership from a “community” rather than a “commodity” standpoint. While we do not write on behalf of Women, Food and Agriculture Network, we write as proud members of it and to share one thread of a very lively discussion that Ms. Faruqi’s article inspired among our network.
We agree with Ms. Faruqi that more women are needed in agriculture; however, we challenge her overarching premise, founded on biological determinism, which presupposes that it is natural or innate that men are more inhumane and productivist-oriented than women. Articles such as this one are problematic because they oversimplify the complex interactions and intersecting dynamics of our agrifood system’s often-discriminatory economic and political structures that drive such behavior. Indeed, scientists across multiple disciplines have been trying to understand the complexity of human behavior and its drivers for a very long time, and while there are disagreements within the literature, it is agreed that a complex interplay of multiple and interacting forces, rather than a single variable such as gender, are at play.
Ms. Faruqi’s article further concerns us not just because she is unqualified to share her viewpoint on gender and agriculture, but because she misrepresents her personal experience as science and, in doing so, fails to acknowledge the systemic nature of power in constructing barriers to women’s engagement in agriculture. Our roles as activists, researchers, and development workers have shaped our understanding of power and its influence upon women. We know that targeting women for development has proven time and time again that that development dollar will go further to help a family or a community because women utilize funds for the family’s best interest more frequently than men. Similarly, we know that women are underserved by traditional agricultural agencies in the United States and beyond because their engagement in agriculture or visions for their land often conflict with the profit-driven model that dominates our agricultural policies and programs. This research and these experiences are not evidence that women innately are more compassionate or in tune with the land than men. Rather, they show how patriarchal systems have socialized men and women differently, thus leading to very different outcomes when it comes to building local food systems or making conservation decisions.
Limiting our understanding of gender to our biology is reductionist at best. More interestingly, and more importantly in considering the social changes that we and Ms. Faruqi agree are much needed, gender differences speak to how masculinity and femininity are constructed in our culture. These differences have more to do with how men and women are socialized than real biological difference causing women to be innately more empathetic or “sustainable” or men more profit-driven. Sex and gender are often mistakenly conflated, and Ms. Faruqi falls into the same trap. In sociology, gender is accepted as something we “do,” an ongoing performance we engage in daily. Sociological perspective is much needed if we are to extend beyond the individual to transform the forces of power and influence that control what is or isn’t acceptable behavior for men or women. While there are some very real physiological differences between men and women, as indicated by much research on the topic, an emphasis on biological determinism can move too quickly to predict and explain all differences through a binary duality of male/female versus a much more realistic and nuanced approach to gender difference.
Her argument misconstrues the often-marginalized status of women in agriculture as evidence that we, by nature, prefer different production methods. While her aim is to increase awareness of equity issues in agriculture, her article only re-enforces a gendered narrative that marginalizes women and maintains a problematic patriarchal narrative. Her analysis would be well served by adopting the rigorous qualitative research methods often used in anthropological or sociological analyses, or citing such studies. If we are to create more opportunities for women to engage equally in agricultural production, decision-making, and policy development, we must adopt a more complex understanding of power and social change. Socialization and the construction of gender may not explain all the differences between the engagement of women and men in agriculture, but it is important to focus on gender equity and justice rather than narratives, such as Ms. Faruqi’s, that try and distill difference in stereotypical ways that only perpetuate mainstream discussions about gender differences. Our empowerment, and the transformation of our food system, will be made by challenging the status quo through the construction of new narratives.
Food would be safer, and animals would live better, if more men and women took on the task of challenging the productionist agricultural model in favor of working towards food systems and communities that are healthy, just, and sustainable.