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Dissatisfied With the Lives They Live: Farm Women Describe Their Work in a 1913 U.S. Department of Agriculture Report

Statistics on women’s work in the early 20th century were invariably misleading: most women worked but only a minority were formally in the wage labor force. Nowhere was the discrepancy between the domestic ideal and the reality of women’s work lives wider than in rural America. In 1913 the U. S. Department of Agriculture decided to investigate and document the lives of farm woman they discovered a vast reservoir of discontent. The report, reproduced here, was culled from letters responding to a questionnaire sent to the wives of farmers and commented on all aspects of rural life, especially the enormous burden of labor that these officially non-working women were expected to carry out.

INTRODUCTIONThe Secretary of Agriculture, on October 1, 1913, addressed a letter to the housewives of 55,000 crop correspondents, asking them to suggest ways in which the United States Department of Agriculture could render more direct service to the farm women of the United States. This inquiry was prompted by the following extract from a letter addressed to the Secretary by Mr. Clarence Poe, Raleigh, N. C., under date of July 9, 1913:

Have some bulletins for the farmer’s wife as well as for the farmer himself. The farm woman has been the most neglected factor in the rural problem and she has been especially neglected by the National Department of Agriculture. Of course, a few such bulletins are printed, but not enough.

Although the department had issued many bulletins and publications designed to give farm women practical aid in household operations, and to assist them in poultry raising, butter making, gardening, and other farm activities commonly discharged by women, Mr. Poe’s suggestion seemed to merit careful investigation.

Moreover, at the time that Mr. Poe wrote, the Smith-Lever Act, providing for cooperative agricultural extension work, was under discussion by the Congress with prospects of an early passage. This act as drafted, and since passed, provided for “the giving of instruction and practical demonstrations in agriculture and home economics.” This, it was seen, would call on this department to cooperate with the States in furnishing a new type of instruction specifically designed to aid farm women in their important tasks of homemaking and domestic manufacturing. For this reason it seemed especially important to seek information as to the things in which the rural women most needed cooperative assistance. . . .

The following is the text of the Secretary’s letter:



Washington, D. C., October 1, 1913.


LADIES: The Department of Agriculture is in receipt of a letter in which the writer said:“The farm woman has been the most neglected factor in the rural problem, and she has been especially neglected by the National Department of Agriculture.”

This letter was written not by a woman, but by a broad-minded man so thoroughly in touch with the agricultural and domestic needs of the country that his opinions have great weight.

The Department of Agriculture certainly wishes to render directly to the women of the United States the full aid and service which their important place in agricultural production warrants.

Because we believe that these women themselves are best fitted to tell the department how it can improve its service for them, I respectfully request that you give careful thought to this matter. Then please communicate your ideas to me in the inclosed franked envelope.

Your answers may state your own personal views, or, even better, you may first discuss the question with your women neighbors or in your church societies or women’s organizations and submit an answer representing the combined opinions of the women of your entire community. You are, of course, at liberty to criticize freely, but I would especially urge that you try to make your suggestions constructive ones that we can at once put into effect. All of your suggestions will be carefully read and considered by Government specialists. Many of them will be carried out at once; others as soon as the information sought can be gathered and the necessary machinery for its distribution made ready. Such suggestions as call for revision of existing laws or additional legislation will be referred to the proper committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Answers to this inquiry should reach me not later than November 15, 1913. All answers should be written on only one side of the paper and should be as concise as it is possible to make them.

In order to serve the women of the country, the department from time to time will insert in the weekly issue of the News Letter to official Crop Correspondents special paragraphs or special supplement pages of direct interest to women.




The replies began to arrive from the Eastern States during the second week in October, though the bulk of the answers reached Washington after November 1. Straggling replies came in up to Christmas, and in these were included a number of letters from farm women and other women who formerly lived on the farm, but are residing in cities, who had not been directly addressed but who had learned of the inquiry from the public prints. In all, 2,241 replies were received, and of these 216 were either acknowledgments, statements that the writer could make no suggestions, or irrelevant replies that had no bearing on the general subject. The number of women directly represented, however, is much larger than the tally of the letters would indicate, as many writers transmitted opinions of their neighbors or of women’s clubs, granges, or church organizations. The letters received were in all forms—carefully typewritten statements, notes scribbled on the back or margin of the Secretary’s letter, or painstakingly written on scraps of wrapping paper. Not a few wrote on the margin of the Secretary’s letter that no blank for answer had been inclosed, and this, in connection with the makeshift note paper of others, seems to indicate that on some farms, at least, the ordinary conveniences for correspondence are regarded as luxuries.

In a number of cases the letters were signed by men who wrote either on their own initiative or recorded their wives' views. The pleasant feature of the replies from men was that the vast majority of them seemed to recognize that the women on the farms do not always receive their full due and that improvements are needed to free them from unnecessary drudgery and to make their lives happier, less lonely, and more endurable. Letters from men expressing selfish or narrow views of the rural woman’s place, or resenting the department’s endeavor to serve them, were entirely exceptional. Wherever the writer is a man that fact is indicated in connection with any excerpts from the letters which appear on subsequent pages. Extracts not so marked are from letters written by women. . . .

Because of the interesting human note found in many of the letters, the editors determined to let the writers tell their own story by publishing verbatim extracts from many of the letters, rather than attempting to make a statistical summary of their contents. . . .

Many of the writers asked that their letters be treated confidentially, and for this reason all are published anonymously, with the omission in certain cases of specific allusions which would make possible the identification of the writer. . . .


The present report deals only with letters which discuss the social and labor needs of farm women. Under these headings are included references to better roads, telephones, and mail service as important factors in the social life of the country, and to the long hours and methods of women’s work, which, on many farms, increase isolation and leave little leisure or energy for recreation or intellectual activities. Later reports will deal with (l) the domestic needs of farm women, (2) the educational needs of farm women, and (3) the economic needs of farm women, as indicated by the writers of the different sections.WOMAN’S LABORLONG HOURS AND OVERWORK

The long hours of labor and the overworking of women on the farms form the major part of many letters. Several of the writers stated that it was impossible for them to get any kind of domestic help, even in time of sickness, and commented on the difference between the country home and the city home, where day workers can be obtained in emergencies. Some saw a solution for this difficulty in properly directed immigration. Others suggested inducing the surplus from the overcrowded sections to enter domestic employment on the farm. Coupled closely with this complaint is the fact that conditions of farm life tend to make the younger generation leave the farms and seek employment in city factories and urban occupations, thus making it more difficult for the overworked farm woman to employ the daughter of a neighbor as her assistant.

A large number speak of the extra work put upon women by the employment of large numbers of field laborers who have to be housed and fed; and one or two, while stating that farm help no longer comes from the neighboring farms, object seriously to introducing into their families the rough element now hired. Others seem not to object to the work, but state that under present marketing conditions the returns they receive from the sale of garden truck, poultry and eggs, and milk and butter, do not constitute a legitimate wage.

Many letters from Southern States complain of the heavy work that women have to do in the fields. Cotton hoeing and picking are frequently mentioned as one of the chief hardships. This field work, it is said, leaves the woman no time for anything else.

The following are some of the significant extracts from letters dealing with these phases of the subject:


“g"One great trouble perhaps the greatest is the fact that here in New England whatever help is employed on the farm must to some extent be taken into the house. Formerly the ‘hired man’ was the son of a neighbor or perhaps the cousin or relative of the proprietor, so was not so bad; but now the help that it is possible to obtain is usually a very undesirable member of the household besides being another for the housewife to provide food for. I see no remedy for this. I know several cases where farms that have been for several generations in one family are being sold because no really efficient help can be obtained either indoors or out.”


“Too little attention has been given to the part and importance of the woman on the farm. Probably this is so because of the ideal which prevails but which now gives some promise of change. This ideal assigns to the farm woman almost constant work that is heavy, and provides for her too few (if any) and insufficient conveniences and improvements for doing her work. She goes at it largely as a matter of brawn, exercising too meagerly her intelligent thought. But often too the man is held as tightly to his daily routine and fails to have time for thinking how he may do his work by better methods—or improve the conditions of the farm woman whose part in rural economy is rated too low. This ideal, in the second place, provides too inadequately for the farm woman’s leisure and cultivation of interest in other things than her daily routine of household cares. Her sphere of thought and activity is frequently limited and often her work is drudgery.”

“It seems to me that the farmers‘ wives’ work is more laborious than the farmers'. The farmer has one day in seven for comparative rest, but Sunday is often the hardest day in the week, especially during the summer, for the farmer’s wife.”


"It may be summed up in two words—drudgery and economy. These seem to pursue her from the time she signs her name to the mortgage that is given in the purchase of the farm until that other time when, weary and worn, she gives up the unequal struggle and is laid at rest. This interest (paid on farm mortgages) robs the farm woman of much.

“We bought a 11-acre farm; my husband was a good dairyman and a first class butter maker, but we could scarcely pay taxes and interest and live, until I took up crochet work. I managed thus to pay $200 on the mortgage every year, but the strain was too great, and overwork ruined my health—but the mortgage was paid. Meantime I have had only one new hat in eight years and one secondhand dress, earned by lace work. We are of the better class and have to keep up appearances, but the struggle is heartbreaking and health destroying. We have worked night and day. Our two sons have had to give up a higher education to work, and both have decided mechanical and constructive ability.”

“Suggest some feasible plan for caring for the farm help without making them a part of the family. Many of them are dirty, vulgar, profane, and drunken, yet they eat at table with us; our children listen to and become familiar with their drunken babblings. Our privacy is destroyed, our tastes and sense of decency are outraged. We are forced to wait upon and clean up after men who would not be allowed to enter the houses of men of any other vocation. Do not misunderstand; the farmers' wives care little for social status. It is not because they are hired men that we wish them banished, but because oftentimes they are personally unworthy.”


“Lack of proper literature and time to read it; almost impossible to employ girls or women to help with housework. How to provide board and lodging for farm laborers without taking them into the home and table with the family (they often being very undesirable foreigners and tramps who only work for a few days to earn money for drink).”

“I have in mind a small, delicate woman, with a family of small children, that does all her own housework, milks four or five cows, cooks for extra help, carries from a spring all the water — no time to read a paper or book. Late to bed and early to rise, yet neither he nor she has any idea they could make her burden easier.”

A man: “The average farmer’s wife is unable to devote her best energies to the bigger problems of farm housekeeping owing to the fact that she is obliged to be more or less of a drudge. Surely among the vast numbers of immigrant girls to this country there must be some who would welcome an opportunity to identify themselves with a well-kept home; thus to be taught to become economical and progressive farm women. If the Government could establish and maintain a bureau, with agencies at the principal landing stations, to this end it would work a great benefit to the farm women. I think the farm woman in many instances overburdened with work and the care of a family; so much so that many of the farmers' daughters are looking upon farm life with a shudder.”


A man: “Under present conditions it is impossible most times to get help even in case of sickness. The farm wife can not reach a laundry or a bakery, nor can the husband and his help get their meals at a hotel or restaurant, as can be done oftentimes in the city. She is depended on to feed her own people, and often to appear hospitable and generous. She feels she must be in readiness to feed wayfarers that are hardly able to reach a hotel and very much wish to dine at a farmhouse.”


“My first complaint is hard work, no profits, and an exceedingly small sum upon which to live and supply her children. If city people could see the farmers' wives and children work and sweat in the fields in June, July, and August, when they are going to the beach or some summer resort or to cool in the mountains, they would not wonder at our complaint. When our work is over we could go, too, if we got any profits.”

A man: “It is the wife of the tenant and poor farmer who needs help. She has a hard row to hoe. She has very few labor-saving implements, no electrical or gasoline power, but does nearly all her work by ‘main strength and awkwardness.’ Thousands rise at 4 am and peg away until 10 pm. That game finally puts her down and out. The union man and ‘industrial worker’ does his eight-hour stint and then agitates for shorter hours and more pay, but the wife of the tenant or poor farmer has no time to ‘agitate,’ strike, or walk out. Her pay is plain board and clothing. Very few ever see a State fair, get a week’s vacation, or even an auto ride. She is a slave to long hours of work and her husband is a slave to the landlord, for whom he works two-fifths or one-half his time, and who is determined to have every dime, peck, or pound of his rent.”

“I am not writing as a practical farm woman but as one who has recently lived three years on a large farm. Those three years gave me an opportunity to observe and understand the hardships and isolation, the waste of time with the tiresome traveling back and forth, constant contact with uncongenial laborers and many other unpleasant features. I do not complain so much of the labor. Work is honorable and health-giving There were weeks when I accomplished more than many other farmers' wives. The work of the farmer’s wife is hard, but unless she takes part in the more laborious operations in the field and stables, I think it is not more so than many other women in town who have their homes to keep up and take boarders or sew or in some way assist in providing for the family.”

“The necessity of taking the farm men into the family is the most unfortunate of any condition of the home. Labor is scarce and the farmer must take such labor as he can get, often changing several times during the year, with rough and uncouth fellows who have to sit with the family at table and evenings, and their manner and language make this intimate association undesirable for all members of the family, especially the boys and girls. I think they should have a men’s room where they can sit and have a separate table for eating. When it so happened that we had to give the men meals, I gave them a separate table with food neatly prepared and we thought they liked it better than eating with the family.”

“The woman in town can always hire some one to help by the day at least, but in the country that is not so—if she hires help she must make a companion of the girl and often take her along when she goes to town. There is no family privacy in the farm home where help is kept. The average farmer, or better than the average, does not care for the privacy of life. I can see no possible way of improving the home life and giving the family life more thought unless the farmer can afford a home for his men.”


A man: “On the large farms where men must be boarded at the farm home, and where it is hard to get servants and where there may be several small children, the wife and mother is to be pitied. It seems the owner should build small cottages for his help as the Southerners did for their slaves and thus keep work from the home. Where the wife has to cook for hands such good packers' goods as possible should be used.”


“The farm work which has to be done is nothing but drudgery for the whole family from the age of 12 years and upward and it has least pay for our services. We have on an average from ten to fifteen thousand dollars invested in our farms and personal property and we have to work from 12 to 13 hours a day to make a living.”this way: On the farm her husband managed to work 200 acres without a hired man most of the time with her help. In the city he worked as a day laborer for $2.50 per day and she kept 12 boarders and took care of her two children.“A man: “From the experience of 30 years in the store business in rural parts of northern Minnesota, I do not hesitate to say that over one-half of the total work done on the farm has been done by the women of the house, besides they have done all their cooking and mending and have raised the families.”


“The majority of farmers' wives are simply overburdened with summer company from the city, either relatives or friends, who if they were forced to change places with us would soon realize what it meant to be considered the one to make life lovely for them during the long hot days of harvest, haying, and all. We think articles written on this subject might bring them to realize we are not machines of perpetual motion with no chance of a feeling of physical exhaustion.”

"There is almost every kind of machinery and utensils made to lighten her work, as well as machinery to lighten man’s work. Therefore the fault must lie somewhere else. To my mind a great deal of it is their own choosing. I think the marked clause in an editorial taken from the Chicago Tribune of November 10, 1913, tells quite a story, and I know that it is a true statement of affairs in a great many cases. The marked sentence is: ‘The average farmer, says this bulletin (referring to bulletin of Wisconsin country life conference), has until recently been interested in his crops, cattle, and a bank account more than he was in the comfort of his wife and children.’ I am glad to say, however, that the more progressive class of farmers are putting in modern homes. In a great many—I could say the majority—of new houses built, gas or electric lights, heating plants, running water, with modern plumbing, etc., are being installed.

“If it were not for the long, hard hours with poor remuneration the majority of farmers' wives would be content. We are told to be more sociable - have picnics and merrymakings so as to be content with our lot. Why, we can hardly find time, as we are, to visit a neighbor, and are too tired on Sunday for church. A good rest would be a more cheerful prospect than any picnic. While city women are having parties and the children doing nothing but attending school, all hands on the farm are at work.”


“I have been a farmer’s wife for 30 years and have never had a vacation.”

“g"The laws are all right for the women. In my mind the worst trouble is with the women themselves. They spy around and talk of each other, making remarks about a speck of dirt or any disorder in a neighbor’s house. Awfully nice housekeeping is the tyrant the women bow down to. It is a poor excuse of a woman who can not get help from her husband. I read somewhere of a woman who asked her husband for a wringer and sewing machine the first summer of their marriage. On being refused she hired out in harvest to make the money. After that lesson she had every labor-saving appliance she saw fit to ask for. I serve good, clean, wholesome food to the men folk, hire my washing, and do not scrub my kitchen floor.”

"Every one is urging the farmer to raise crops. Now all this means extra help for the woman to cook for, since all these crops have to be attended, harvested, and marketed. From one to four extra men to board during the hottest part of the year is the rule, provided you can get the men. We would not complain if we could see the bank account growing in proportion to the work, or if there were any permanent improvement in our surroundings, but a good many of us are beginning to ask, ‘Who gets the benefits of all the hurry and work necessary to produce the big crops?’ I heard a very practical farmer say last summer, when the corn was drying up, that he did not care, for he had noticed that he always made more on a bad crop year than on a good one. He was judging entirely by financial results and not taking into account the difference in labor to himself and his family.

“This question was brought up at a women’s meeting recently, and all agreed that they were tired of this continual urging the farmer to so-called better farming, since it only meant more work for the whole family with no real gain. These were not dissatisfied women, but just average Middle-West farmers' wives and daughters who can help with the milking or take a team to the field if the hired man leaves suddenly or the exigencies of the case demand it—women physically and mentally alive, who feel the joy of achievement. Better homes and better living generally in the country will do more than all the back-to-the land jargon. Farmers should be induced to pay more attention to the house, garden, and orchard, for these are badly neglected and will continue to be so long as all the time and attention are given to stock and field crops. With farm homes once made attractive, the high cost of living will settle itself. People will come back and raise their own living partly from choice and partly from necessity.”


“I am living in the most prosperous—at least said to be the richest county of Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Most of the women live the lives of slaves—slaves to their farms and families. Help is hard to obtain and keep. The strong, hearty woman doesn’t mind the work, and there are a great many of this class. The delicate, broken-down, and overworked are filling the hospitals.”


A man: “The women here carry water one-quarter mile and go one mile to milk.”


A man: “On the cotton farms the women and children generally hoe out the cotton, putting it to a stand and cleaning the row of grass and weeds. Then in the fall of the year the women and children pick out the bulk of the cotton crop. This is the life of the average tenant of the South. The poor tenant mothers are deserving of the sympathy and encouragement of all. It often happens that our best and most prosperous farmers come from these poor children who have been taught to labor and learn the cost of a dollar, but the mothers toil on with no hope of anything except to raise their children.”


“In almost all of the one-crop, cotton-growing sections the labor question is narrowed down to the farmer, his wife, and children. The wife, if able to work, regardless of condition, makes a full hand at whatever the occasion demands—plowing, hoeing, chopping, putting down fertilizer, picking cotton, etc. The same is required of the children almost regardless of age, sex, or condition. In many cases this seems unavoidable. Poverty is the word that covers the condition.”


A man: “The woman does 50 per cent of all the work on the farm except at the plow, such as cleaning up the land, hoeing the corn, potatoes, cabbages, and beans, etc.—the woman does the same as the man—in gathering the corn, potatoes, etc. The woman does the work at 50 cents per day and will ask for the work, while the men hands can’t be employed on the farm for less than $1 a day. I employ women when I can’t get men hands, and at half the cost.”


“The two greatest problems that confront women in the rural districts are overmuch work and little strength. We need domestic help. We do not claim all wisdom in doing things, yet our knowledge surpasses our strength to do the many different tasks incumbent upon us in farm life.”


“To look at the careworn, tired faces, and bent forms of the ‘bride of a few years’ in our hill sections, where servants are scarce, we realize at once our personal and National neglect and are astounded at the enormity of it.”

“The woman living on farms, in addition to bearing and caring for her children, does her own housework—cooking, and washing the clothes once a week, and then works in the fields during the months of May, June, and July, which is the hoeing season, and in September, October, November, and December, which is the cotton-picking season.”

A man: “I wonder if the gentleman has ever seen a woman plowing cotton with oxen and what he would think if he knew that this woman’s husband was working at a sawmill several miles away, and it was her duty to get up and cook his breakfast so he can be at his work at 6—and yet this is a common sight in the rural districts. What is needed, and what can help this life? Go to that man and show him that the life he is living is wrong. What power can raise them from the neglected position this gentleman sees them in? I would answer: Educate the man who is her husband.”

A man: “After consulting some of the women in this part of the woods I find that a majority want a law passed to this effect: Make it read that any man who marries a girl in the rural districts who requests or allows his wife to go to the field and work as a hand in making or gathering a crop be subject to a fine and imprisonment. The claim is that it is injurious to the offspring of such to be in the hot sun and laboring in the same.”


A man: "The long hours of labor that the farmer’s wife has to contend with and the constant drudgery ought to be mitigated — if there was a system of education taken up by the government, which has been to some extent already, to explain to the farmers that the extremely long hours and constant drudgery is not economy and does not necessarily work toward prosperity in a financial way; that conservation of strength, energy, and health brings the best results; and that it doesn’t pay to work such long hours and have no recreation to break the monotony of hard, constant labor. If farmers generally would not make the day’s work longer than 8 hours, or at the least 10 hours, it would give some chance for recreation and rest, and a half holiday on Saturday if it was practiced generally would no doubt generally afford the necessary recreation and rest. When the housewife’s labor commences at 5 o’clock in the morning and continues until bedtime, no wonder they get dissatisfied with their lot in life and break down in health and often suffer from nervous prostration on account of this unreasonable method and unhealthful practice of so many long hours.

A man: “They claim they have to work from sunup to sundown, hoeing, picking cotton in the mud and dew. I saw a man and his wife, while I was walking around among them. Their baby was fastened up in the house 400 yards from them. They said it stayed there from morning until dinner and from dinner until night (while the man and his wife were working in the field). I find some of them in bad shape.”

“If we had time out of the cotton patch to learn how to can fruit for the market so we could can our fruit as it ripens, even if we only got pay for our labor, we would be no worse off and the world much better.”

A man: “In this county and my own neighborhood a large number of women and girls can not read or write and in some families no one can read, so you see it is hard to get better conditions until they are educated. Fifty per cent of the women and girls are picking cotton today and neglecting young children and household duties.”


"One evil for which a remedy should be supplied is the demand made upon the farmer’s wife by the transient. By this I mean the peddler, the book agent, the seller of nursery stock, the insurance man. the lightning-rod man, the hunters—in fact, grafters of all sorts, together with the man who has legitimate business with the farmer and who finds it too convenient and economical to force himself upon the hospitality of the farm home. Many a farmer’s wife is forced to be a country hotel keeper without pay, and if on rare occasions a man with a conscience does pay, it is no compensation, even at regular hotel rates, for the extra washing, cleaning, and cooking thrust upon an already tired woman. With all the modern appliances for lightening labor, the farm woman has many more tasks than the ordinary home-keeper. Then why should the idea prevail that it is only in the natural order of things that she should work, work, work, and that any one at any time may thrust himself into her home unannounced and demand that she wait upon him? This condition causes girls to desert the farm. It steals their leisure time for which they had planned reading, music, driving, or visiting. They wonder why there is no privacy in the farm home when in the city, town, or village the home is sacred to its owners and their friends


A man: “I believe in less big dinners on Sundays. Why make a slave of a woman on Sunday?”

"Boarding the help on the farm, where there is much

Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Report No. 103: Social and Labor Needs of Farm Women. Extracts from letters received from farm women in response to an inquiry ’How the U.S. Department of Agriculture can better meet the needs of farm housewives,’ with special reference to the provision of instruction and practical demonstrations in home economics under the Act of May 8, 1914, providing for cooperative agricultural extension work, etc. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915), 5–10, 42–55.