Where Did Women Work on New England Farms? Gender Roles in Farm Work

Background Notes

This brief report summarizes the state of available historical knowledge on the question of gender roles in farm work in rural New England 1790?1850, drawing on work previously undertaken by Old Sturbridge Village researchers and on more recent studies.

Transcription of Primary Source

On New England farms from the seventeenth through the nineteenth?centuries, there were long?traditional, widely observed gender boundaries that identified the fields and woods as men’s sphere and the house and garden as women’s sphere. Tillage crops, activities that required major physical force, the care of vehicles and large domestic animals, the handling of unprocessed raw materials, and the use of edge tools were customarily seen as the preserve of men. The infinitude of domestic and child?rearing tasks, the care of smaller animals, the garden, textiles, cloth and needlework, the art and mystery of the dairy, were women’s realm. Men’s and women’s activities interlocked and depended on each other for the successful functioning of the farm, yet were primarily distinct. 1

On most farms, most of the time, these boundaries and notions of separate, proper spheres of work for the sexes, held. Indeed, many New Englanders took pride in asserting that women in their region were less likely to be found in the fields than anywhere else in America or Europe. Timothy Dwight maintained in 1800 that “Women in New England were employed only in and about the house and in the proper business of their sex” ; Samuel Goodrich proclaimed in 1832 that the work of New England women “marks a high grade of society. Their employment is always domestic, and within the house, and they are never seen engaged in any agricultural occupations with men, as in almost every other country.”2

But we have come to see that these statements were not entirely accurate. Their generalizations were too sweeping.3 Some tasks on the farm were substantially interchangeable as to sex (and age) such as gathering berries and nuts, picking squash and pumpkins; in the farmyard, men’s and women’s roles frequently overlapped in the feeding and handling of domestic animals large and small. More significantly, New England women did sometimes work in the fields, crossing a more significant gender boundary under the pressure of necessity. By far the most common occasion that put women in the fields was haying, the most urgent farm labor of all. Robert B. Thomas’s Farmer’s Almanac in fact explicitly recognized the role of women in haying, urging them to “go into the field … before it rains” to rake hay. Pamela Brown of Plymouth, Vermont, noted without surprise that she returned home on an early August evening in 1837 and “found mother very tired by raking hay.” The diary of Samantha Barrett of New Hartford, Connecticut frequently records work turning and raking hay in the 1820s. Rural landscape paintings such as Jerome Thompson’s “The Haymakers” and Samuel Lancaster Gerry’s “Farm Wagon in New Hampshire” portray women working in the hayfields. A Litchfield, Connecticut farmer remembered of his youth in the 1840s that “all hands, women ’n’ all, would turn in ‘n’ rake and get in” the hay.4

Aside from haying, most New England farm women did not usually work in the fields or undertake other tasks normatively regarded as men’s work, but there is evidence that some of them did, under a variety of circumstances. One community?wide example is provided by the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut, and its fabled onion crop. Henry Colman noted in 1837 that the large onion fields there were “extensively and profitably cultivated … mainly by female labor.” Wethersfield men ploughed and manured the fields, but women sowed, cultivated, harvested and packed the crop for market.5 . Outside the specialized zone of Wethersfield’s market production, there are some specific examples of individual women who undertook less typical sorts of farm work. Diaries reflecting life on a couple of Connecticut farms provide three. In the late 1820s, Samantha Barrett and her sister Zeloda recorded not only raking hay but a variety of predominantly male activities: digging potatoes, harvesting and husking corn, managing some of their own livestock, and keeping accounts of exchange with their neighbors. In 1844?45, Hannah Hicock Smith of Glastonbury noted in her diary that she too harvested corn, “cut stock for the cows and gave [it to] them over the fence,” tended large as well as small domestic animals, assembled posts and rails to mend a badly smashed hogpen, and cut wood for the fire while her daughters sowed grass seed in the orchard field.6

And in the reminiscences of farmer and teamster Asa Sheldon we can find an example of a young woman gracefully combining domesticity with work that crossed over into men’s territory. Around 1850, Sheldon encountered a noteworthy “young lady” on a New Hampshire farm which he was considering for purchase. Because her father was not at home, she dressed in “hat, frock and boots” to walk the farm’s boundaries with him; she then brought the cattle in, tied them up in the main barn, and showed him the corn barn. “My guide informed me that it had all been measured in the ear, and estimated to be four hundred bushels shelled corn, and that she and her father planted it all.” When they returned to the house, “our heroine now laid aside her farm dress, appearing as neatly dressed as any young lady could wish to be, and assisted her mother in preparing supper.”

Afterwards “she again put on her frock, and lighting a lantern, went to the barn and helped her father put up the team.” Later in the evening, this young female paragon went once again to the barn to feed the oxen, and then “seated herself at her piano and entertained us for a while with music.”7 These were not entirely ordinary women. Samantha and Zeloda Barrett were women who never married but, living with their widowed mother, determinedly ran their family farm. Hanna Hicock White was a widow who was equally determined, with her five daughters (and no sons), to operate the farm her husband had left them. She was also unusually well?educated and accomplished, and a supporter of both anti?slavery and women’s rights. Sheldon’s New Hampshire paragon seems to have been a daughter without brothers in the household ?? and he went on to suggest that she was unusual, wishing “that I could mention a thousand young women like this instead of one.”

These were all situations in which the “normal” or customary balance between male and female labor on the farm no longer existed, and women were willing – or were allowed and encouraged – to fill the gap. Continuing intensive scrutiny of the historical record will surely find other examples of women whose work took them beyond the bounds of custom.

Still, there were some kinds of farm work that New England women still seem clearly never to have done. There is no evidence that women ever ploughed, used scythes to mow hay, used sickles to harvest “small grains” such as rye, oats, barley and wheat, or that they worked in the woods cutting timber. Although the Barrett sisters and Hannah White were obviously determined to run their farms, they did not attempt these heaviest tasks themselves but hired local men to perform them through the customary networks of neighborhood exchange.

To summarize: Even in early nineteenth?century New England, a substantial number of New England women responded to the urgent needs of the haying season by going into the fields to rake, turn and load hay. A significantly smaller number of women – largely those who were maintaining agricultural operations without men in their households ?? worked with livestock, sowed, cultivated and gathered in the fields, dug potatoes and harvested corn, cut wood, and made minor repairs. With the exception of the heaviest, most traditionally male labor with plough, scythe, sickle or felling axe, it would certainly have been possible ? although except for haying, not commonplace ? to see women undertaking virtually all other kinds of farm work.

For the Village to show women performing these tasks, working in spaces where they were not typically represented but still could be found, is a change of emphasis or degree in an area where women’ and men’s spheres of work intersected. The typical, normative work roles in rural New England communities and families are clear. But there was flexibility around the boundaries in response to urgent situations and the needs of households without able?bodied men. We are responding to a 1990s shortage of male farm labor with an 1830s response to the same problem ??an approach that is both reasonable and particularly appropriate for a history museum.


1 Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790?1840 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) p.15?24, provides a general interpretation. .

2 Timothy Dwight, Travels in New?England and New?York … in Four Volumes (New Haven, Conn., 1822) vol. 4, p.474; Samuel G. Goodrich, A System of Universal Geography (Boston, 1832) p. 104.

3 Jack Larkin, “Women in the Workplace: Rural New England in the Early 19 th Century,” Old Sturbridge Village Research Paper, 1982, summarizes the evidence then available for rural New England. Subsequent research on farm women in New England has convinced me that work?roles on New England family farms, although generally conforming to the pattern .I described, were somewhat more flexible and permeable than I then believed. See Linda J. Borish, “The Lass of the Farm”: Health, Domestic Roles and the Culture of Farm Women in Hartford County, Connecticut, 1820?1870,” Ph.D. diss. University of Maryland, 1990, and Mary Babson Fuhrer, “On a Different Errand: Rural Women in Antebellum New England,” M. A. Thesis, George Mason University, 1994. Nancy Grey Osterud, Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth Century New York (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991) provides the most extended discussion so far of 19th?century rural women’s work roles in her study of the largely New England?settled Nanticoke Valley of New York.

4“Diary of Pamela Brown, 1837?38,” in The Diaries of Sally and Pamela Brown 1832?1838, Hyde Leslie 1887,Plymouth Notch, Vermont (Springfield, Vt., 1970); Samantha Barrett, Diaries, 1811?1829, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford ; Samuel Lancaster Gerry “Hay Wagon in New Hampshire,” oil on canvas, c 1840 (Old Sturbridge Village collections) and Jerome Thompson, “The Haymakers” (view of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont) oil on canvas c. 1850 (privately owned) provide visual evidence about the presence of women in the hayfields;. Charles Shepherd Phelps, Rural Life in Litchfield County (Norfolk, Conn., 1917) p. 39.

5 Henry Colman, First Report on the Agriculture of Massachusetts: County of Essex, 1837 (Boston, 1838) p 35.

6 Samantha Barrett, Diaries, 1811?1829; Zelodah Barrett, Diaries, 1804?5, 1820, 1830?31; Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford; Hannah Hicock Smith, Diary, 1844?45, Connecticut State Library, Hartford.

7 Asa G. Sheldon, Life of Asa G. Sheldon, Wilmington Farmer (Woburn, Mass., 1862) p. 360?362.

Curator Notes

Jack Larkin, Where Did Women Work on New England Farms? Gender Roles in Farm Work, (Sturbridge, MA, Old Sturbridge Village).

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.