Working the Land
The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West
Sandra K. Schackel
Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Award
Helen Tiegs didn't take to driving a tractor when she became a farmer's wife, but after fifty years she considers herself the hub of the family operation. Lila Hill taught piano, then ultimately took a job off the farm to augment the family income during a period of rising costs. From Montana's cattle pastures to New Mexico's sagebrush mesas, women on today's ranches and farms have played a crucial role in a way of life that is slowly disappearing from the western landscape.
“Farm and ranch women will be able to relate to the experiences of her subjects; women who have never set foot on a ranch but yearn to go West and ‘work on the land’ might change their minds after reading it. . . . Schackel covers: the work; flexible gender roles; working for wages to supplement farm income; ranch tourism; and rural women as activists.”
—Journal of Arizona History
“The stories of the thirty-one women’s lives that Schackel includes are compelling.”
—Montana The Magazine of Western HistorySee all reviews...
“An intimate portrait of western women, from west Texas to eastern Oregon, who found satisfying work, a place to forge strong family ties, a love of land and animals, and imposing social and financial challenges in the routines of modern agriculture. . . . Reading this book is like leafing through a lovingly produced family album, and by the time you finish, you wish many of these women were your relatives.”
—Oregon Historical Quarterly
“Schackel revels in the fact that these women have played a vital role in ranch life, and have thus helped define the American West. . . . This documentation of the lives of ranch women and the indispensable roles they play was long overdue.”
—New Mexico Magazine
“Filled with fascinating stories and a valuable insight into how agriculture has evolved in the American West. . . . [This book is educational and is] filled with the stories of a generation dedicated to preserving the land and a way of life that is threatened daily by outside forces, especially the economy and the fickle nature of working the land.”
“Though there is increasing academic interest in the experiences of rural women, few books provide the level of personal details, histories, and stories about the lived experience of rural ranch and farm daughters/wives/mothers—either historically or in modern times—as does Working the Land. The book’s most impressive aspect is that an academic historian wrote it, but it reads almost like a novel. Schackel does not just tell the stories of rural farm and ranch women; she weaves their stories together within the context of the important and ongoing decline in the idea of the family farm and its economic root causes. Highly recommended.”
“An impressive book that tells a multifaceted story of economic survival in troubled times, of strong women wrangling animals and running mowers, and also doing all of the other things necessary to run a farm or ranch.”
—Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, author of Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest
“Skillfully weaves together personal stories and recent scholarship to show how contemporary farm and ranch women of the Mountain West find value and stability in their lives.”
—Susan H. Armitage, coeditor of The Women’s West
“A captivating and illuminating book.”
—Brian Q. Cannon, author of Reopening the Frontier: Homesteading in the Modern WestSee fewer reviews...
Recalling her own family-farm ties, Sandra Schackel set out to learn how these women's lives have changed over the second half of the twentieth century. In Working the Land, she collects oral histories from more than forty women—in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas—recalling their experiences as ranchers and farmers in a modernizing West.
Through this diverse group of women-white and Hispanic, rich and poor, ranging in age from 24 to 83—we gain a new perspective on their ties to the land. Although western ranch and farm women have often been portrayed as secondary figures who devoted themselves to housekeeping in support of their husbands' labors, Schackel's interviews reveal that these women have had a much more active role in defining what we know as the modern American West.
As Schackel listened to their stories, she found several currents running through their recollections, such as the satisfaction found in living the rural lifestyle and the flexibility of gender roles. She also learned how resourceful women developed new ways to make their farms work—by including tourism, summer camps, and bed-and-breakfast operations—and how many have become activists for land-based issues. And while some like Lila made the difficult decision to work off the farm, such sacrifices have enabled families to hold onto their beloved land.
Rich with memory and insight into what makes America's family farms and ranches tick, Working the Land provides a deeper understanding of the West's development over the last fifty years along with new perspectives on shifting attitudes toward women in the workforce. It is both a long-overdue documentation of the lives of hard-working farm women and a celebration of their contributions to a truly American way of life.