Women as Farm Workers

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, May 26, 1913:  I haven’t got much to write about for today. At present I feel extremely sleepy.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Was Grandma so tired because she’d worked very  hard on the farm all day?

Here’s an advertisement for a Philadelphia newspaper which appeared in the May 28, 1913 issue of the Milton Evening Standard that I thought you might enjoy.


Women as Farm Workers


One Result of the Labor Shortage in Pennsylvania

All of the farm, crop and market news of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware—what progressive farmers are doing.

Every day of the week, as well as on Friday, the PUBLIC LEDGER prints much of special interest to farmers, as well as all the news, local, foreign and domestic, tersely and interestingly told.


 Present Condition of Garden Crops in the territory that feeds Philadelphia

Poultry-Meat Farming vs. Egg Raising by Michael K. Boyer

Making Alfalfa Pay in the East by D.C. Kauffmann of York

Read the PUBLIC LEDGER regularly. By carrier, daily and Sunday, 17 center a week.

By mail, outside of Philadelphia, daily, 50 cents a month, daily and Sunday, 75 cents a month.


News Agents for Milton, Pa.


J. BUOY        A.H. KREBS

Independence Square   Public Ledger Company

Philadelphia               Cyrus H.K. Curtis, President

The Public Ledger was a Philadelphia newspaper which apparently hoped to expand its market into rural central Pennsylvania by including agricultural news.

Apparently it was controversial that women helped on their family farms—and articles which addressed these types of issues were seen as selling points for the paper.

26 thoughts on “Women as Farm Workers

  1. It is funny how the culture differs by region. Inthe East, certain jobs on the farm were almost “shameful” for a woman to have to do.HHomesteaders in the West gave up manyof those notions out of necessity, but I find in much of my reading of primary ddocuments of homesteaders that it was a point of pride when a man could say his wife never had to labor in the fields…just, of course, slaving away in the house and barnyard!

  2. Controversial? Surely it would have been impossible to get the farmwork done without the help of the women. Or perhaps this refers to paid farmworkers?

    1. There was a deep divide between what was considered “men’s work” (field labor and handling of most livestock, save cows & chickens) and “women’s work” (generally housework, tending garden, dairying, poultry, cooking, sewing, and various activities which produced income via piecework, such as braiding straw). This was especially true in the Eastern parts of the U.S. Homesteaders in the West often had to abandon these ideals inorder to survive, as the particularly large-scale farms necessary to raise western crops like wheat or beef cattle meant very often aall-hands-on-deck, including women and girls, in the fields. Thus my earlier statement about the point of pride in a man being able to say his wife of daughters did NOT have to work in the fields–it meant he was so successful that he could afford plenty of hired hands, and that was an unusually lucky man, indeed, in the West.

        1. You’re welcome! A really good book in the subject which gets into the early 20th Century in the West re women farming in Dakota is Barbara Handy-Marchello’s WOMEN OF THE NORTHERN PLAINS: GENDER & SETTLEMENT ON THE HOMESTEAD FRONTIER, 1870-1930. (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005). She covers a lot of the division of labor on the farm, how it differed by ethnic groups, and how it evolved over the decades.

          1. Thanks for all of the wonderful info. I had a sense that years ago farmers in Pennsylvania were considered more prosperous if their wives didn’t help with the fieldwork, but I couldn’t really explain the reasoning behind it until I read your comments.

            I’m going to have to look for the Women of the Northern Plains book. It sounds like something that I’d enjoy.

            1. I’m glad to discuss it. I don’t mean to say that women didn’t do a lot of farm work; they ALWAYS did. But, the genders performed different tasks in most cases. So, the farmer husbands were reluctant to have their wives help IN THE FIELDS, because that was considered shameful…that he was a poor provider. In the West, however, farming was on an enormous scale. Vast wheat fields and other large-acreage crops or livestock such as beef cattle often demanded more labor than the family’s resources alone could afford to HIRE labor. There was a lot of work exchanged when possible, but certain tasks were so time-sensitive and everyone had to do them in the same few days, that women soon had no choice but to help in the fields. Gradually, the associated shame dissipated in the western culture, but in the East, the shame lingered.
              Yankees who homesteaded in the west, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family, fit this pattern, and LIW touches upon this in her novels when Ma objects, then assents, to a 12-yr-old Laura helping with the haying. Yet, as an adult, Laura herself did a lot in the fields helping her husband. Her sister Carrie, and his sister EJ both homesteaded alone! So, attitudes amongst those families certainly evolved quickly.
              P.S. You all can tell me to shush anytime. I’m just really enjoying the conversations. 🙂

    1. I found this ad in an old issue of a central Pennsylvania newspaper, the Milton Evening Standard. Microfilms of the newspaper are available at the Milton Public Library.

      Many of the ads I use on this blog I get from old issues of Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and other magazines. I am very fortunate to have access to a really good library and can find the old issues of the magazines there. I then either take photos or make copies of the ads I find.

    1. Based on the diary entries Grandma sure seemed to do a lot of work around the farm. It seems like she had daily chores around the barn (milking cows, etc.) and helped with the field work during the busy periods.

      I also worked on my family’s farm when I was a child.

  3. This is a very revealing post. Thank you for the fliers and information. My grandmother–born in 1894–had a girlhood friend who married an older farmer when she was 17. Her parents had died, and the arrangement was that he bought the farm and she came with it. He was supposedly a good man, but it was not a happy marriage for a young girl who had dreams of doing other things. She had several children in a short time, and after the youngest baby died of scarlet fever, the young mother drowned in one of the ponds. She supposedly slipped and fell in.

  4. I always thought farming was a family affair anyway, and here in rural Virginia, I know of women farmers, and others here who could easily handle the job.

    1. It was a family affair in Pennsylvania, too. However, until the last 25 or 30 years, I don’t think that there were very many women who were considered to be “the farmer”. They might have done lots of farm work, but they were the farmer’s wife or the farmer’s daughter. Historically there may have been a few widows who were considered farmers–but I think that most turned much of management over to their son or other male relative. Times have changed–sometimes for the better. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I have a lot of fun doing research for this blog. Sometimes I am just browsing through an old publication–not looking for anything in particular–and I find something that is totally unexpected, but interesting to me. Then I look for a day where Grandma didn’t write much, so that I can share it. That’s what happened today.

  5. It really took all hands to make a farm succeed. The women were not always given the respect they deserved for their work. Another interesting post 🙂

  6. Wow, that was weird…seeing my Dad’s name on it. (W. A. Reed) Not him of course, but quite a coincidence.

  7. My dad is in his seventies and he grew up on an Ohio farm with old-fashioned farm ways. He was always mad that his sister wasn’t permitted to work out in the barn and fields. She was given organ lessons and did housework. What is unusual is that Grandmother helped in the fields, drove tractor and did a lot of heavy work. LOL

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