Emily Hawley Gillespie of rural Manchester, Iowa, farmed with her husband in the late nineteenth century. In addition to her regular housework, childcare, sewing and cooking tasks, Emily had many farming chores. She planted and tended the garden, took care of chickens, picked and preserved fresh berries, canned grapes, made cheese, husked corn and cooked extra meals for threshers. To earn money she churned and sold butter, trimmed hats, and raised and sold over 100 turkeys a year.
Some of her farm chores provided her with extra money. Many farm women contributed their earnings to the cash income of the farmstead. Their work also brought other rewards. When women sold their homemade items, food and produce, they could spend time socializing with friends and neighbors.
Men's Work, Women's Work
Men and women had separate and different jobs on the farm. While men and boys worked outside building fences, digging wells, planting and harvesting fields, women and girls had other responsibilities. Gardening, taking care of chickens and turkeys, and preparing food were the central farm chores for women.
Box Up the Kids
The division of labor was not so rigid on the farm. Women worked in the fields too. Some women managed farms themselves. Matilda Paul plowed and milked when her husband became ill. When Matilda husked corn and dug potatoes, she put her youngest child in a large box for safety while she worked. "I shouldered my hoe and have worked out ever since," Matilda wrote her family. " . . . I wore a dress with my sunbonnet wrung out in water every few minutes and my dress also wet."
Pickin' Hog Guts
Many people think that farm women were isolated and lonely. But their work brought them in contact with other women. Women often watched each other's children, sewed for one another, visited town to sell their food and produce, or shared work. Harriet Brown Connor remembered working with a female neighbor. After the men brought a butchered hog into her kitchen, Connor and her friend picked hog guts "all day long."
With the money Emily Gillespie earned from selling homemade molasses and cheese, she purchased groceries and sewing supplies. Women used their extra income to buy schoolbooks for their children and machinery for the farm. Others contributed to the purchase of a new farm.
- Deborah Gore, Ed., “Farm Women,” The Goldfinch 8, no. 2 (November 1986): 9.