We’re nearing the end of Women’s History Month. Surely, I thought, there should be some women in agriculture’s history worth shouting about!
And, of course, there are many. There are the farmwives who made more money raising chickens and selling eggs than their spouses did selling milk. There were early Extension agents — in home economics, of course — who taught ladies safe food preservation techniques or better ways to manage home and farm finances. And there were many farm women who really ran the farm (while their husbands got the glory).
But I discovered a group of women who embraced vocational training in agriculture during, and on the heels of, World War I — students in the Massachusetts Agricultural College in Amherst, Mass.
(The Massachusetts Agricultural College was established in 1863, became the Massachusetts State College in 1932, and in 1947, it became the University of Massachusetts, which remains one of the nation’s land-grant universities.)
Farm labor was scarce, so why not use women? Harvey W. Wiley, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chemistry bureau (the forerunner to the Food and Drug Administration), said on a visit to the college in 1917, “… the remedy is not to keep farmers’ boys from enlisting, for they make good fighters; but to employ women in agriculture. They make the best dairy workers and exceed in many agricultural pursuits, as they have done in the shops and country houses.”
(As an aside, after retiring from government life, Wiley became director of the Bureau of Foods Sanitation and Health for Good Housekeeping magazine and developed the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval!)
The Massachusetts Agricultural College was a pioneer, teaching women agricultural sciences and courses that had not previously been open to females. In 1920, the college dedicated its first women’s dormitory at the convening of the Conference of Women in Agriculture and Country Life. At the dedication, college president Kenyon L. Butterfield said the building “represents a new departure for us.”
“For many years, they [women] have come here, but not until rather recently has there been a sharp increase in women students. Never before have we made it clear that we want them. That is worth something.”
Dedication speaker Miss Nettie C. Burleigh described how, 11 years prior, she found herself settled on an old New England farm, never intending to stay. “I did not plan to stay more than that winter, but the spring proved too much for me. I have never turned back.” She bred and raised cattle; increased a profitable flock of hens to several hundred; added a purebred sow and has raised more than 200 pigs; she plowed fields, clearing between 18 and 20 acres on her own.
“I have had to meet many hard conditions because I was a woman, and sometimes I almost gave up,” she told the group gathered in 1920. “If you have the love of the farm and the stock and the life, do not be afraid, provided you have the physical strength and the courage… There is no need so great today as the need of educated, cultured women on our farms.
“There is no business or profession which calls for so much sane, clear judgment, so great versatility and adaptability, faithfulness and stick-to-it-iveness.”
The need for such agricultural training was great. “I think we are doing more than any other college in this sort of training,” proclaimed Butterfield, in a published account, in 1921. “We could have placed 100 women on farms as foremen, as estate managers, poultry of beekeeping specialists, and leaders of girls’ agricultural work during the past year,” he said.
And several years later, in 1929, a sophomore at the college, 18-year-old Sally Bradley, of Lee, Mass., (“an attractive brunette, whose ruddy cheeks have never felt the touch of rouge or cosmetics”) won the state department of agriculture’s coveted medal for meritorious service — for contributing the most to the advancement of farm interests during the past year.
Not only did she assist her hometown of Lee during an epidemic the previous summer, but her real work came in the cattle end of farming. She was a member of a “baby beef” demonstration team that competed at the International Livestock Show in Chicago and the International 4-H Congress.
She told a Boston Post reporter: “Although I can sew, I don’t love it. At college, they wanted me to major in home economics, as being a more useful field for a woman. But I am taking all the outside courses that I can. Farming offers, in my opinion, a glorious career, the ideal existence.”
You go, girl!