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How are gender roles constructed and reinforced through crofting on the Western Isles?

How are gender roles constructed and reinforced through crofting on the Western Isles?

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Kate Brazier Tope. Originally submitted for Human Geography Fieldwork: Journey to the Western Isles at University of Edinburgh, with lecturer Andrea Nightingale in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Kate Brazier Tope. Originally submitted for Human Geography Fieldwork: Journey to the Western Isles at University of Edinburgh, with lecturer Andrea Nightingale in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1How are gender roles constructed and reinforced through crofting on the Western Isles?Abstract
This project focuses on the construction of gender roles in relation to crofting and the division of labour.Although life on the Western Isles has changed, the involvement of women in crofting is still viewed as lessimportant than that of men. Men continue to dominate society on the islands, and crofting practices often help toreinforce gender stereotypes. The link between women and crofting is particularly interesting because it fits into
the wider framework of women’s role in agriculture in general. This project draws on literature recognizing theimportance of women’s work on and off the farm, trying to ad
dress the imbalance in perceptions of the value of different kinds of work. Crofting is central in articulating masculine identity and croft work is often gendered.Now that women have jobs off the croft, the question is whether that has altered gender divisions of labour.Primary research was conducted over a ten day period in the Western Isles, mainly in the form of semi-structured interviews with people involved in crofting. This research discovered signs that Island society ischanging in terms of expectations and practices, as demonstrated by the women that work crofts alone and theshift towards other kinds of employment. Stereotypical gender roles have been blurred somewhat, aided by theinflux of incomers. However, it is also clear that a form of patriarchy is still present in most communities. Inmany cases it is still the men that do the manual outdoor labour on the croft and it is normal for the oldest son toinherit the croft. Studies suggesting that women who marry into crofting are viewed as being less involved withagricultural work than their husbands have been corroborated by this research. It is not that their actualinvolvement is less, but their work is undervalued by themselves and others. This research has also confirmedwhat previous stu
dies have argued in terms of women’s off 
-farm work 
 – 
although it can be empowering, it canalso cause tension in the household as men lose their traditional status as earner and provider. Crofting appearsto be central to ideas about heritage and identity, which may be part of the reason that the construction andreinforcement of gender roles has remained fairly patriarchal. Society on the Western Isles is becoming moreequal, but crofting remains an important practice through which gender roles are constructed, albeit in a slightlydifferent way than in the past. In most cases women are still placed on the sidelines of crofting, rather than beingallowed to involve themselves fully and have their work acknowledged. This project points to the need forfurther research into how gender roles are constructed through the practice of crofting, and the effect of changesin policy in particular.
In this project I look at how gender roles are constructed in relation to crofting and thedivision of labour. I argue that although life on the Western Isles has changed since croftingbegan, the involvement of women is still viewed as less important than that of men. Mencontinue to dominate society on the islands, and crofting practices often help to reinforcegender stereotypes. The link between women and crofting is particularly interesting becauseit fits into the
wider framework of women’s role in agriculture in general.
In this project Idraw on literature about
recognising the importance of women’s work on and off th
e farm,trying to address the imbalance in perceptions of the importance of different kinds of work 
 
2(Shortall 2002). I situate my research in the Western Isles within this literature on genderroles within agriculture, suggesting that more work needs to be
done on women’s relationship
to crofting.Island life in general can be seen as very masculine, with the traditional occupations of crofting and fishing practised almost solely by men. Traditionally men have done most of theoutdoor work while women take care of the household chores and other local tasks. In thecase of crofting, men typically worked at sowing and moving animals, with women seen as
‘helping out’ at busy times of year such as during the harvest (Brandth 1994).
Crofts differfrom other kinds of small or family farms in that the scale is much smaller - they were notdesigned to support a family so people were forced to sell their labour. Nowadays mostcrofters either have multiple occupations such as fishing or tourism, or have expanded theircrofts through multiple tenancies to create a larger patch of land to farm. In most cases farmsand crofts are inherited by the eldest son, fitting into the patriarchal tradition (Deseran andSimpkins 1991). This means that it is generally the man who has the background in croftingand it is possible that the fact that women often marry in to crofting has an impact onperceptions of their role and the work they undertake (Deseran and Simpkins 1991; Shortall2002). Crofting is central in articulating masculine identity and croft work is often gendered,with women carrying out the tasks close to home and fanks an important site for affirmingmale crofting identity (Macdonald 1997). Even now it is expected that sons will work thecroft with their father, even if they have minimal personal interest in crofting, whereasdaughters are not expected to help in the same way. Like
Shortall says, ‘Agriculture isimbued with a strong gender ideology that will not easily be shaken’
(2002: 161). Now thatwomen have jobs off the croft, the question is whether that has affected how much work theyput into the croft and whether it has altered gender divisions of labour. As Brandth argues,
‘the professional title ‘farmer’ has always been a man’s title’
(1994: 131).Understanding the Western Isles: MethodologyThis project draws on research conducted in the Western Isles. My main primary researchcomes in the form of semi-structured interviews that I carried out over a 10 day period inJune 2011 while on a fieldtrip to Skye, North Uist, Lewis and Harris. While visiting theseislands I also made use of direct participant observation to better understand the day to daylives and experiences of people (and women in particular) on crofts on the Western Isles.Most of the literature studying gender roles within agriculture relies on research collected
 
3through interviews with those involved in farm work, which is partly why I decided semi-structured interviews were the best way of collecting material.Meeting people: Semi-structured interviewsI carried out a series of semi-structured interviews including eight in-depth interviews, aswell as some other less in-depth conversations. I was interested in talking to both men andwomen who live and work on crofts to get an
idea of the differing perceptions of women’s
role on the croft.
As Saugeres says, interviews are ‘appropriate to uncover women’s andmen’s constructions of themselves in relation to the social world’ (2002: 147), and it is
important to understand how gender identities are constructed through language anddiscourse in order to explore meanings of gender. I utilized the snowballing technique to gaincontacts, allowing me to seek out interviewees with particular crofting backgrounds(Flowerdew and Martin 1997). While I had a list of certain open-ended questions, othersarose during the interviews, allowing for the exploration of emerging themes and thecommunication of personal stories and opinions (Seidman 1998).In addition to interviews on location, I talked to two crofters via the medium of social media.A crofter from Lewis contacted me through Twitter after noticing my interest in crofting andhe expressed willingness to help with my research, so I sent him some questions and heresponded. He also recommended contacting a female crofting friend of his, so I was able toget her input as well. In this way I was able to talk to a number of different people involvedin crofting and gather a range of opinions. Most interviewees were very happy to talk aboutcrofting, though the involvement of women was a slightly more sensitive subject with some.In order to protect the identities of those willing to participate in my research I have usedpseudonyms for all interviewees mentioned in this project.Experiencing island life: ObservationObservation was a key part of my research in the Western Isles, as it has been in manyprevious studies. I visited a number of different communities which allowed me to betterunderstand the everyday lives and experiences of people on crofts. I was able to watch peopleworking as well as actually participating myself, all of which helped me to appreciate thenature and tradition of crofting and crofters.Themes: Patriarchal society

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