- "The Answer to the Auxiliary Syndrome":Women Involved in Farm Economics (WIFE) and Separate Organizing Strategies for Farm Women, 1976–1985
On the evening of 13 December 1976, more than seventy farm and ranch women from three states converged on the Fort Sidney Motor Hotel in the small panhandle city of Sidney, Nebraska. A short "squib" in the newspaper invited any interested person to join nine farm women from Cheyenne County, Nebraska to discuss recent downturns in agriculture, and to initiate a letter-writing campaign to President-elect Jimmy Carter. For Marilyn "Mickey" Spiker, one of the nine women from Cheyenne County, the response was overwhelming. The women had no political experience and no clearly defined mission aside from the letter-writing campaign. That evening, however, Spiker listened to them vent their "frustrations, and all of this resentment . . . They were on their feet, they were talking, and it made the meeting easy. We didn't have agenda one, but boy, we had a meeting." They chose a name, Women in Farm Economics, or WIFE, establishing a new organization for women to lobby state and federal officials on behalf of farm families.1
Unlike established, male-dominated farm organizations that placed women in auxiliaries or supportive roles, WIFE was among dozens of grassroots groups to emerge in the 1970s that cultivated female authority on agricultural issues and placed women directly in the public realm of state and federal politics. In its early stages of development, between 1977 and 1982, members carefully navigated the masculine worlds of agriculture and politics and sought to refine a unique, public voice for farm women in politics. Women who joined WIFE were often already active in community groups and agricultural associations, but believed them to be politically ineffective, especially women's auxiliaries within male-led organizations. Members utilized strategies from second-wave feminisms, but rather than portray WIFE as an affront to patriarchy, they rejected "women's lib" as being incompatible with their cooperative work relationships with men.
WIFE did not intend to "remake" rural America, or protest women's conditions [End Page 117] in rural communities, but rather to maintain viable, efficient family farms. As they set out to lobby politicians, educate the public, and raise awareness of economic hardship, their rhetoric celebrated farming and ranching as male occupations and presented WIFE as a group of educated, politically moderate "farm wives." Theirs was a "politics of dependence" that strengthened women's relationships with one another by emphasizing their sense of place and common rural experience. At the same time, women believed they needed to acknowledge their dependence upon men for access to land and a livelihood, and on familiar rural communities for resources and social relationships. They rooted their activism in agrarian ideals that upheld farmers as the hard-working, independent purveyors of American democracy, and family farms as the ideal mode of production. In doing this, members of WIFE gained access to state and federal governments, and became part of a growing movement to create new spaces for women in agriculture by asserting women's vital roles as agricultural producers.2
By the mid-1970s, farm and ranch women organized across the country in order to address increasingly unstable and unpredictable economic conditions. After years of growth, commodity prices fell dramatically while rising fuel prices and stagflation led to increased costs of agricultural production. This was further exacerbated by trends in rural depopulation, the subsequent loss of political power, and the "get big or get out" mentality that encouraged farmers to either invest in more land and equipment or leave farming all together. Agricultural leaders feared that rural depopulation created a power vacuum for farmers in Washington, DC, where sound farm policies and financial resources for price supports lost out to the interests of urban consumers and industrialists. In this same period, new household and agricultural technologies eased the burdens of cultivation and housekeeping, farm and ranch women experienced a significant readjustment in their work roles. Many women shifted their work to encompass activities such as bookkeeping, farm management, running errands, wage-earning jobs off the farm, and even political activity. For members of WIFE, then, gaining direct access to...