Women and Tractors on the Farm

Farm wives were quick to realize the benefits of new technology that alleviated some of the hard work, worry and fatigue on their husbands and work stock.

| July 2018

  • tractor-gas-engine-review
    The front cover of this 1920 farm magazine – featuring a tractor built by Moline Plow Co. – shows the transition into mechanized agriculture.
    Tractor and Gas Engine Review
  • This page from a 1920 issue of Tractor and Gas Engine Review shows tractors driven by women at work in the field.
    Tractor and Gas Engine Review

  • tractor-gas-engine-review

Every member of the family was important to the success of early farms. The farm wife was, in some ways, the most important. She not only bore and raised the children, but she also took care of all other family members at the most fundamental level.

As the farm scene changed in the early part of the 20th century, she is often overlooked in the narrative of that period. Even when there was some focus on her, it was superficial and brief.

Friends know of my lifelong activities as a historian, so it was not a surprise when, about a year ago, I was given a box of Tractor and Gas Engine Review magazines published in 1920 and 1921. Wonderfully preserved, the magazines are standard size printed on good paper. Published by Clarke Publishing Co. in Madison, Wisconsin, the magazine sold for an annual subscription of 50 cents (the rough equivalent of $6 today).

As I flipped through one issue, three photographs – each showing women driving tractors – caught my eye. The women are attired in long dresses and hats. The tractors are being used to do field work. Using a magnifying glass, I made out the name Frick on one fender.

On another tractor (wearing IHC emblems) with equally large fenders, the woman operator sits high above the fenders. The third tractor – an Avery – looks less refined. The woman operator sits exposed, with no fenders between her and the tractor’s large drive wheels.

Period of transition for the farm wife

The accompanying article, titled “Farm Women and Tractors,” spells out the fact that, in many parts of the world, women historically had done most of the agricultural work. In 1920, when the article was published, it was pointed out that European women did more farm work than their counterparts in the U.S., partially as a result of the Great War. During World War I, women provided much of the farm work in every country involved. The extreme number of war-related casualties (more than 1 million men were killed) made it necessary for women around the world to permanently fill the ranks of agricultural workers.