National Farmers Union: How will you advance women leaders?

by Ash Bruxvoort, Plate to Politics Coordinator (all photos by Hannah Packman, National Farmers Union)

This January I was fortunate to get a break from the cold Iowa winter and spend three days in San Diego with approximately 90 women at the National Farmers Union Women’s Conference. This conference was particularly exciting because NFU decided to make women’s leadership and Plate to Politics a focus of the conference. Liz Johnson, our collaborator from VoteRunLead was the keynote speaker. Liz, Sarah Lloyd from Wisconsin Farmers Union, and I led Plate to Politics exercises throughout the conference.

Attendees from across the country self-identified in three groups. Women who planned to run for a leadership position in the next two to four years had a conversation about campaigning with Sarah, who ran for Congress in 2016. Women who wanted to run for leadership positions but didn’t have a specific goal identified their skills and potential paths with me. Potential campaign managers talked about supporting women candidates with Liz.

Many of these women are already incredible leaders in Farmers Union. There are women leading at all levels of the Farmers Union. Even so, the National Farmers Union board has only one woman on a 24-member board. Lone woman Heidi Secord, Pennsylvania Farmers Union President, encouraged other women to run for state president and other leadership roles in Farmers Union.

Farmers Union Board Members Discuss How to Advance Women

It’s worth noting that the National Farmers Union board was encouraged to observe the Women’s Conference during a Plate to Politics exercise. Since having a safe space for women to share their stories without observations from cisgendered heterosexual men is a key component of WFAN’s workshops, we asked the male board members to have a conversation about advancing women’s leadership in a separate space. Our friend Kriss Marion of Circle M Farm in Wisconsin facilitated a discussion about how male leaders in National Farmers Union will elevate more women into leadership roles in the organization.

Out of 230 key state and national leadership positions in the Farmers Union, 47 are held by women. That’s about 20 percent representation.

On many national and state Farmers Union boards there is only one woman if there is one at all. The women holding those positions are, undoubtedly, trailblazers—as are the women in staff positions in the Farmers Union nationally and locally, and women leading at the critical chapter level. And there are many successes to be found. The historic election of Alicia Razvi, a CSA farmer and Muslim-American woman, to president of the Wood-Portage-Waupaca Wisconsin Farmers Union chapter, was a moment of pride for many Farmers Union members.

But it’s time to move on from having one trailblazing woman in the room.

Intentionally Cultivating Women’s Leadership, Past, and Present

After male leaders from the Farmers Union board met to discuss how they will cultivate female leadership in the organization we asked for them to share their realizations and commitments. One of the first comments from the board was a hesitation about the board being only women. A desire for fairness and equality was contained in that sentence—but also fear. I ask, why couldn’t the leadership be primarily women when it has been almost exclusively men for so long?

Notably, some of the state boards with women are approximately half women. When women step into leadership positions they often bring more women and diverse leaders with them. Diverse leadership is better leadership, and one of the best ways to diversify leadership is to cultivate and encourage the voices of your most marginalized members.

If we reach back into Farmers Union history, we see that part of NFU’s original efforts included advocating for a women’s right to vote. In that history, we see that questions about how to get more women actively involved in the organization have been a focus for decades.

In her book On Behalf of the Family Farm: Iowa Farm Women's Activism since 1945, Jenny Barker Devine wrote, “The story of women in the [Iowa Farmers Union] during the 1950s illustrates the variable trajectories of social feminisms, how integrative strategies were often conditional and how, even as full members, women were still directed toward specific roles that limited their activities. As historian Roy Wortman has noted, a distinct woman’s voice in the [National Farmers Union] could only be attained if people were ‘willing to both listen and act on her counsel.’ In other words, the concept of inclusivity was not a sufficient motivator. Even modest attempts at integrating women could only be undertaken by a motivated membership with active male leaders who intentionally cultivated women’s voices.”

What Does the Future Hold for Women in the Farmers Union Family?

We believe that the strength and future of the National Farmers Union is in the voices of those women.

During the report-out from the NFU board, North Dakota Farmers Union president Mark Watne told female attendees they were capable of being state presidents and we are happy to hear that. After the Plate to Politics break-out discussions, we heard from so many women excited about ramping up their leadership and taking on leadership positions within Farmers Union and their communities.

We are happy to work with National Farmers Union to help advance the role of women in the organization. We have partnered with Farmers Union chapters across the country to bring women to Plate to Politics workshops and we will continue to work together to diversify the leadership of the organization.

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