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This project focuses on the construction of gender roles in relation to crofting and the division of labour. Although life on the Western Isles has changed, the involvement of women in crofting is still viewed as less important than that of men. Men continue to dominate society on the islands, and crofting practices often help to reinforce gender stereotypes. The link between women and crofting is particularly interesting because it fits into the wider framework of women’s role in agriculture in general. This project draws on literature recognizing the importance of women’s work on and off the farm, trying to address the imbalance in perceptions of the value of different kinds of work. Crofting is central in articulating masculine identity and croft work is often gendered. Now that women have jobs off the croft, the question is whether that has altered gender divisions of labour. Primary research was conducted over a ten day period in the Western Isles, mainly in the form of semistructured interviews with people involved in crofting. This research discovered signs that Island society is changing in terms of expectations and practices, as demonstrated by the women that work crofts alone and the shift towards other kinds of employment. Stereotypical gender roles have been blurred somewhat, aided by the influx of incomers. However, it is also clear that a form of patriarchy is still present in most communities. In many cases it is still the men that do the manual outdoor labour on the croft and it is normal for the oldest son to inherit the croft. Studies suggesting that women who marry into crofting are viewed as being less involved with agricultural work than their husbands have been corroborated by this research. It is not that their actual involvement is less, but their work is undervalued by themselves and others. This research has also confirmed what previous studies have argued in terms of women’s off-farm work – although it can be empowering, it can also cause tension in the household as men lose their traditional status as earner and provider. Crofting appears to be central to ideas about heritage and identity, which may be part of the reason that the construction and reinforcement of gender roles has remained fairly patriarchal. Society on the Western Isles is becoming more equal, but crofting remains an important practice through which gender roles are constructed, albeit in a slightly different way than in the past. In most cases women are still placed on the sidelines of crofting, rather than being allowed to involve themselves fully and have their work acknowledged. This project points to the need for further research into how gender roles are constructed through the practice of crofting, and the effect of changes in policy in particular.
In this project I look at how gender roles are constructed in relation to crofting and the division of labour. I argue that although life on the Western Isles has changed since crofting began, the involvement of women is still viewed as less important than that of men. Men continue to dominate society on the islands, and crofting practices often help to reinforce gender stereotypes. The link between women and crofting is particularly interesting because it fits into the wider framework of women’s role in agriculture in general. In this project I draw on literature about recognising the importance of women’s work on and off the farm, trying to address the imbalance in perceptions of the importance of different kinds of work 1
(Shortall 2002). I situate my research in the Western Isles within this literature on gender roles within agriculture, suggesting that more work needs to be done on women’s relationship to crofting.
Island life in general can be seen as very masculine, with the traditional occupations of crofting and fishing practised almost solely by men. Traditionally men have done most of the outdoor work while women take care of the household chores and other local tasks. In the case of crofting, men typically worked at sowing and moving animals, with women seen as ‘helping out’ at busy times of year such as during the harvest (Brandth 1994). Crofts differ from other kinds of small or family farms in that the scale is much smaller - they were not designed to support a family so people were forced to sell their labour. Nowadays most crofters either have multiple occupations such as fishing or tourism, or have expanded their crofts through multiple tenancies to create a larger patch of land to farm. In most cases farms and crofts are inherited by the eldest son, fitting into the patriarchal tradition (Deseran and Simpkins 1991). This means that it is generally the man who has the background in crofting and it is possible that the fact that women often marry in to crofting has an impact on perceptions of their role and the work they undertake (Deseran and Simpkins 1991; Shortall 2002). Crofting is central in articulating masculine identity and croft work is often gendered, with women carrying out the tasks close to home and fanks an important site for affirming male crofting identity (Macdonald 1997). Even now it is expected that sons will work the croft with their father, even if they have minimal personal interest in crofting, whereas daughters are not expected to help in the same way. Like Shortall says, ‘Agriculture is imbued with a strong gender ideology that will not easily be shaken’ (2002: 161). Now that women have jobs off the croft, the question is whether that has affected how much work they put into the croft and whether it has altered gender divisions of labour. As Brandth argues, ‘the professional title ‘farmer’ has always been a man’s title’ (1994: 131).
Understanding the Western Isles: Methodology This project draws on research conducted in the Western Isles. My main primary research comes in the form of semi-structured interviews that I carried out over a 10 day period in June 2011 while on a fieldtrip to Skye, North Uist, Lewis and Harris. While visiting these islands I also made use of direct participant observation to better understand the day to day lives and experiences of people (and women in particular) on crofts on the Western Isles. Most of the literature studying gender roles within agriculture relies on research collected 2
through interviews with those involved in farm work, which is partly why I decided semistructured interviews were the best way of collecting material.
Meeting people: Semi-structured interviews I carried out a series of semi-structured interviews including eight in-depth interviews, as well as some other less in-depth conversations. I was interested in talking to both men and women who live and work on crofts to get an idea of the differing perceptions of women’s role on the croft. As Saugeres says, interviews are ‘appropriate to uncover women’s and men’s constructions of themselves in relation to the social world’ (2002: 147), and it is important to understand how gender identities are constructed through language and discourse in order to explore meanings of gender. I utilized the snowballing technique to gain contacts, allowing me to seek out interviewees with particular crofting backgrounds (Flowerdew and Martin 1997). While I had a list of certain open-ended questions, others arose during the interviews, allowing for the exploration of emerging themes and the communication of personal stories and opinions (Seidman 1998).
In addition to interviews on location, I talked to two crofters via the medium of social media. A crofter from Lewis contacted me through Twitter after noticing my interest in crofting and he expressed willingness to help with my research, so I sent him some questions and he responded. He also recommended contacting a female crofting friend of his, so I was able to get her input as well. In this way I was able to talk to a number of different people involved in crofting and gather a range of opinions. Most interviewees were very happy to talk about crofting, though the involvement of women was a slightly more sensitive subject with some. In order to protect the identities of those willing to participate in my research I have used pseudonyms for all interviewees mentioned in this project.
Experiencing island life: Observation Observation was a key part of my research in the Western Isles, as it has been in many previous studies. I visited a number of different communities which allowed me to better understand the everyday lives and experiences of people on crofts. I was able to watch people working as well as actually participating myself, all of which helped me to appreciate the nature and tradition of crofting and crofters.
Themes: Patriarchal society 3
As Little and Leyshon say, ‘Rural communities are spaces characterized by highly traditional gender identities’ (2003: 270). The Western Isles are no different, having a traditionally patriarchal society that can lead to gender inequality on farms (Argent 1999; Deseran and Simpkins 1991). Farm women are defined in relation to men, and identities within the family are bound up with ‘ideologies of ‘wifehood’ and ‘motherhood’ which naturalize inequalities’ (Whatmore 1991: 92). These gender roles are shaped and reshaped in everyday work practices and expressed through the gendered division of labour (Brandth 1994; Brandth and Haugen 1998; Liepins 1995; Nightingale 2011; Saugeres 2002; Whatmore 1991). Valentine argues that ‘the identity of particular spaces... are in turn produced and stabilized through the repetition of the intersectional identities of the dominant groups that occupy them... such that particular groups claim the right to these spaces’ (2007: 19). This can be applied to crofts, in that men have historically been the ones spending most time on the croft itself, thereby making women feel unwelcome in that space. As Saugeres argues, ‘Because farming is constructed as masculine, farmers’ discourses and practices come to reinforce and legitimate the boundaries that maintain this space as masculine’ (2002:157).
In the past women were expected to stay at home while the men went out to provide for the family, and as Gasson says, ‘Habitual minimising of the wife’s contribution to farming is a logical outcome of the low value which society places on women’s domestic work.’ (1980: 84). Although involvement in housework does not limit activity in agricultural production (Whatmore 1991), it has been argued that women contributed to work in the fields ‘but were not seen as being responsible for it’ (Saugeres 2002: 149). However, crofting has declined in recent years, leading to a reliance on other occupations. Alongside this decline a change in society’s attitudes towards women and work generally has occurred. It is now accepted that women will have jobs as well as men, and all of the women I talked to had jobs off the croft. As one crofter I talked to put it, albeit in a slightly patronizing way, ‘we need the women to go out to earn money for the little luxuries’ (Jack, Interview, 10 June 2011). Some men find the loss of their status as ‘breadwinner’ disconcerting and hard to adjust to and this can lead to a failure to accept the importance of a woman’s role on the croft and elsewhere. It can also mean that women themselves downplay the work they do on crofts in order to avoid hurting their husband’s pride or status as a man and a crofter. One woman I talked to called Harriet had married into crofting. She described her husband as a crofter, but not herself, saying that she helps out a bit but ‘only if he’s very nice to me’ (Interview, 7 June 4
2011). However, from conversations with other members of the community I discovered that Harriet was in fact seen as the woman most involved in crofting in the village. She plays down her role so that the community does not think less of her husband (Alice, Interview, 7 June 2011). This demonstrates how women are not completely free to work as they like, and still have to think about the expectations of the local community. The opportunities available and acceptable to women are built on strong assumptions and expectations about belonging within a rural community. As Little points out, ‘Women’s place in the rural community… is strongly influenced by a powerful rural ideology which incorporates very entrenched ideas about women’s true role and is characterized by traditional gender relations.’ (1991:103).
So although some women do contribute to work on the croft, as well as having other jobs, the acknowledgement of this fact can bring stress and conflict (Argent 1999). Primacy is still given to farming as an occupation, leading to an ideology where it is seen as the main activity even when subsidized by off-farm work (Shortall 2002). This is supported by my research, with many describing themselves as crofters despite working at numerous other things as well. In my time on Innes’ croft, he said you ‘Couldn’t support a wife and family with a croft’ (Participant observation, 9 June 2011). This indicates that the traditional gender stereotype that men need to earn money to support women is still present, at least in the older generations. In the case of Daniel and his family, both his parents have jobs outside the croft:
the way it always worked in our family was that the men (me, my father, my grandfather) would be out on the croft in their spare time, while the women looked after the home. With my mother being in professional work and my father fishing, my father and I would often spend all of Saturday working on the croft or some other outdoors activity, while my mother would catch up on housework etc. My mother only really got involved when we needed help shearing and lambing. (Personal communication, 13 October 2011)
This demonstrates how the division of labour is still gendered, even now that women are working in full time employment. It is still the men who do the outdoor croft work, while the women deal with the household tasks.
Even as it has become more acceptable for women to work, they have continued to be excluded from certain areas. The mechanization of farming, for example, has led to the increasing marginalization of women (Saugeres 2002; Brandth 1995). Women used to gather hay after men had scythed it but now there are machines to do it all, and as Jack put it, ‘a 5
machine is worth two women’ (Participant observation, 10 June 2011), while Beth argued that ‘Although there was a time where women would do a fair amount of the work, it is mostly men who croft now’ (Personal communication, 17 October 2011). Women’s work on farms is often reduced to secondary tasks such as those described by Harriet, who said ‘me and the girls feed the pet calves and do some peat cutting but not much else’ (Interview, 7 June 2011). This fits in with gender stereotypes and demonstrates how ‘male farmers keep women in subordinate positions’ (Saugeres 2002: 144). As Saugeres says, ‘culturally defined ideas of masculinity and femininity among farming families are inherent to social and cultural constructions of farming in a particular place’ (2002: 145), and notions of masculinity and femininity are central to the work practices performed by men and women (Harris 2006). An example of this is Jack’s description of crofters on Lewis as ‘big softies’ because women are involved in the peat cutting, whereas on North Uist the practice is seen as ‘very male’, and he and his son do it together (Interview, 10 June 2011).
It is not just men who enforce this continued patriarchal society: women play a role too. For example, in downplaying her role on the croft, Harriet is reinforcing gender stereotypes. On a more obvious and extreme level, Irvin recounted a story about a friend whose wife was angry at finding him hoovering (Interview, 13 June 2011). And when I asked Alice what women’s involvement in crofting was, she replied ‘Nothing. Stay away from it as much as possible.’, before proceeding to detail the work various other women she knew did on the croft (Interview, 7 June 2011). This demonstrates how women contribute to the construction of stereotypical gender roles on the Western Isles, whether it is through actively imposing a specific gender division of labour, or through failing to acknowledge the importance of the work women do.
Expectations There are certain gendered expectations of men and women, particularly in rural societies such as those on the Western Isles. Even now men tend to dominate public arenas, while it is still nearly always the eldest son who inherits the croft, regardless of whether he is interested in maintaining that occupation or not. As Daniel told me, ‘crofts were left to the firstborn son so men were the default crofters’ (Personal communication, 13 October 2011). When I met Innes he was working on a tractor with his son, who had been ‘brought up being expected to keep working the croft’ (Participant observation, 9 June 2011). Jack also makes his son help out on the croft despite the fact that ‘he’s not keen on crofting’ (Interview, 10 June 2011). 6
This suggests that it is still the case that as a social category, masculinity is given higher status than femininity. In the case of Irvin, one of four children, the croft was passed down to him as the oldest son. According to him, he was the most involved of all the children because it was tradition and it was expected of him. He remembers being ‘dragged by the ear by my dad’ and was once woken up on a Saturday morning to separate two rams fighting – ‘my friends used to be playing football while I was cutting peat. I might have been a great footballer!’ (Interview, 13 June 2011). Women were just not expected to help on the croft, or ‘maybe if you only had daughters’. This shows how women are still being marginalized and excluded from the culturally defined realm of masculine activities (Saugeres 2002; Grace and Lennie 1998). Both Jack and Innes have daughters as well as sons, but it is the sons who are expected to continue with work on the croft, while their daughters find work elsewhere.
Land is of huge material and symbolic importance in the social relations of farming, and women’s legal and financial interest in farmland is often limited (Whatmore 1991) – few women have crofts in their name. Nightingale agrees with the importance of land in constructing gender roles, saying that ‘Land management is integrally bound up in social relations, and... is a key arena wherein social and power relations are played out’ (2011: 154). A number of interviewees said that the majority of women who own or work on a croft only do so because there was no-one else to take it on. For instance, Irvin’s opinion was that traditionally most female crofters were widows, continuing to work on their husbands crofts. According to him there are some female crofters, but ‘I’m not being sexist or anything but it’s hard work, it needs strength’ (Interview, 13 June 2011), while Keith agrees, saying that ‘lots of the work is heavy - there are women that do it but you have to be totally dedicated’ (Interview, 13 June 2011). Irvin argued that the most successful female crofters are those that are from the island originally, and grew up on croft. Beth backs this up, saying:
in my village, the ‘old’ crofters knew my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and in some cases, great grandparents. This means that they are aware where I come from and that I should be capable of the kind of work involved with crofting - regardless of my gender. (Personal communication, 17 October 2011)
Beth argues that the fact that she has been part of the community for a long time and that everyone knows her, means she is able to croft without conforming to patriarchal expectations. In fact, she argues that it is the newcomers to island life and crofting who are the ones with more traditional ideas about gender roles.
It’s usually assumed that men will make a better job of ‘picking it up’ than women. I have experienced surprise that I was able to undertake the tasks of building a fence, although this did come from people who were new to crofting and seemed to be under the illusion that women weren’t capable of physical work! (Personal communication, 17 October 2011)
However, Gasson (1980) actually argues that a woman’s chances of being active in farming are greater if they start farming together with their partner rather than marrying into it. This view is supported by my interview with Darren who works a croft with his wife. They are incomers who fell in love with Harris on a holiday and as such found it hard to get a croft. The tenancy is in his wife’s name because there are strict guidelines surrounding croft tenancy and Darren was too old. (Interview, 11 June 2011). Nonetheless, it is true that many farmers’ wives are from a non-agricultural background and perhaps only get involved because they are married to farmers (Shortall 2002; Deseran and Simpkins 1991). It is certainly the case that a number of the women I talked to had married into crofting. This may be one of the reasons that a wife’s contribution ‘was frequently taken for granted, overlooked and under-valued, both within the family and beyond the farm gate… agricultural work tends to be defined as the work that men do’ (Gasson 1992: 83).
Changing times However, there is also evidence to suggest that patriarchal traditions are changing, within crofting as well as wider Island society. Irvin attempted to explain this to me, admitting that ‘women were suppressed in the past’, but arguing that ‘I seem to be doing a lot of washing in here [the hostel his daughter runs]. Things have changed at a personal level at least’ (Interview, 13 June 2011). He does little work on his croft at the moment, but if he does become active he expects his daughter to help out because ‘she’s always asking about what’s happening on the croft’.
There is also evidence that women are becoming more active on crofts and involved in policy. Irvin sits on a grazings committee with two women, while a number of people told me about an active crofter in her 70s who is not only a member of the Crofters Federation, but writes a column on crofting in the local paper. In terms of education, the Scottish Crofting Federation runs a programme on crofting in schools, and according to Darren, more than half of those enrolled are female. When I asked Daniel about female crofters, he responded that he 8
knew ‘quite a few’ and that women’s involvement in crofting now is ‘still vital. Many [are] crofters in their own right and as active as any man’ (Personal communication, 13 October 2011). This may have something to do with the number of incomers to the Western Isles. They have an impact on the community, bringing new ideas and ways of thinking and changing the structure of the community. Keith told me that in his experience more women incomers croft than those who grew up on the Islands.
‘I love the heritage that comes from crofting, and coming from the islands, it forms a huge part of our culture.’ (Beth, Personal communication, 17 October 2011)
Despite the incomers and accompanying changes, the sense of heritage and family tradition voiced by Beth is echoed by many of those I interviewed. Both Beth and Daniel, the youngest people I spoke to, emphasized the fact that their family had worked the same croft for years. Both had the choice of whether to be crofters themselves, and both chose to continue because they love it. Beth inherited the croft from her mother: ‘It was expected that somebody would take over the croft and work the land and I’d always wanted to be a crofter - it was what I grew up with and what I love doing’ (Personal communication, 17 October 2011). Daniel had a similar attitude, saying, ‘I see being a crofter as a part of my way of life. I could easily have not carried on, but it has always been of interest to me’ (Personal communication, 13 October 2011). Even those no longer actively working the croft view themselves as crofters by virtue of their family and upbringing. For instance, Catherine told me that despite being a fisherman and no longer doing any work on the croft, her husband sees himself as a ‘crofter by heritage’ (Interview, 7 June 2011). This sense of heritage seems to cross generations, irrespective of gender. Beth voices this, saying ‘I like that fact that it’s [the croft’s] not mine I’m only looking after it for the next generation, as generations did before me’ (Personal communication, 17 October 2011). In this way crofting is seen as an important tradition and part of life in the Western Isles for both men and women.
Conclusion This report has attempted to analyse the ways in which gender roles are constructed and reinforced through crofting in the Western Isles. There are signs that Island society is changing in terms of expectations and practices, as demonstrated by the women that work 9
crofts alone and the shift towards other kinds of employment. Stereotypical gender roles have been blurred somewhat, aided by the influx of incomers, and there are many couples who work their croft together. However, it is also clear that a form of patriarchy is still present in most communities. It varies from place to place, and from family to family, but in many cases it is still the men that do the manual outdoor labour on the croft and it is normal for the oldest son to inherit the croft. It is still the case that ‘the masculine is the norm’ (Brandth 1994: 144). Those women that do croft themselves are seen as a little eccentric by others in the community – Keith described them as ‘diehard’ (Interview, 13 June 2011).
Studies suggesting that women who marry into crofting are viewed as being less involved with agricultural work than their husbands have been corroborated by my research. It is not that their actual involvement is less, but their work is undervalued by themselves and others. My research has also confirmed what previous studies have argued in terms of women’s offfarm work – although it can be empowering, it can also cause tension in the household as men lose their traditional status as earner and provider.
What is clearly articulated is the love people of both genders have for crofting, and its centrality to their ideas about their heritage and identity. It could be that this strong sense of heritage is part of the reason that the construction and reinforcement of gender roles through crofting has remained fairly patriarchal, as people cling to the past. Society on the Western Isles is becoming more equal, but crofting remains an important practice through which gender roles are constructed, albeit in a slightly different way than in the past. In most cases women are still placed on the sidelines of crofting, rather than being allowed to involve themselves fully and have their work acknowledged. This project points to the need for further research into how gender roles are constructed through the practice of crofting, and the effect of changes in policy in particular.
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