Call her a ‘farm woman’ — not a ‘farmer’s wife’

Local ‘Women for the Survival Of Agriculture’ founder releases memoir

WINCHESTER — As Dianne Harkin recalls it, being a farmer in the 1970s put you low enough in society’s pecking order. To be a woman married to a farmer added a whole other dimension to the challenges.

Bridling at the inequities around her in 1975, Harkin co-founded ‘Women for the Survival Of Agriculture’ (WSA) to raise awareness of the issues then faced by female farmers as well as the economic pressures felt by all farmers in general.

Women shared the on-farm physical chores and often handled the books all by themselves, she recalls, and yet they were pigeonholed as “farmer’s wives,” not true business partners. Seated in the livingroom at the farmhouse where she has lived since those days, Harkin, 85, declares: “We were just the invisible women that did all the same [work as the men].”

But that began to change, she says, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the WSA, which took root after Harkin and Crysler resident Ghislaine Brassard started it. The movement quickly grew to include chapters and affiliated groups in every province.

Women simply “were not recognized as an integral part of the farm,” she explains, holding court with the media last Saturday at the launch of her memoir — They Said We Couldn’t Do It —chronicling the history and accomplishments of the now-defunct organization, which she chaired.

The WSA grew into an assembly of about two dozen women locally but also spawned chapters and affiliated groups to become a political force across the country.

Shucking off their old marital label, the newly formed group pushed for recognition of the term “farm woman” or simply “farmer” to more accurately describe themselves.

(She points out that a female doctor wouldn’t have put up with the title of “doctor’s wife” if she were married to another physician, so why was a female farmer defined by her marriage to another farmer?)

A popular agricultural magazine in Wisconsin even wound up changing its name from “The Farmer’s Wife” to “The Farm Woman” as a condition of Harkin’s to write a column for the publication, she remembers with a smile.

“Lots of little subtle changes took place as people became more aware,” she adds, noting how almost every local farm name was a variation of John Smith & Sons but then evolved to “John and Mary Smith and Family.”

Other changes weren’t so subtle.

Canadian laws were amended to recognize legal partnership arrangements between spouses in agricultural support programs, she says, crediting the group’s lobbying efforts.

The Federal Income Tax Act was changed to allow women to claim a wage for their labour within a family business. As a result, for the first time, they could contribute to the Canada Pension Plan or its Quebec equivalent. This also benefited the men, she points out, because farm households began drawing two CPP cheques at retirement, instead of one.

The WSA also helped to drag banks and lending institutions into the late 20th century, she says, ultimately cajoling them into approving credit for farm women who dared apply for funds independently. The bankers, she says, had otherwise demanded a husband co-sign any loan offered to a married woman. Even into the 1970s, she says, women who had built up their own credit while single were surprised to learn that their credit was wiped out upon marriage — absorbed into their husbands’ files.

Many of the improvements arose from the WSA’s 1980 national conference that drew 100 women from across the country to  the Chateau Laurier. Several papers on subjects of concern — which the group commissioned from university students — were presented. Several government ministers also attended, she says, proudly noting the lawmakers’ eagerness to act on a slew of recommendations from the very outset. And they followed through.

It’s all recorded in the author’s new book — written, she says, “because I just knew that we had changed history for rural women, and it was a piece of history that needed to be recorded.”

She credits her late husband, Dan — a former president of the Dundas Federation of Agriculture — with inspiring her to start the WSA after he watched a similarly-minded female speaker from the U.S. at a Toronto farm conference. “He said, ‘She’s saying all the things you’ve been saying. Why don’t you write to her?’ So I did, and she wrote me back saying, ‘Start a WSA in Canada — give ‘em hell!’”

Harkin emphasizes the movement also aimed to support Canadian farmers and farming generally — both men and women — at a time when there was substantial hardship in Canadian agriculture. “Farmers were being treated like crap.” Some were committing suicide under the weight of soaring interest rates of the day.

Even the North Dundas beef farm Harkin shared with her husband felt the effects, when the bank called their loan, which triggered a search for replacement financing and compelled him to find work off the farm. That process raised her awareness about signing away family rights when co-signing a loan. So she refused to sign the first alternative, as did her husband. “Dan said, ‘If she’s not going to sign, I’m not going to sign.’”

She cottoned on to the issue, she says, during a legal course at Kemptville targeted to farm women, one of a 100 different courses rolled out at the school in coordination with WSA. The College had approached her about offering courses for farm women after the men in a business course said it was their wives who actually kept the books on the farm. The instructors “realized they needed to be talking to the right people.”  

Such was the influence and profile of the WSA, then-premier David Peterson came courting to the Harkin family kitchen, trying to persuade her to run for his party in a 1980s provincial election.

She also credits the organization for introducing an element of social awareness to traditional farm organizations like the Federation of Agriculture, as the women of the WSA branched out and got involved with these formerly male bastions.

Eventually, the WSA outlived its usefulness and ceased in the mid-1980s. “We did what we set out to do,” explains the co-founder, who went on to become a member of the Order of Ontario and a two-term appointee to the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, among a number of other appointments.

She also made her mark locally as a founding member of Naomi’s Family Resource Centre.

So much achieved from agricultural activism, and to think that Harkin never envisioned herself as a “farmer’s wife” at all. Her grandmother had seriously warned her against marrying one, unless she wanted to “work like a slave, be old before your time, live in poverty, and be treated like a third class citizen.”

Harkin thought she had followed that advice when she got hitched to a boy from the same rural suburb of Montreal where she grew up.

But she was “drafted” into agriculture, she jokes, when her husband got the farming bug after they moved to Toronto, which led them to the Winchester and Morewood area. She sees a parallel with the story of her great grandmother — subject of Harkin’s next book — who walked across the Oregon trail to become a farmer in Washington state, and “how the men dragged the women along, they didn’t want to go,” she says, laughing, “Well, I was dragged into agriculture, too, so nothing changes.”

They Said We Couldn’t Do It: The Story of a Quiet Revolution is available for $25 per copy. Find it at Winchester Print, the post office in Carlsbad Springs, and local lawyer Doug Grenkie’s law offices in Chesterville and Morrisburg. More outlets are planned.

Or download and print this online order form and follow the instructions to have a copy shipped.


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