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History talk: Agricultural roles of women and children

Women and children once formed a critical pool of farmworkers, harvesting everything from cranberries to peas.

“Women and kids were in agriculture everywhere in the nation and especially in Oregon. Certain crops really survived based on women and kid laborers, especially during World War II,” said historian Madelina Homberger Cordia.

She’ll give a free, virtual talk from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday as part of the Windows in Time lecture series co-sponsored by Jackson County Library Services and the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

Most people know women and kids tackled a long list of chores on their family farms. It’s less known that they were important paid workers in agriculture.

In her historical research on other aspects of agriculture, Homberger Cordia kept running into references to women and kids, prompting her to wonder just how prevalent they were as wage laborers.

Paid less than men, they often worked picking berries, beans, peas and other fruits and vegetables. They waded knee or waist-deep in bogs while harvesting cranberries, she said.

Before World War II, their work in agriculture was a remnant from earlier settler days when many families farmed. Some who came to work in Oregon were migrants fleeing the 1930s Dust Bowl in the middle of the country, Homberger Cordia said.

During WWII, the nation leaned on women and kids more than ever as men headed off to battle.

“There was a campaign to get women and kids into the fields,” Homberger Cordia said.

Children were organized into platoons to help with the work.

One woman in the Willamette Valley organized a “Ton Club” to motivate the harvesters. Pickers who gathered a ton of vegetables could join the club. One boy picked four tons in a harvest season, earning accolades in a local newspaper, Homberger Cordia said.

WWII was also a time when the United States government encouraged laborers to immigrate from Mexico to work in agriculture. The nation was facing a shortage of agricultural workers as Americans went off to war or flocked to cities to get factory jobs making airplanes, munitions and other equipment.

Homberger Cordia gave a Windows in Time talk in 2017 about that effort to attract Mexican workers.

After the war, American agriculture changed again.

Many small farms were consolidated into large properties owned by a single person or a company. Those large operations tended to favor men as laborers, Homberger Cordia said.

Legislators passed protective labor laws to restrict child labor, and the nation placed greater emphasis on kids staying in school, she said.

The country has continued to rely on many Latino residents and immigrants to perform critical work in agriculture.

Many Oregonians have memories of a time when it was more common to see women and kids in the fields.

Homberger Cordia said she would love to hear from people with information about women and children in agriculture during the question-and-answer period that will follow her online history talk. People can also email her at mmcordia@gmail.com.

“My research is obviously never complete,” she said.

Homberger Cordia received her master’s degree in history in 2017 and spent two years teaching at Southern Oregon University before joining the history department at the University of Nebraska to pursue her PhD.

The Windows in Time lecture series has moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

March’s history talk will be on Jacksonville’s German-speaking settlers.

To register for “The Hidden Demographic: Women and Children Agricultural Workers in Oregon, 1920-1970,” visit jcls.libcal.com/event/7289444.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Women, children and men pause from picking hops for a group photo. Paid less than men, women and children often worked picking a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains.{ } (Southern Oregon Historical Society photo)