I was four years old when someone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I answered, “I want to be a woman, a mommy, and a nurse.” In fewer words, I wanted to be my mom.
Over the years, my vocational aspirations changed endlessly, and though I am now a farmer instead of a nurse, I am a woman, and I still want to be a mommy. When I look back on my four-year-old answer, though, this is the part I celebrate most: I want to be a woman. At four, how could I have known the reality of womanhood? How could I have predicted the subtle, yet pervasive, inequality threaded through society? How could I have felt the resistance of a male-dominated world against the leadership of a woman? At four, how could I have known anything but the sure love between my parents, the silliness of tickle-fests, and the safety of my mother’s body?
As I grew, I watched my mother. I saw her cut lilacs in the back yard and place bouquets around our house. I saw her completing assignments for her Masters degree in Nursing Administration. I saw her laughing at my brother and dancing with my father. I saw her in her hospital office, Helen Spring, Chief Nursing Officer written on her door. I saw her reading endless books. I saw her fighting with my brother and disagreeing with my father. I saw her apologize and accept apologies. Never, though, did I see her apologize for being a woman, and I saw what I wanted to be: a strong, intelligent, generous, empathetic, loving woman.
Last night I read an article in Progressive Farmer on how more and more women are becoming farm owners and managers. Debbie Lyons Blythe, a Kansas farmer, is highlighted in the article, and is quoted as saying, “I’m a cattle rancher, not a woman cattle rancher. I just happen to be a woman.” This statement stopped me for a moment, and reminded me of an article about Vermont’s only female mayor that I read in Seven Days a few weeks ago. In it, Liz Gamache, Mayor of St. Albans, says, “I like to think people have me involved because of my approach, experience, and abilities. Not because I’m a woman.”
Hold on. Not a woman cattle rancher. Not because I’m a woman. Why do these women feel the need to excuse their womanhood? What is so wrong with being a woman cattle rancher? What is so wrong with being a woman in a leadership role?
For two years I worked on women-owned and operated farms, where most of the employees were also women. When I stepped onto Applecheek Farm, I found myself among men and tractors, and was suddenly unsure of myself. After the first week, my cousin Amy shed some light on my situation. “It’s hard to enter a traditionally male job,” she said as she took a break from dry-walling my parents’ garage, “but you need to remember that men and women bring different things to each situation. Those cows you’re working with are female, and they need a woman around them. You need to know that what you bring is important.” It took me a while, but I found what she meant. I think of Rocio, co-manager of Applecheek, calming a cow in the parlor simply by closing her eyes and putting her hands on the cow’s udder. The men usually wrestle through the kicking and manage to somehow get the milk pump on, but Rocio waited for permission. Later, I asked how she did that. “I just touched the cow and said I know. I’m a mother, too. I know it hurts, but milking will relieve the pressure. It’s okay. Thank you.” From then on, each time I milked, I gently touched the udder and said hello, and this action alone gave me confidence and calmed the cows. I do not see, then, how someone can divorce their womanhood, or manhood for that matter, from their person. I see instead how being a woman has informed my growth as a person, and how the female aspects of my nature are worth celebrating over and over.
I am twenty-five, and if you ask me what I am, I will tell you: I am a woman, a farmer, and a writer. I bring all of myself to each situation, including my womanhood, and I make no apologies.