Monday, November 29, 2010

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This is what I do for fun:

Brett Shoffner

Environmental Studies 334

Gender and Environment


Agriculturally-Reinforced Gender Identities in Rural Communities


Gender, like everything in our world, is a socially constructed concept reinforced by the dominant social narrative. Throughout her book Earthcare: Women and the Environment (1996), Carolyn Merchant provides a great historical background of capitalism, patriarchy, and technology and their reinforcement of dualistic thought and practices in modern society. She provides a challenge on page 54 that I believe should be considered when doing any gender-framed work, whether that is academic research, public health, community organizing, etc:

“…narrative is the story told to itself by the dominant society of which we are a part. We internalize narrative as ideology. Ideology is a story told by people in power. Once we identify ideology as a story—powerful and compelling, but still only a story—we realize that by rewriting the story, we can challenge the structures of power.”

Rural communities throughout the world are dependent on agricultural for their livelihoods, from the farmer to the seed/fertilizer suppliers to the produce processors. There is no doubt that the face of agricultural production and gender roles has changed dramatically since the Industrial Revolution (Merchant, Ch 5). Women’s sphere or control has moved from the actual land of the farm to inside the home or off the farm (Merchant 1996, Brandth 2006, Saugeres 2002, Peter et al. 2000, Wilson 1990). Agri-culture (purposely hyphenated) and technology reinforce male hegemony, patriarchy and help to embody the idea of woman as “other” (Brandth 2006, Saugeres 2002, Peter et al. 2000, Merchant 1996). Rurality and masculinity also serve to help define each other and reinforce ideology (Campbell and Bell 2000).

The objective of this paper is to examine how both women and men have become embodied through agro-technology, how gender identities are reinforced through agricultural practices and community though, and to show a link between agro-technology and gender identities in rural communities. Specifically the tractor, sustainable agriculture practices and dualistic though will be considered.

Embodiment through Biology

Throughout history man has been embattled against nature and the forces that “she” displays; nature being equated with woman is because they are regarded as the “other” in need to domination by male dominated society (Kheel 2009, Merchant 1996, Mellor 1997). In her 1997 article “Women, Biology and Nature in Feminist Thought”, Mary Mellor has explained how women have traditionally been defined by their biology, particularly their reproductive capabilities. This idea is echoed by Brandth, “it is through their reproductive abilities that women’s bodies become essential to the continuation of the family farm (2006). Women often work up to “four shifts” (Peter et al. 2000). Their role can be defined as mother, caretaker, wife, homemaker, etc. (Merchant 1996, Mellor 1997, Saugeres 2002, Peter et al. 2000, Wilson 1990). However, there is another variable that is further reinforcing the existing narrative of male dominance.

Embodiment through Technology

It has been stated how since the beginning of the industrial revolution gender roles have been greatly redefined. Lise Saugeres provides an amazing analysis on how specifically the tractor has come to define gender roles in rural societies (2002). On page 148 she explains how her respondents “talked about women’s agricultural work being ‘over’ because their work in the fields was no longer needed.” She also provides a great antecedent on page 152 between wife Michelle and husband Arnaud, showing how technical knowledge (how to operate a tractor) is equated with superiority. Berit Brandth’s 2006 essay builds on Saugeres’ idea by defining four processes that rural women can engage in when defining their roles:

1) Women can engage in technology and experience increased control as “honorary men”.

2) Women can engage in practice one and experience feelings of discomfort because of their projected masculine qualities.

3) Women engage in traditionally male roles and are devalued as to maintain the male dominance structure.

4) Women avoid engaging in technology and/or machinery, oftentimes as a safeguard on bringing more work upon themselves.

So, what about men? Peter, et al. (2000) provides the description of a good farmer from research participant Dave: “the good farmer is a ‘he’—and not just any ‘he’ but ‘a guy with big machinery; their study also describes how farmers regard the land as female in need of “impregnation and raping” (pg 223). Of course not all farm men think and behave the same way.

Rural Masculinities

Campbell and Bell (2000) argue that masculinity is defined by rurality and in turn rurality is defined by masculinity; they are constantly being redefined and/or reinforced by each other. Basically, the farming man is masculine because he is a man who farms. It has been previously stated how men regard size of farm and/or equipment as a reflection of social status and masculinity, but these beliefs may be changing with a new wave of sustainable agricultural practices.

Peter, et al. (2000) have identified two heuristic masculinities within the farming community, and they argue that sustainable agriculture practices help lead to redefine traditional views of masculinity. They define “monologic masculinity” as having rigid boundaries, specifically between men and women, discussion topics, manhood and definitions of success and work (216). They go on to define “dialogic masculinity” as “a broader understanding of what it is to be a man”, being characterized by men who are open to discussing mistakes, feelings, criticisms, emotions and attitudes (Peter, et al. 2000). They recognize that there is no distinct separation of these two masculinities between groups or even individuals but do make the argument that sustainable agricultural practices seem to predict which type of masculinity rural farm men are more likely to engage in. They argue that because sustainable agriculture does not place such an emphasis on technology, men are more likely to disengage from traditional gender roles because they are already disengaging in defining their own masculinity through technology. This idea directly correlates to Saugeres and Brandth’s arguments that technology defines gender roles.

Technology and Economics defining Gender Roles

Saugeres (2002), Brandth (2006) and Peter, et al. (2000) have all provided great agreements on how technology or technological processes have helped to define gender roles. I however would also like to introduce the Marxian philosophy of Carolyn Merchant’s Earthcare Chapter 5 as a way of defining gender roles in rural societies.

In her Earthcare Chapter 5, Carolyn Merchant describes how women in the pre-colonial through post-colonial periods moved from being defined as “corn mothers” who were active in production to “moral mothers” whose sphere was defined as reproduction. She makes the argument that industry, technology and capitalism are to blame for this shift and that they work together to reinforce hegemonic masculinity. Lisa Saugers argues however, that while technology can help reinforce current gender roles, it can also be used as an arena for challenging the dominant male power structure by providing an opportunity to express control (2002). So what do I think about all this?

Moving towards Change

Peter, et al. has detailed how sustainable agricultural practices are helping in redefining gender identities and Saugeres has suggested that technology be used as a catalyst in redefining roles. I agree with both of their positions, as well as Merchant’s that capitalism helps to reinforce patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity. Almost all of the articles I reviewed had a common story that males still dominate rural society but that times are changing and women are taking a more pronounced role. I think our culture’s push toward sustainability in every sense of living can also help remake gender identities. Our increased dependence on technology and technical knowledge will mean more people, both women and men, will use technological devices and have proficient technical knowledge. Government social programs and regulation are increasing throughout the world, redefining capitalism. Women are accepted as national leaders and legitimate rulers, although there are still old stereotypes that are still sometime unfortunately expressed, often by males (ie: God-forbid that Hillary Clinton become President and get the “red phone” call while on her period). With time though, everything will change.

Academic research in general is a great way to help redefine current social structure. Very good work has been done in gender studies and other areas, and with continued research and discussion, change can be accelerated. Discussion though is the key to any social change. We must have cultural debate and community discussion about gender identities, what they mean, how we feel about them and how they make us feel. Education and discussion are absolutely key in changing people’s thoughts and actions and in turn power structures and male and female roles within society on both the small and large scales.


Women in rural societies have been defined by both biology and through technology and agricultural practices. Men in rural societies are defined through technology, agricultural practice and reinforcement of existing narrative. We must recognize the problems and provide potential solutions using the resources we have. We must use an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, using sociology/gender studies, environmental studies, economics, psychology, history, etc. to solve complex social problems and to retell the story, remake the narrative, change ideologies and produce new power structures.

Annotated Works Cited

Brandth, B. "Agricultural Body-building: Incorporations of Gender, Body and Work." Journal of Rural Studies 22.1 (2006): 17-27. Print.

*Study of how bodies define gender in rural societies. Outlines four processes that women can engage in when defining their roles.

Campbell, Hugh, and Michael M. Bell. "The Question of Rural Masculinities." Rural Sociology 64.4 (2000): 532-46. Print.

*Discussion of rural masculinities.

Kheel, Marti. "Ch 2 Masculine Identity: Born Again "Man"" Nature Ethics: an Ecofeminist Perspective. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. 35-63. Print.

*Provides a historical analysis of masculine identity and relation to nature.

Mellor, Mary. "Ch 4 Women, Biology and Nature in Feminist Thought." Feminism & Ecology. Washington Square, NY: New York UP, 1997. 71-101. Print.

*Examination of how women have been defined though nature and biology.

Merchant, Carolyn. Earthcare: Women and the Environment. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

*Amazing collection of gender and environment related history, theory, antecedents, critiques and solutions.

Peter, Gregory, Michael M. Bell, Susan Jarnagin, and Donna Bauer. "Coming Back Across the Fence: Masculinity and the Transition to Sustainable Agriculture." Rural Sociology 65.2 (2000): 215-33. Print.

*Study of how masculinities are defined through agricultural practices.

Saugeres, Lise. "Of Tractors and Men: Masculinity, Technology and Power in a French Farming Community." Sociologia Ruralis 42.2 (2002): 143-59. Print.

*Case study of how the tractor reinforces gender identities in rural France.

Wilson, John. ""Public" Work and Social Participation: The Case of Farm Women." The Sociological Quarterly 31.1 (1990): 107-21. Print.

*Case study of North Carolina farm families and their gender roles.



  1. Last paragraph of the Intro: "dualistic though" shouldn't that be "dualistic thought" ?

    And you thought we wouldn't read it...