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From the Field

Women Farmers Doing It for Themselves? The Ambiguous Consequences of Non-Mixed Engagement

In the farming world, many women’s groups defend the cause of women farmers. Clémentine Comer analyzes the ambivalences of these single-gender spaces, from the perpetuation of traditional visions of male and female roles to the questioning of social inequalities.

In France, organizations devoted to the specific mobilization of women in agriculture – established in the wake of the Catholic young farmers’ movement and the widespread teaching of domestic science – took on a new form in the 1970s. Groups of women farmers, encouraged by public action in favor of equality, gradually succeeded in getting the women’s cause onto trade-union agendas. These women’s groups formulated a number of demands, such as the legal recognition of women’s professional status (Lagrave 1987), the creation of diploma courses for women, encouraging the development of childcare services in rural areas, and, more recently, demands for parity on the boards of farming bodies.

Uniquely, these collectives take action within a diversity of professional organizations, particularly in Brittany, the geographical area covered by our study. [1] Today, their form, degree of institutionalization, and position within the space of agricultural representation vary greatly. For example, there are women’s groups for technical discussions in specific sectors of farming (e.g. Groupe Lait Féminin d’Hennebont, Les Elles de l’ADAGE), networks for promoting and defending equality that are integrated into chambers of agriculture (e.g. Agriculture au Féminin), women’s committees within trade unions (e.g. the Commission Départementale des Agricultrices – Departmental Committee of Women Farmers – of the FDSEA [2]), local sociability groups that organize operations to promote farming (e.g. Groupements de Valorisation des Agricultrices du Finistère), and, finally, groups that are created on the fringes of historically dominant organizations and which mobilize during production crises (e.g. Mouvement des Agricultrices en Colère).

The majority of women farmers who participate in these groups run their farming businesses in conjunction with their spouses, and as such represent modernized family-scale livestock farming. However, these women did not all enter the farming profession in the same way. For some, the establishment of their business followed the retirement of a family member or the expansion of the farm, and came after a salaried experience in a non-agricultural domain. Others took over the family concern (Bessière 2010), and were socialized to the profession at a very early age within their family, and generally received a technical agricultural education.

Although these groups are defended as spaces of professional self-help allowing women farmers to break their isolation on the farms (Annes and Wright 2017), to share their know-how (Sachs et al. 2016), to discuss the tensions generated by working with their families, and more generally to express themselves freely about the problems they face as women, their non-mixed (i.e. female-only in this case) organization is not explicitly associated with a feminist objective, nor is it theorized as a means of collective emancipation. The autonomous organization of women farmers shows that conformity to a certain gender order, that of complementarity between men and women, is a condition of the possibility and acceptability of non-mixity. In this way, the example of women farmers’ groups highlights the fact that non-mixity, which is both a means of promoting gender differentialism and an instrument for contesting gender relations, has ambivalent political implications.

In the name of gender complementarity

As elsewhere in the trade union world (Guillaume and Pochic 2007), the logics that govern activist careers within the agricultural representation space remain unfavorable to women. The latter feel out of step with a model of commitment based on holding numerous mandates. In family farming, women are also poorly integrated into the local spaces of professional sociability that constitute the recruitment pools for union leaders (cooperative for sharing agricultural equipment, silage yards, etc.). As a result, women farmers are not involved in the central organizations of the agricultural government, such as the boards of directors of the FDSEA, the Crédit Agricole, and the cooperative agri-food groups, where their spouses can be found. They prefer to be involved in areas peripheral to production (social, territorial and administrative management) or in areas reserved for them.

In order to justify the existence of spaced reserved for non-mixed groups, women farmers rely on a traditional conception of gender relations. In this perspective, non-mixity is a means of ensuring the expression of “female” values and identity that complement those of men. This differentialist rhetoric is expressed in different ways. First of all, women farmers contrast the richness of female discussions, presented as sensitive, supportive and non-judgmental, with the ways in which the male world operates, which are based on agonistic and competitive relationships. Second, following the example of Catholic (Della Sudda 2007), philanthropic (Cohen 2010) and political party satellite women’s movements (Loiseau 1996, Fayolle 2005), agricultural women’s groups are presented as neutral and overarching professional divisions. The internalization of a feeling of political incompetence leads women farmers to prefer forms of commitment that seem more accessible to them (Rétif 2013) than militant roles that call on skills generally attributed to men (ambition, height of vision, charisma) and that require them to publicly defend divisive positions. In order to keep their distance from the union field, which is synonymous with tensions and divisions that they do not want to be involved in, women farmers claim a “female” form of activism, which is inclusive, non-union-based, and values testimony and conviviality. Finally, the visuals adopted by women farmers’ groups convey a stereotypical vision of femininity, using colors (pink), symbols (silhouette) and names (the adjective “female”) that explicitly refer to an essentialist conception of gender relations (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Logo of the Agriculture au Féminin network (Brittany Chambers of Agriculture) and invitation to a day of discussions organized by the women’s committee of the Union des Groupements de Vulgarisation Agricole (UDGVA – Union of Farming Outreach Groups) in Morbihan

Beyond this public presentation, the women’s collectives propose training agendas that conform to the gendered division of labor on the farms, which maintain a professional identity that straddles the domestic and work spheres. A large part of their activity consists of organizing sessions related to parenting (childcare, school support and guidance), health (alternative medicine, risk prevention) and domestic life (cooking workshops, family budgeting, self-production practices, landscaping). This conception of roles also appears in the proposals for training courses more explicitly oriented towards professional practice. In order to ensure the well-being of the family work team, the women farmers devote a great deal of time to occupational health, stress management and the quality of relationships between related partners. By structuring a system of learning that encompasses all moments of life, women’s collectives thus maintain a respectable vision of the role of the female farmer (Skeggs 2015), seen as the balancing foundation of the family whose cohesion she must ensure and improve living conditions.

Even in the demonstrations they initiate, women farmers draw on the symbolic resources of femininity and motherhood to gain visibility and rally support. To counterbalance the protest and conflictual dimension of the farmers’ demonstrations, which regularly resort to blockades or the destruction of public buildings, the women’s collectives carry out awareness-raising operations. By staging their distress as wives and mothers in the media (fasting in a public square, marching with their children, demonstrating with a black scarf), they have imposed themselves as heralds of the economic crisis that the agricultural world is going through. Outside of these critical episodes, they regularly carry out actions to promote the profession and improve the social acceptability of agriculture. Here we see a conversion of domestic and parental know-how into militant resources. By opening their professional territory to the public (open doors on their farms, welcoming school groups to the farm), holding culinary tasting stands at local festivals and inventing fun communication tools, the women farmers maintain the image of a nourishing, authentic and environmentally conscious farming world.

In the end, the deliberate display of female qualities and characteristics and the activation of know-how and resources socially constructed as female reinforce the esprit de corps within groups of women farmers and make them visible in an institutional framework that is not very open to them.

The emergence of a “gender consciousness”

The differences in treatment between men and women in agriculture remain significant. Many women have difficulty accessing financial and land resources to set up a business, have difficulty finding places to learn, and are subject to repeated testing of their skills by their colleagues. In addition, the gendered division of labor on family livestock farms confines women farmers to tasks that are considered less noble because they are considered ancillary to production – calf care, bookkeeping, administrative work, etc. This division of labor also contributes to the lack of access to training for women farmers. This division of labor also contributes to the fragmentation of their time. This division of labor also contributes to the fragmentation of their time. Present during the day at their homes, women farmers oscillate continuously between the farm and the home, where they still perform most of the domestic tasks.

The permanence of these inequalities and the dissatisfaction resulting from the lack of professional recognition are the main reasons given by the women farmers for their participation in a peer group. By giving a large place to the enunciation of problems related to unfavorable marital arrangements and initially perceived as individual or private, women farmers’ collectives are similar to discussion groups that promote the emergence of a gendered reading of the social world (Achin and Naudier 2009). In fact, they develop a “gender consciousness” characterized by the feeling of sharing common interests, of experiencing injustice in the face of the female condition and of aspiring to improve this condition (Varikas 1991, p. 29). It is not uncommon, for example, for women farmers to testify to the economic disadvantages they experience as a farmer’s wife.

The story and involvement of Louise Bovel, [3] an active member of a collective that organizes departmental days of meetings between women farmers, and who claims the floor at each of these events to question women farmers about the inequalities in status between spouses, illustrates this logic. For 10 years or so, Louise, who was then a conjointe collaboratrice, or “spouse colleague”, [4] developed an outdoor poultry processing workshop on the farm run byh her husband, a battery chicken producer. As tensions within the couple grew and disagreements over working methods arose, Louise decided to create a company separate from her husband’s. In order to validate the setting-up of her own business, she was obliged to buy the slaughterhouse and the building housing it from her husband, which until then had been her exclusive place of work. During these days of discussions, Louise drew on her own experience to denounce the non-recognition of women’s work in monetary terms and their invisible participation in the profits of their spouses’ businesses.

While it is true that the generalization of agricultural companies, which today allow women to become partners in farms and to have their own remuneration, has partly resolved the legal inequalities within couples, significant gendered inequalities in assets remain (Bessière and Gollac 2020), as do economic and symbolic hierarchies between spouses, and crystallize a number of discussions between women farmers. In addition, women farmers, who are increasingly well trained, aspire to fulfill themselves in and through their work, which translates into increasingly strong demands for equality within the couple, and therefore for recognition of their skills. However, women farmers regularly observe that their contribution to the farm is underestimated and that their decision-making legitimacy is consequently diminished. Based on these observations, they set up autonomous training spaces where they can validate the conformity of their knowledge to the dominant technical prescriptions, far from any marital approval of their professional capacity.

More broadly, non-mixity allows women farmers to attribute the inequalities they observe to the implicit gendered hierarchies that govern activism. This is the connection that members of the Women in Agriculture group make when they learn that the elected officials of the chamber of agriculture are reluctant to form a watchdog group on the permanence of gender inequalities in agricultural training centers. [5] At this meeting, the women farmers collectively noted the lack of interest of representative organizations in the specific problems encountered by women at work, and more particularly gender discrimination in training. This awareness of the relegation of equality by their counterparts is expressed when one of the participants lists the arguments put forward by their colleagues to slow down the initiative: “Wait! What’s the problem here? Is it the men? We’ve lived through 50 years of dictatorship and now that we’re breaking it open, it upsets them! It offends these gentlemen [slams her fist on the table].” Finally, discussion events allow those who have crossed the threshold of commitment within mixed trade union, economic or technical organizations to confide in each other about the resistance they encounter to their integration into agricultural organizations, and even to analyze the factors that led them to withdraw from their mandate.

From female spaces to feminist spaces?

The self-segregrated nature of these women’s groups fuels the politicization of gender inequalities. This observation invites us to question the relationship that women farmers have with feminism. Described as “silent” (Lagrave 1987) in the 1980s, this relationship has changed significantly. Few women farmers explicitly claim to be feminists, but paradoxically, few also claim to be. Participants in women’s groups perceive the term feminism as a problematic label, for while they can identify with the goals of the movement and look back on past struggles with respect, they find it difficult to accept that they are part of an activism that openly pits them against men and is tantamount to a “gender war.” The preservation of the professional community of which they are a part takes precedence over the expression of demands that would be directly associated with conflict and antagonism (Black and Cuthbert Brandt 1990). Moreover, it is not so much the feminist label that is controversial as the movement’s reputedly anti-institutional repertoires of action (use of provocation, confrontational mode of action or counter-demonstration). On the other hand, women farmers seek to anchor their demands in a legal and reformist register.

This relative acclimatization to feminism among women groups affects women farmers unequally and varies according to their social characteristics. It is more pronounced among those who have experienced some form of social or geographic mobility and have extra-agricultural cultural capital (academic advancement, acculturation to a city lifestyle, experience of internships abroad, holding a qualified salaried job prior to setting up). These women farmers also have a theoretical relationship with the cause of women and have often acquired a base of knowledge on gender inequality through their initial training, through reading, or by attending conferences dedicated to the subject.

While women farmers’ adherence to feminism can be explained by their trajectories prior to setting up their businesses, formalized and lasting participation in a non-mixed group also contributes to “the diffusion of feminist ideas by capillary action” (Achin and Naudier 2009, p. 139). This is particularly the case for women farmers who find themselves chairing a women’s group, who in this capacity become representatives of the cause of women in farming, and who become familiar with feminism by regularly rubbing shoulders with financial partners and institutional partners concerned by the question of equality (project managers, academics, elected officials). Participation in a space of female sociability can also make it possible to identify with feminism, particularly because it is able to be expressed collectively. For example, a female farmer who was mobilized in an informal group of women demonstrators during the 2009 milk strike said that she found in this group a space where she could assume an openly feminist stance: “You see, we said to ourselves, ‘There are still a lot of macho men’ and we thought, ‘We’d like to be feminists’… We understand the women who become feminists!”

The uses of non-mixity in agricultural organizations thus invite reflection on the ambivalence of this instrument in the fight against inequalities. Women’s groups – sometimes spaces for contesting male domination, at other times vectors of gender conformity – contribute to the development of a gender consciousness that does not completely transgress the gendered division of labor (Kaplan 1982). The discussion of gender inequalities in the context of a small family business and in its modes of representation is evidence of women farmers’ desire to change the practical and institutional forms of their professional practice. However, the non-mixed spaces they create and use also, in parallel, defend a “common cause” with the men in their household and their profession (Gollac 2003), maintain a female respectability based on the model of gender complementarity, and contribute in this sense to reproducing gender inequalities.


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To cite this article:

Clémentine Comer & translated by Oliver Waine, “Women Farmers Doing It for Themselves? The Ambiguous Consequences of Non-Mixed Engagement”, Metropolitics, 1 November 2022. URL :

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