Is it women’s work, or is it men’s work? From the outside looking in, it might be easy to assume that gender roles are frequently assigned to homestead tasks. It makes sense that people might think that, because homesteading requires a lot of specialized skills that many modern American occupations and lifestyles do not. And Hollywood has not helped dispel that image—I mean, who ever saw John Wayne baking cookies, right?
A lot of people picture the heavy lifting and icky stuff as male-only jobs, and the kitchen chores done by exclusively females. And on some homesteads, that is the case. But on many 21st-century homesteads—and I daresay on many homesteads in past centuries, as well—the question of who does what is more about skills, timing and necessity than anything else.
There is no wrong answer to the question of gender roles on the homestead. I’ve encountered couples and families who divide up work around the home and farm according to strict gender lines, and it works well for them. The men and boys work in the fields and forest and accomplish all things mechanical and dirty, while the women and girls keep food on the table and the home tidy and the children tended.
Other homesteads are anything but traditional. Many women work outside the home, providing financial security and access to health insurance with regular off-homestead jobs, and many men stay home to take care of kids, wash dishes, tend baby chicks, tend the garden, mow the lawn, and do errands. This system works great, too.
Most homesteads nowadays, however, seem to be an amalgamation of both traditional and non-traditional in most ways, not the least of which is who does what when it comes to chores and projects.
It is not uncommon to find a setup where she bakes bread and milks goats and drives the tractor and plucks chickens, while he goes to the kids’ baseball games and fixes the TV antenna and splits firewood and cans tomatoes. At my house, I’m in charge of livestock and my husband focuses on the vegetable garden. Some market gardeners I once met divide things up this way: she grows crops in one field using a tractor, and he manages another field using draft horses. An elderly neighbor who spent a lifetime homesteading with her husband told me that she often put in long days in her youth—she would work at her off-farm job all day, come home and fix supper, and head out to the fields to help with the haying until dark—but never resented it because he, too, was carrying a heavy load and working long hours.
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All people, both men and women, have particular challenges that make it harder for them to tackle certain tasks that others can do with relative ease. They might lack the upper body strength needed for driving cedar fenceposts into the ground or have a phobia about snakes that makes them anxious about working in areas of snake habitat or have seasonal allergies that keep them away from certain plants.
Everyone has definite strengths, as well. They may have a special way with animals that makes them easier to manage, or have a knack for keeping engines running, or be tall enough to throw hay bales into the loft without a ladder, or so skilled at cooking that they can create a delicious meal out of anything.
It makes sense for the person who can do the task more easily to do it whenever possible, letting jobs fall naturally into the hands of the one most likely to do them best. Sometimes people are equally capable and it comes down to preference. There are jobs that some of us really hate doing, and others that we don’t mind or even enjoy. My husband rarely asks me to take on tasks that I hate if he doesn’t mind doing them and has the time, and I afford the same consideration for his preferences, as well.
Timing matters, too. Not unlike most households, homesteaders often divide up chores according to who is available to do so at the time it needs to be done. One parent does evening chores while the other helps with the 4-H project, the person whose route home from work is closest to the feed store picks up grain on the way by, and everyone takes turns sitting up all night with a pregnant animal headed for a difficult delivery.
Timing is important not only in day-to-day operations but also seasonally. The partner who stays out of the kitchen for most of the year might spend the harvest season knee-deep in pressure canners and blanch pots, and the one who prefers to work indoors might have little choice but to make an exception during certain conditions.
Skills and routine timing aside, real life on a homestead means that sometimes stuff happens when it happens, and whoever is available is the person who is responsible for it. The sick mare, the broken gate, the predator in the chicken house, the sourdough starter needing to be stirred, the beans needing more water as they bake, or the dog getting porcupine quills in its nose—the person whose watch it is at the time is the person who has to take care of it.
Many homesteaders work more or less together on projects. For my husband and me, the most rewarding part of what we do is the privilege of doing it side-by-side as much as we can. Rather than spend a day on the homestead on opposite ends of the homestead, we often join forces for everything from firewood-processing to cooking to barn cleanouts.
The answer to the question of gender workload division on the homestead is that there is no one right answer. In relationships where tradition is paramount, it is likely that division of labor might reflect that philosophy. Other couples and families might do things very differently. It all works toward a successful homesteading venture, especially if skill, timing, necessity and the joy of spending time together are all taken into account.
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