March 21, 2018 | By Regina Black

Guest Commentary - From American Gothic to Migrant Mother

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, The Next Generation, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to youth employement and agriculture in advance of the 2018 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 21 and 22.

By Regina Black, DowDuPont

Picture a farmer. What do you see? Overalls? Grey hair? Callused, dirt-covered hands? A man? You see the average US farmer who is, according the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 58-year-old male from Texas, Missouri, Iowa, or Ohio.
When you tell me to picture a farmer, this is not what I see. I see a teenage girl wearing stylish but functional jeans, using her iPhone to turn on her irrigation system. I see a young woman in a colorful patterned skirt cracking open cacao pods and sorting out its best seeds. I see an elderly woman, plucking tea leaves high on a luscious green hill.
Empowering women farmers is key to international security, but they are under-recognized and lack the rights and resources to effectively and efficiently fight their wars. Women are agriculture, but they are not its face – and that is a problem.
1 million women are farmers and ranchers in the USDA. Across the developing world, 43% of farmers are women (UN Food and Agriculture Organization). Women are growing, adding value to, selling, marketing, and feeding their families agricultural products at rates equal to or higher than their male counterparts. Women are conflict managers, fighting food insecurity, adapting to climate change, and creating innovative solutions to address the increasing lack of valuable environmental resources. Through food and agriculture, women are responsible for maintaining stability in their homes, which in turn reduces domestic and community violence. They are the backbone of economies that rely on agricultural products, and they are the primary rung of global supply chains.
The sixty-second session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women begins this week, and this year’s theme is the empowerment of rural women and girls with a special focus on media and communication technology. The draft agreed conclusions include provisions for strengthened legal frameworks and rule of law, inclusive economic policies that support and empower, and innovative methods for creating a collective voice for rural women.
What is glaring, however, is the lack of integration of the two foci. I see a missed opportunity to use media and communications technology to alter the perception of farmers and show the world that women farmers are critical to international security. Due to the lack of understanding of who farmers are, we cannot expect tangible action from these agreed conclusions. The image of the woman farmer must be visualized, shared across common platforms, and made viral. If women farmers are seen as global agents of change and are perceived to play a major role in deterring conflict, there is a greater likelihood that states will transform the conclusions made at the UNCSW into tangible policies, action plans, and funding streams.
Media and technology should be not a special focus but a critical focus, utilized to repaint the image of what it means to be “rural” and what it means to be a farmer. This imagery will illustrate the people and the problem, making the issue of empowering women farmers familiar, personal, and real. It moves people beyond their idea of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” to something more of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”. It opens a door to discuss women farmers’ critical role internationally, actual implementation of the UN’s conclusions, and methods to bolster women as critical players in peace and security through agriculture.
Picture a farmer. Perhaps you now see a strong, confident woman, riding a horse through her peanut fields. This woman is key to the peace and security of her home and her country, and should be portrayed as such. I would like to propose a draft conclusion to the UNCSW: “break the internet” with an image of a woman farmer.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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