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Laura Ingalls WilderBy History Associates

“The farmer’s wife must know her own business, which includes the greatest variety of trades and occupations ever combined…Think of them: cook, baker, seamstress, laundrywoman, nurse, chambermaid…She is a poultry keeper, an expert in dairy work, a specialist in canning, preserving and pickling – and besides all else, she must be the mother of the family and a smiling hostess.”

This 1919 excerpt from the Missouri Ruralist comes from then soon-to-be famous author Laura Ingalls Wilder. A woman’s role, she insisted in another article, “is a most important factor in the success or failure of the whole farm business.”

The Farm Credit Administration (FCA) agreed. Recognizing that loans were more likely to be repaid if women were involved, in 1937 FCA officially recognized farm wives as equal business partners to their husbands. That year, Production Credit Associations began to address their annual meeting notices to both husbands and wives.

“Many successful farms are not one-man businesses, but partnerships,” explained Julia Newton, who was chief of FCA’s family credit section at the time. Newton led the charge to help women become more involved in the finances of the business. This was a new development at Farm Credit at a time when it was not a common practice in American business.

In the earliest days of Farm Credit, women joined with men across the country to organize National Farm Loan Associations (NFLAs), which were the local organizations that provided Federal Land Bank loans to farmers. Rural women had influence, not only as partners in the family farm economy, but also as community activists. Their mission: to bring Farm Credit to life. It was a mission women like Wilder were proud to be a part of.

Backing her writings with action, Wilder helped found an NFLA in Mansfield, Mo. in 1917. She served as the association’s secretary-treasurer for more than a decade, keeping the books and distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan funds.

Women who held local leadership roles within Farm Credit found that collaboration with other women had its advantages. Laura Jarmuth, the secretary-treasurer of an NFLA in Sequim, Wash., held her most successful membership and loan meetings over coffee with farmers’ wives. As a farmer herself, she could hold her own with the men, too.

“We’re building up some real membership spirit,” she reported in 1938, a year in which her NFLA made 393 loans totaling nearly $1 million. That would amount to as much as $16.5 million today!

Despite the many cultural prejudices of the era, women helped pave the path to success for Farm Credit. While it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the number of females serving as association directors began to rise, women played essential roles even in the earliest days of Farm Credit’s history. They held clerical positions and helped members in their communities obtain the credit they needed to support their agricultural endeavors. This month, we celebrate the contributions of women serving rural America both yesterday and today.

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