Emily Rhoades

Emily Rhoades, of Dundas, has been conducting a research project about gender norms on farms in the mid-1900s. The project is part of a class at Grinnell College, where she is a sophomore. (Photo courtesy of Emily Rhoades)

As a woman growing up on a farm in Dundas, Emily Rhoades took special interest in the intersection of gender and farming, and had an opportunity to expand on that connection in college. 

A student at Grinnell College in Iowa, Rhoades' Theory and Methods of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies class challenged her to conduct a research project. Having grown up on a farm (the daughter of Ian and Elizabeth Rhoades), she decided conducting a research project on gender norms on farms in the mid-1900s was something that could be interesting.

She decided to focus on the mid-1900s, due to the big shift taking place early on in that century. She wanted to know if that was taking a role away from women in farms.  

Rhoades began asking around through family members, and family friends and making posts online to find candidates to interview. She was primarily searching for a woman born between the years of 1935 and 1955 who grew up in agriculture. Before the virtual interviews, she told prospective interview candidates that she was mostly looking to talk about training in the use of tools and machinery. 

A total of five women were interviewed and were all located across the state of Minnesota. While she wasn't looking to draw statistical conclusions, Rhoades says she wanted to focus on one state because farming varied so much by geographical location. She looked to gather a small sample size, and draw conclusions based on her findings.

While she began thinking about the project at the beginning of the semester, Rhoades said she started conducting interviews about halfway through.

The final step of the project includes a paper, which is due next week. 

Finding themes

Rhoades focused on what role women played in the community and the farm, and how that role shifted over the years. A common trend she noted with all those she interviewed was the importance of the community, and how important that bond was. She found it structured the way people view the work they are doing, and it seemed to be central to everything at that time. 

Nowadays, Rhoades said, there is a lot more emphasis on independence. When she was growing up, she remembers complaining about chores and wondering why her parents made her do them. While interviewing the five women, Rhoades said they didn't question the work they were asked to do. It was just part of their own contribution to the family, or community of the family, and they did it to be a part of that family. 

In her own research about the topic, Rhoades noted how important the wider community was to stability, like where times the thresher would go around to people's fields, and it would turn into a community event. Everyone would go out; a crew of men would lend a helping hand, and women would prepare food. 

"It was a huge community event important to farms operating," said Rhoades. "The big thing is that family bond, and also how there was a lot of help and support going on within the community. Not just financial, but more communal."

Thinking about today

Having found the focus on community to be so prevalent in the past, Rhoades sees it applicable to today's times, too.

Her findings made her question the current emphasis on independence over community, and the idea that teens must move out when they turn 18 and become a separate person from family and community. She has taken particular interest in how her own life has changed, with her being in college, and how that affects her sense of community and her peers.

She also feels like there's been a big cultural shift, with a system very rooted in capitalism and less about coming together to do the work. 

"It's impossible to have that sense of community when current culture is focusing on individuality, and what you want to do with your life and setting up for the life you want to have," said Rhoades. "It's very focused around where you want to go, not so much on your role in the community."

If given the opportunity in future classes, Rhoades would enjoy being able to have a larger sample size and do more comprehensive research. Due to time constraints, she said she didn't have time to reach out to more people, so it was hard to draw accurate conclusions. 

Rhoades said her mother has particularly looked forward to hearing what she found and they've shared engaging conversations about what the sense of community really means. 

Reach reporter Michelle Vlasak at 507-333-3128. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.  All rights reserved.

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