NCSU - Women in Agriculture Q&A (part 2)

January 22, 2021

Last week you were introduced to the first females who served as national presidents of their professional agricultural education organizations. They were MeeCee Baker (NVATA President, 1996-97), Karen Hutchison (NASAE President, 2002-03), and Jacque Deeds (AAAE President, 2006-07). This week we conclude that Footnote with their experiences in the profession.

Anything of interest or notable during your high school teaching career? What was it like teaching in a male-dominated field?

MeeCee: The Yellow Dog Society was recently addressed in a Friday Footnote.  Pennsylvania’s version would howl at young female agriculture teachers when they were called to stage during the state conference.  Although I always hated the howling, I became enraged when it was directed at Diana Dellinger, my student teacher. When the new Department head at Penn State was inducted into the secret society, I marched into his office the next morning to lodge a complaint.  He quickly disassociated with a forthright letter to all agricultural educators in the Commonwealth. The Yellow Dogs dissolved in lieu of granting access to females, and my reputation as a troublemaker was cemented.

Then there was the issue of whether as a female, you would become “one of the guys” or isolate and be deemed haughty.  I always thought there was middle ground but couldn’t tolerate off-color sexually charged jokes.  My Dad never allowed anyone to speak that way around my Mom, Sister, and I, and I in turn could not let such talk pass. So, strike two for the troublemaker.  Still at times, I went along to get along.

Perhaps the worst occurrence of my teaching career happened at an area agriculture teachers’ meeting.  One of the men invited me to hop in his car as we rode to a nearby restaurant for dinner.  He promptly reached in my shirt and ripped my blouse.  I was stunned.  He later claimed I had led him on because I did not speak up when he told dirty jokes and made innuendos.  He was years and years my senior and I was a newlywed. For the longest time, I was scared to death to see him again and did whatever I could to avoid him. Yet oddly, at the time, I felt like I did something wrong.  

To be sure, there were many welcoming and helpful male teachers who could not and would not tolerate the kind of behaviors mentioned above.  I am grateful to all of them for helping me and my sister teachers along the way.

Karen: The teaching experience was very notable. I learned so much about people. I had an amazing vice principal who encouraged me to look beyond the student in my classroom to the whole child, including what they encountered when they went home. It probably helped me have more patience and compassion for the students I taught.

For my first teaching position, I was following a female teacher so that was not anything new to the district. Delaware already had 4 or so female teachers by the time I started, and most were active in the teachers' organization so I really did not encounter any issues. I found that if you worked hard and treated people well, they really did not care if you were male or female. When I did my student teaching in VA, both the supervising teachers at Buffalo Gap were very encouraging so I guess I did not expect any issues. Even going to school in male-dominated programs at both the associate's and bachelor’s degree levels, as long as worked hard and didn’t expect any favors, I was treated well. Maybe it helped growing up with older brothers!

Jacque: When I graduated and started teaching in 1972, I was the first female ag teacher in the state. I was already on the job when the Oregon Ag teachers summer conference was held. Oregon had the Order of the Yellow Dogs and the evening of the initiation I showed up and knew if they denied me participation it would be because of gender. There was a ripple kind of go through the room and I saw a group move the corner with papers having a conversation. I was invited to join the other participants for initiation and became the first woman to sign the bone.

At one state convention, one of my students asked where the other women advisors were? I said I was the only one and how did he feel about that? He said he felt special.  Recently one of the men who was teaching back when I did asked if I had been harassed back in the day. I said yes and related a couple of incidents one of which he had been a part of. He said why didn’t I say something? I said that back then— I went along to get long. However, I was elected as newsletter editor in Oregon for the ag teachers and moved through the officer ranks to OVATA President in 1982-83.

How did you get involved in your professional organization?

MeeCee: I first became involved in NVATA (now NAAE) when I was encouraged to fill out the application for the Distinguished Junior Member Award.  I was fortunate to be named a national winner and made the trip to California to accept the prize.  John Deere was the sponsor and treated the winners like celebrities.  We had fancy dinners and lovely awards.  At that convention, I remember there being less than ten females in a meeting hall of hundreds.  I enjoyed it so much that I went back the following year and years after that.  Eventually, I decided to run for Regional Vice President.  Bob Lauffer my Pennsylvania colleague made my nomination and served as my teller.  I was surprised and excited to have won.  During the following six years I traveled the country and was fortunate to have visited the home areas of many of the other Board members.  A few incidences stand out.

During a Council meeting in DC, Dr. Gary Moore was the designated driver to take our group to a restaurant that evening.  An argument in the car ensued over the Promise Keepers [not to be confused with the Oath Keepers].  It was me against everyone else in the Suburban, all men, with the Reverend Alvin Larke leading the charge.  The discussion got so heated that Moore lost his way and ended up on the fuel lane of the National Airport.  Somehow, we escaped. I will never forget it, he claims not to remember. 

Traveling into Elko, Nevada, home of then NVATA President Tom Klein, was not for the faint of heart.  The pilot arranged us on the plane according to weight.  I was unfamiliar with heat pockets and the landing was quite the ride.  That evening we went to a casino where a local Basque sheepherder was enjoying the band.  He asked me to dance and upon my acceptance, flipped me into a country kind of dance move.  When I remarked that I was a big girl to flip, he commented that cowboys like fat calves.  Was that a compliment?  I took it as such.  And of course, the late great Digger taught me to gamble on that trip.  Oh, the fun.  

Karen: While a student at VA Tech, we were always encouraged to belong to our professional organization. So I had a student membership in NVATA. When I started teaching, Deleware had an active DVATA organization, so I joined. When I left teaching to go to the Department of Education and I was sent information on NASAE, it seemed like the right thing to do. My parents were active in different organizations and demonstrated to belong to something was to actively participate in that organization.

Jacque: I was a student member of AATEA (now AAAE) at Ohio State and then a regular member when I went to work at Mississippi State. I was asked to run for AAAE Secretary and served for two years. I remember a nominating committee member Carl Beeman being shy in asking me to serve because he did not want to insult me by asking the woman to be the secretary. I served as Southern region VP for two years. I was elected AAAE President-elect in 2005.  I served as AAAE President in 2006-07.

What were your experience as the first female president of your organization?

MeeCee: After a long conversation with NVATA President Merle Richter from Wisconsin, I decided to run for President-elect of NVATA so the next female to do so would have an easier time.  I truly did not expect to win.  In the run-up to the election, I was asked by several members if I planned to have a baby since I was advancing in age a bit.  I assured them that while I would love a child, adoption seemed to be my only option after a long time trying and that would take years.  I developed a strategy and began, like all candidates, to count what I hoped would be my votes.

At the convention, it was customary for some states to interview the candidates for president-elect.  Oklahoma being the largest delegation was the prize.  The Oklahoma teachers asked to speak with me in my hotel room.  We crowded in and began the discussion.  I thought we would talk about the association and my goals, but instead, they grilled me on cattle, which in retrospect may have been a bit of an ‘ag teacher test’.  Afterward, I peered through the little keyhole in the door as they gathered in the hallway.  The group leader said, “Oh hell, who wants to vote for the girl?’  Hands went up, and for the first time, I felt I had a chance at winning.

While serving as president, I began to see women flooding into the profession.  I do remember the self-segregation by ethnicity and gender at many of the state conferences and made it a point to talk to those teachers who always seemed to congregate in the back rows.  Serving at the same time that Corey Flournoy was elected the first African American National FFA President allowed us both to talk about the need for diversity in agriculture and agricultural education, a conversation that continues today.   I am indebted for my time, as what Dr. Jay Jackman likes to say, as the first and last female president of NVATA (the name changed to NAAE shortly thereafter). 

Poetic justice rang true when I did become pregnant with my daughter who was born shortly before the end of my presidency.  Libby ultimately was elected the Pennsylvania State FFA President, was a national officer candidate, and a National Star in Agriscience.  She fulfilled her Mother’s dreams of being in agricultural education and belonging to the FFA.  Today Libby is a seminarian at United Lutheran, and we are enjoying a lot of family time during the pandemic. She makes her Mother so proud.

Karen: As the first female president of NASAE (and later The Council) I received nothing but support and encouragement. When I first joined NASAE I was the only female state supervisor for a few years. There were female FFA executive secretaries but not state supervisors. Larry Case encouraged me to stick with NASAE and to really get involved. It was a little challenging and intimidating at first. As some of the older males retired, it did get easier. Randy Trivette, who at the time was state supervisor in New Jersey and a fellow “Hokie” provided a great deal of support and encouragement including pushing me to run for the Eastern region position on the FFA Board of Directors. That experience helped me get to know some great people better, like Belinda Chason from Florida, and Ernie Gill from Colorado. All of these people made my experience a great one.

Jacque: My involvement in AAAE both as an officer and on committees gave me the opportunity to get to know faculty from other institutions.  I enjoyed meeting graduate students and, in some cases, mentoring some of them.  Serving as an AAAE officer put me on the National Council for Agriculture Education which provided an interesting perspective of all the various members of the Ag Ed family.

I represented AAAE on the National FFA Board of Directors and commented it was ironic that they let me help run an organization I wasn’t allowed to be a member of in high school.

What are you doing now?

MeeCee: I currently own Versant Strategies, a governmental relations firm (a euphemism for lobbying firm) that specializes in agricultural and rural affairs. We are honored to represent the National FFA Organization’s interests.   Versant has a wide range of clients from local farms to large multinational agribusinesses. 

I snatched another high school agriculture teacher from the classroom to be my number two.  Many of you may know Caleb Wright.  He is the best of the best of the next generation.  Our lobbying style is a bit different from most in this business.  We never bang the table or threaten.  We teach, starting with a clear objective, using preset strategies, and even resorting to remediation and enrichment activities if need be.

I still live on my family’s farm with my husband and daughter.  We run a handful of cattle and I enjoy the mountain view and my gardens.  I hope to write another book in the next few years.  Pre-pandemic, I enjoyed accepting invitations to present at meetings and conferences.

I am an ag teacher at heart.  Always have been and always will be.  And…always will be grateful for my agricultural education background and the dear friends I have met along the way.

Karen: After teaching 13 years and serving as the state supervisor for another 22 (in Delaware) I retired from the state and joined National FFA in July 2014 as a Local Program Success specialist, now known as State Relations Team specialist.  I am based out of my home in Delaware and cover the FFA eastern region (except IL).

Jacque: I retired from Mississippi State University in 2012 and moved to Oregon to be closer to family.  I went from being Dr. Deeds to being Aunt Jacque and that is pretty cool too. I stay involved in the profession as a member of the Oregon FFA Foundation Board of Directors. This gives me the opportunity to attend FFA conventions and teacher conferences. I also take pleasure in judging the various CDE’s and helping select scholarship and program grant winners.

What advice would you give the profession?

MeeCee: My doctoral research focused on the career paths of women graduating with BS degrees in agricultural education at Penn State.  The population included graduates until 1990.  There were 83, beginning with one in the early 1900s.  The main finding was women entered and stayed in the profession if they had mentors and left if they did not.  The tables have turned, and my alma mater now graduates far more women in agricultural education than men.  This year’s seniors are all women.  A few years back, Newsweek chronicled “The Boy Crisis”.  Is agricultural education now suffering from its’ own boy crisis? Perhaps it is time to replicate that study to ensure that male students are equally encouraged and welcomed into the profession.

I would also ask for the continued emphasis on the three-tier model beginning with a solid classroom experience and a daily learning objective.  While the SAE program is often the overlooked leg of the stool, it often pays the biggest dividends in the lifelong career success of our students.  Of course, FFA is the icing on the agricultural education cake. Never forget that agricultural education remains the model for all education. 

Thanks to all the engaged readers of the Friday Footnote and those that came before. 

Karen: Do not be afraid to work hard and to learn something new every day.  Get to know people on a personal as well as a professional level.  Always make decisions based on what is best for the students that we serve and encourage and befriend people as they come into the profession and the organizations we belong to.

Jacque: There will rarely be balance with personal and professional life. It is more like a teeter-totter with work dominating at times and others when personal rises to the top.  Don’t sweat it-we have all been there and understand.

Concluding Remarks

Females have not always been welcomed in Agricultural Education. While we all know that females were admitted to membership in the national FFA in 1969, most of us are probably not aware of two actions that occurred at the 1969 national FFA convention (in addition to admitting female members). Numerous male FFA members (there were only male FFA members up until this time) still expressed concern about the decision to admit females to membership.

At the Thursday, Oct. 16 afternoon session of the FFA Convention a question was raised about whether a state could make a decision to exclude female members. Here is what we find in the National FFA Convention Proceedings, 1969, p. 22:

A question of information was asked and discussed relating to whether or not a State may restrict its membership to male students only. It was pointed out that any State-National conflict should be eliminated as soon as possible; furthermore, the State association receives its charter from the national organization, and that no provisions in the State Constitution be in conflict with the National Constitution, and that the Boards of National Officers and Directors would rule that a State would be in conflict.

At the Friday morning (Oct. 17, 1969) session of the FFA Convention the following resolution was passed (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1969, p. 25) Read it carefully! What is really being said?

Holland of Tennessee read the following resolution and moved its adoption by the delegates at the 42nd National Convention; motion seconded by Comegys of Delaware and carried:

"WHEREAS, we, the delegates, to the Forty-Second annual convention have voted to allow all students of vocational agriculture to become members of the FFA;

"WHEREAS, we therefore have expressed our belief that all individuals are created equal and should have equal opportunities;

"WHEREAS, we also feel that only those who have competed on an equal basis and earned national recognition should be highly honored at our national convention; be it therefore

"RESOLVED, that we, the delegates, gathered here today, feel that the introduction of the first active female members to participate in the national FFA activities and the atmosphere and publicity thus associated with these events, be recognized as over-dramatized presentations and should not be taken as precedence set for following female participation, that instead FFA members, girls and boys, should be treated and honored equally."

The three females featured in this Friday Footnote “have competed on an equal basis and earned national recognition.” They earned the right to be presidents of their professional societies. There has been nothing “over-dramatized” in their contributions to the profession. We owe these three agricultural education professionals a big thank you for breaking the glass ceiling in their professional organizations. 

Currently, two of the three professional agricultural education organizations have female presidents. Sherisa Nailor of Pennsyvlania is President of NAAE and Juleah Tolosky of Minnesota is President of NASAE. Three of the six regional Vice-Presidents of NAAE are female. Nuff said.



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