Agrarian Feminism in Our Time and Place

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By Nettie Wiebe

As a prairie farmer, feminist, activist and former women’s president and then president of the National Farmers Union, much of my work rests on that of the generations of agrarian feminists that came before me.

My active participation in public life, including leadership positions in farm, political and other organizations, are possible only because of the struggles and courage of the many women who fought to open these spaces for women.  That I have my name affixed to the titles of some of the land we farm is also thanks to prairie women’s political activism.  Women’s struggle for land has a long history.  And today we face a new set of challenges on that front.

The land history of the Canadian prairies is one of dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples by settlers more than 150 years ago.  Colonial settler policy constituted a radical shift in the use and role of land, moving it from traditional territories occupied by peoples to newly deeded parcels owned by individuals.  It also reinforced colonial patriarchal land ownership by ensuring that the deeds or titles to land were allocated almost exclusively to males.

The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 determined that “Every person who is the sole head of a family and males over the age of 18” could apply for the free 160 acre homestead parcels being distributed to mostly European settlers.  Women who were widowed, divorced or, in exceptional cases, deserted, might qualify for, but rarely succeeded in being granted, title to the land.

So the fix was in against women farmers owning the land on which they worked and depended for their livelihoods from the beginning of prairie agriculture. The stage was set for a long period of struggle for women’s rights to land.  [1]

The 1929 Persons Act, provoked by five prairie feminists, was an important landmark in the march to achieve land rights.  Although not focused specifically on farm women, the ruling, declaring women to be persons, hence not property, recognized our rights not only to be appointed to the Senate but to full political participation and property ownership. As with the successful fight to win the vote for women a decade earlier, this case demonstrated the strength and effectiveness of the prairie women’s movement.

But formal recognition as legal “persons” didn’t erase the economic inequities on farms or ensure that the women who spent their lives working on the “family farm” were recognized as farmers and equal owners of that farm.   The established patterns of male land ownership and of farms being passed from fathers to sons has remained deeply embedded.

However, our claim to a fairer share of the assets of the family farm received a significant boost with the changes to provincial Matrimonial Property Acts in the late 1970s.  These changes were triggered by a 1975 Alberta divorce case, “Murdoch vs. Murdoch”.  The ruling gave Irene Murdoch a meagre settlement despite evidence that she had invested capital and contributed a great deal of farm and domestic labour over twenty five years of marriage. It discounted her contributions, giving her partner their entire ranch.  This was so blatantly unfair that even those with a high tolerance for injustice to women were repelled.

Public pressure forced legislative changes that deemed matrimonial property acquired during a relationship to be divided equally. These changes benefit all Canadian women, but they are of particular value to farm women whose economic wellbeing tends to be entirely vested in the farm, unless they have some off-farm income.

While the changes to the matrimonial property acts began to recognize the invaluable work many farm women contribute to the family operation, it was not until 1991 that the official agriculture statistics began to reflect that women on family farms are indeed farmers by allowing women to add their names in response to the  “Farm Operator” question.  The result was an apparently sudden and surprising increase in the number of women farmers that year!  Surprising at least to those who had not known or recognized that, from the time of settlement to the present, farming on the prairies has always depended a great deal on the work and management of women.

Over my four decades of agrarian feminist activism I have experienced unsteady but ongoing changes in the position of farm women.  The women’s movements articulating and fighting for women’s rights in other sectors and the larger cultural norms favouring the equality of women permeate rural cultures also.  Social and legal progress towards greater equality is ongoing.

However, women’s ownership of land is facing a new challenge.  The global phenomenon of “land-grabbing” is becoming apparent in the prairies in the form of investor capital buying large tracks of farm land.  [2]  A growing number of the quarter sections bearing women’s names on municipal maps are being replaced by male investors and companies.

History may not be repeating itself – but the land ownership patterns for prairie farm women are not reassuring.

Nettie Wiebe farms near Delisle, Saskatchewan, growing organic grains and pulse crops as well as raising cattle.  Nettie served in elected leadership positions of the National Farmers Union for ten years and was the first woman to lead a national farm organization in Canada.  She recently retired from teaching ethics at St. Andrews College, University of Saskatchewan. Dr. Wiebe is an active participant in public discourse on sustainable agriculture and rural communities, trade agreements, women’s equality, human rights, peace, economic and environmental issues and food sovereignty. Her recent publications include co-editing two volumes on food: Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature and Community (2010) and Food Sovereignty in Canada: Creating Just and Sustainable Food Systems (2011). She is a co-author of “Land grabbing and land concentration: Mapping changing patterns of farmland ownership in three rural municipalities in Saskatchewan, Canada,” Canadian Journal of Food Studies.

[1] For a lively, detailed history of these struggles for land, including the few successes – read Sarah Carter’s Imperial Plots: Women, Land and the spadework of British Colonialism on the Canadian Prairies (2016).

[2]  “Investor Ownership or Social Investment”, (2016) , Desmarais, A.A., Qualman, D., Magnan, A., Wiebe, N. in Agriculture and Human Values pp 1–18 [Agric Hum Values (2016). doi:10.1007/s10460-016-9704-5]


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