The Caring Hand
María Sánchez honours rural women in the shadows
The Spanish field veterinarian and acclaimed author of Tierra de mujeres (Land of Women) asks us to reexamine how we view rural women
Strong species also grow in the shade… We have many stories to rescue and bring out of the shadows.María Sánchez
Historically, rural women who work the land have been overlooked in society. In her bestselling memoir-meets-manifesto, Tierra de mujeres (Land of Women), Spanish writer, poet and field veterinarian María Sánchez aims to change that: “It is a necessary and fundamental exercise to turn our gaze upon our margins.”
Sánchez argues that the rural women holding up families and communities are doubly discounted – first in their own communities and then by society at large, particularly by city dwellers, who romanticise yet belittle the work they do. While she may have studied veterinary medicine like her father and grandfather, the author does feel remorse for dreaming about being more like the male figures in her family than recognising the vitally important and underappreciated role of women, while growing up.
Where does your food come from? In this passionate extract, chosen by the author especially for TOPIA Magazine, Sánchez honours the rural women in her community and their stories of resistance.
Sign up for A WORLD OF GOOD
Get TOPIA in your inbox – new features fortnightly
The Caring Hand by María Sánchez
There’s a story told by the writer Jenny Diski in her book What I Don’t Know About Animals that I have carried with me since I first read it. She recounts that, as a child, she constantly complained about the wool vests her mother forced her to wear. They were very itchy, and she couldn’t stand them. Her mother always responded the same way. Diski had to stop her crying and moaning because the garments she was wearing were made from the finest wool that could be found in Brussels.
Before telling us this story from her childhood, the writer draws on previous literature and helps us understand the concept of domesticity. This term, coined by American history professor Richard W. Bulliet, refers to the “set of social, economic, and intellectual traits that characterize all those communities whose members consider daily contact with animals (with the exception of their pets) as a normal part of their lives.”
Diski, recalling her reaction and the subsequent rejoinder from her mother, who emigrated with her parents from the shtetl to England, stated emphatically that she had become a postdomestic subject. Her mother was a subject without any relationship or regular contact with animals. A subject who had completely erased the animals and the environment they inhabit without any regard.
It’s not that Diski’s mother didn’t know what native breed the wool she’d bought came from or which geographic designation those sheep were from that made the wool possible. Where that flock had been raised. Or what the production system was like. Or the factors that gave the product such quality and value to make it the best wool in a city.
It’s not that Diski’s mother didn’t know anything. It’s just that she completely ignored it. It’s something that didn’t exist in her narrative. For her, sheep did not exist, nor did the shepherd or the person who sheared the sheep and treated their wool. For Diski’s mother the countryside did not exist. There’s no other possibility. By using such an unequivocal statement with her daughter, the rural environment and its inhabitants have no chance of existing. Because they aren’t contemplated. They aren’t taken into consideration. They don’t matter.
This anecdote serves as a way to talk about our rural environment and the rural women who inhabit it. And by ellas I’m not referring exclusively to those women who work in the country as livestock producers, farmers, shepherds, or day laborers, but to all those who live in towns throughout our territory. If we can imagine that a large part of the society who live in cities have become postdomestic subjects, for whom the countryside is neither part of nor is thought about in their daily lives, how are they not going to ignore its inhabitants?
We live in a centralist country. Madrid is in charge. The big cities are the decision makers. The ones that set the guidelines, the pace. Sometimes it seems that life and what is important only happen in these nuclei. The rest is always in the background, unimportant, as if it required little. As if its inhabitants had nothing to say.
And if rural areas are largely forgotten, what about the women who live there? Where do they fit in? How can they be considered if they aren’t contemplated or taken into account even in the place where they live?
The answer is that rural women are doubly discriminated against. Doubly overlooked. Doubly forgotten. First because of their gender but also because of where they live and work.
Photo of María Sánchez by Jose Gonzalez
We have internalized this ignorance toward our margins, toward the hands that care for them, and toward all the food they produce. This gap between the rural environment and the cities has been grafted onto us. We see it as something normal. We don’t ask, we don’t question, we don’t provide our own account. We don’t want to know.
It’s true that, in recent times, consumers have started to think twice before deciding what to put in their shopping cart. We are hypnotized by the eco and the organic, although most of the time we don’t turn the food package over to read its label.
Do we wonder where this food comes from?
Has it been produced in our country? If not, do we question how many miles it has traveled to get to that supermarket shelf? What about production systems? Do we know how to differentiate food that comes from an industrial system? If that meat or that milk or that cheese comes from extensive or intensive livestock farming? What animals does our food come from? Indigenous breeds? Breeds in danger of extinction? What about the land? Monoculture? Polyculture? Industrial or family farming? What seeds have been used? What production systems?
The caring hand?
Do we wonder about the people who make our food possible? About their history? About their working conditions? Do we stop to think about what it means to have this food at our fingertips?
This is what happens with our food. We live in cities where practically none of what we consume is produced. We need others to do the work, to cultivate, to raise the animals; we need others, in the end, to produce so that we can feed ourselves.
We take the food off the shelves and just throw it into the shopping cart. As if what our hands just dropped had been made right there, in the supermarket, as if it came out of nowhere, without a journey or any history behind it.
We live at the expense of our margins. They are invisible. The cities do not hear their voice, let alone consider that they have one. They do not exist on their own per se. We believe and take for granted that everything that is great and new happens in the city.
Forgive me if I insist: The rural environment and the women who inhabit it are the great unknowns of the territory.
And it’s not because these women have no voice or nothing to say. They do, like every other woman. What happens is that they don’t occupy the big platforms, nor do they have the altavoces that, coincidentally, are always in the same places, in the big cities.
There’s not just one type of rural woman. The rural community is diverse and does not have a single face and voice. The rural community is a multitude. We have many stories to rescue and bring out of the shadows.
Every day it becomes clearer to me. Juntas, mejor: women together are better off.
In a world in which the individual and the immediate are more and more important every day, it is a necessary and fundamental exercise to turn our gaze upon our margins. It’s strange that, in our cities, every day more and more collectives with the goal of creating community emerge and grow. They are characterized by sisterhood, the creation of bonds with the people who form the group, who seek, after all, an exchange of knowledge or assistance. Ultimately, a kind of care. There’s also a growing concern in cities to make them sustainable and green. We are worried about pollution, climate change, what we eat. We are afraid of and harmed by solitude. We don’t want indifferent cities; we want communities.
Why do we forget our roots?
Why do we forget where we come from? Why not look at our towns?
A few months ago I read that an initiative called “La escalera,” The Stairway, had been started in Madrid. It invites neighbors to get to know others in the building by putting stickers on their mailboxes. I felt a mixture of tenderness and amusement. I started to laugh. I kept imagining the stickers, the neighbors reading them, starting to greet each other after sticking a little piece of paper on their mailbox. “Now, I can actually knock on the second-floor neighbor’s door to see how she’s doing. Now someone can pick up my mail, water my plants, keep an eye on my apartment when I’m away or on vacation.”
In my head, I kept imagining everyday situations resulting from a sticker on a mailbox. And of course I kept laughing about it.
Because I was thinking of my grandmothers and all the women in towns around the country. In their homes. With their doors open, their entryways always lit. One attentive to the other, taking care of each other. Crossing the street with their warm pots of food, with baskets full of eggs and vegetables, with bread under their arms. Sharing. No need for mailboxes or stickers. There’s no need for anyone to think that something that is ultimately so basic and that we carry so deep inside us is original and innovative: affection and care for those around us. Attachment and care. Community and its ties.
I’ve always thought that what is truly radical and innovative happens at our margins. In our rural areas. In our towns. New bonds, networks that are created, groundbreaking projects, wonderful ideas, associations, collectives… and the ones behind all these initiatives, in most cases, are women.
Women united claiming their rights and making their voices heard. Occupying their rightful places, arriving little by little and, at last, to their livelihood. Taking over the space that was theirs and had always been taken away from them.
Women of land, wind, and livestock
This is how the extensive livestock producers and shepherds in Ganaderas en Red, the Women’s Ranchers Network, like to see themselves. A group of women from different towns around the territory who walk together and fight beside each other for what is theirs. They claim their space as women in the livestock industry, where the man has always been the visible one and who made his voice heard. Women, in livestock production, have always been present, although many people do not want to see their presence, prefering to omit it. Like the women shepherds, women fed up with the idealization of a solitary woman in the countryside resting happily while her animals graze. Also together, hand in hand, they talk and they confront the bureaucracy that makes their task more difficult every day and gets in the way of their work and production methods.
They work together and keep raising their voices for shared ownership. Because although we live in a time of feminism and in a society in which equality is constantly being demanded, women in our rural environment have always been there, working in the fields, a task that has been chained, as an extension, to all the household chores they already perform. An unfair allocation of the productive role that is always inherent, as such, in the family. Their work with their partners in the fields—I write “work” and not “help” because I am tired of perpetuating this inequality— has never been valued as such and has always appeared reduced, as if it were meaningless, to the category of “family help.” This is a reality in the rural world, one full of inequality and, of course, where women are invisible. As the man is the only proprietor, he is also the only face and voice society sees and hears. In the absence of shared land ownership, women still do not exist, in an environment full of harmful consequences for them, and for the society we live in, perpetuating patriarchal values and systems and enabling the rural community to continue to be entirely masculine.
But these women don’t only make themselves visible and bring to the table their role as workers in rural areas: shepherds and extensive livestock producers. They go beyond that. They speak openly about all the times they have been left alone at home taking care of their family and their animals, those endless hours devoted to care and housework. They bring to light the self-imposed standards and the guilt they feel with the work they always carry on their shoulders. Because it’s difficult for rural women to take off that backpack they’ve been forced to wear from an early age. To be all-terrain women, to be able to handle everything, to always be aware and attentive to everything and everyone. We cannot turn this sacrifice and this inequality into a virtue. Our rural women are women like any other, and they need the same as everyone else: to put an end to their constant discrimination and lack of visibility.
As women, they also fight for their communities. Connectivity, basic services, education, health care, culture. At what point did we allow our towns and their inhabitants not to have the same rights as the inhabitants of our cities? Why do we continue to perpetuate this discrimination against rural areas and their inhabitants, exacerbating the inequality suffered by their women?
I am not the daughter of, the sister of, the wife of.
How to make the work of rural women visible? How to get rid of that one-dimensional and lifeless postcard where we’re framed for contemplation?
The Catalunya Ramaderes are very clear about this: they will not be silent anymore. This group of women who have come together in Catalonia are an example to follow. Their Twitter bio is a manifesto in itself: “We are women, we are extensive livestock producers, we are shepherds, we are mothers, we are companions and we are united.”
It may seem silly, but social networks are a perfect tool to show the true face of the rural environment and those who work in it. I want to reiterate this a lot because those of us who work in the country can speak out and talk about it; we can have that altavoz and that platform that have been denied to us so many times. And I still find it funny that so many people are scandalized by the fact that rural people, especially women, have access to these tools and report on their daily lives. I remember one day I tweeted about how many hours I’d worked among the goats and a user replied to me saying how little work I had and that I wasn’t really from the country if I had time to use Twitter. This is the level I’m talking about. And this is unfortunately the image we have of those who work in the country, people without any time or interest enough to talk about themselves.
The dissemination work the Ramaderes do seems essential to me. A few photos of their hands, vindicating themselves, because their hands, even if they are small or thin, even if they are women’s hands, are used for work, for milking, for plowing. They don’t need a man’s hands. These women can do it. The Ramaderes also have an Instagram account. They post pictures of their animals grazing because extensive livestock production and pastorage are a sign of their identity. With slogans like “No shepherdess, no revolution,” “Pasture is culture,” and “I am not the daughter of, the sister of, the wife of,” they make it very clear what their struggle and their daily work is all about. They intermingle their photographs and ideas with quotes from literature written by women. They are openly feminists and are not afraid to point fingers; they know that without them there will be no rural community. They’re tired of being the ones in charge of their flocks and still being asked about their husbands. Tired of being framed in that postcard of a beautiful bucolic shepherdess, always wearing a straw hat, asleep while her sheep run around happily. They’re tired of how the administration mistreats them and the obstacles they face when marketing their products. Tired of not being included, of being ignored, of being just one more element in the landscape without voice or vote. They have found that the best way to spread their message and make themselves known is through social media. Here are the women who write, who speak out, who care, who narrate their experiences.
“In Europe, only 12 percent of the land is held by women, compared to 61 percent controlled by men.”
When you visit the webpage for FADEMUR, the Federation of Rural Women’s Associations of Spain, this is the headline you run into. Like the Catalunya Ramaderes, they use social media to make themselves heard. And since they’re on Twitter themselves, they don’t want it to rain coffee in the fields, like in the song by Juan Luis Guerra; they want something tangible, they want real action. They want equality. They’re immersed in one of the open fronts most in need of change for rural women: la política agraria común, the CAP, the common agricultural policy. The policy that, at the end of the day, has the biggest budget and impact on our lives, from when we wake up to when we go to bed, and what we eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The policy that manages the land and those who work on it, but doesn’t take rural women into account. The policy that allows for labor exploitation because it remains a mechanism that allows for very low origination prices and large profits along the supply chain through subsidies to large landowners and producers. The policy that expels small, higher-quality producers from the market, those who have better environmental practices, those protecting the country. The policy that hinders land access and never takes into account the word woman.
Photo of María Sánchez by Jose Gonzalez
It’s imperative that the CAP finally implement a gender perspective once and for all. Urgent and necessary. As Teresa López, the president of FADEMUR, claims, the only thing feminine about the CAP is its determining article in Spanish. Its activity is not only important for the inhabitants of rural areas, but also for those who live in the cities. Maintaining our ecosystems and stopping our towns from emptying out once and for all depends on it.
It’s obvious that women play a fundamental role in rural areas and that a gender-sensitive agricultural policy is crucial in these places, and that the struggle of women has allowed them to regain their space and raise their voices without fear. Because they are united, because they recognize each other and fight together for their rights and march toward equality.
But what about the women who are still in the shadows?
Our fields are filled with migrant women who are victims of abuse and exploitation. The strawberries we eat are tainted with machismo, harassment, and inequality. Anyone who dares to look under the surface and wants to get closer to the reality of our rural environment will find women working without voice or vote. That cases like those of the seasonal workers in Huelva continue to happen is an atrocious sign of our times. And it’s not something new in this land. It took two German journalists, Pascale Müller and Stefania Prandi, to expose what is happening in our fields through a foreign media source. On April 30, they published the story of Kalima, a worker in the strawberry fields who ran away from the man who raped her, her supervisor at work.
It is understood, it is known, but people are silent.
Photo by Jose Gonzalez
Rural feminism has to protect every woman. Not only women who have managed to get a piece of land or their own flock. Not only women who defend extensive livestock production and other forms of production that respect the land and its animals. Not only the women who live in cities and identify with ecofeminism, thus weaving more ties between women, feminism, nature, and ecology. Not only the women who work in the rural environment on their own and can speak out and make their demands without being singled out. We need a rural feminism in which everyone feels accompanied, in which everyone can help each other and not feel inferior to each other. We need a rural feminism that also considers the women who work in those intensive systems of production—think about strawberries or greenhouses, slaughterhouses, and production chains—who are often migrant women, without contracts or rights. Who supports them? Who reaches out to them? Who points the finger at the culprits without these women becoming the victims?
We must think about the hands that care for and work the land. When consuming, when traveling, when walking in the countryside. We must ask ourselves, deconstruct ourselves again and again. Take nothing for granted. Don’t stay on the surface. Don’t think of rural women as mere elements.
We must be aware that we cannot pretend to address the problem of depopulation in our country by pointing at us, the women, over and over again. Because we aren’t vessels.
We aren’t an element reduced to the repopulation of the territory. We want to have the same opportunities, the same rights. We want to be able to choose what neither our grandmothers nor our mothers could choose. To stay or to go. But to have that decision, to have the choice. To have a horizon that opens in front of us and to be the ones to do the telling and the ones who decide. To have access to services and opportunities, without having to abandon the town and go to the city. Never to feel obligated to do anything ever again. Not to return to that painful state of not having a choice, of remaining again and again in that state of resignation. We want a rural environment that is feminist, a land replete with equality and opportunities for the girls of the future, whether or not they are our daughters.
Time goes by and the answer to the following question I asked myself one day while driving, after hearing the story of one of my female livestock producers, is becoming clearer and clearer to me:
What if the depopulation problem began because of the lack of attention and the constant discrimination against all the women in our towns?
The answer is so obvious it hurts. In every woman’s hands, and not only in those of rural women, lies the solution. And although they are the ones who have started projects to keep the rural environment and its inhabitants from dying, we must all get involved so that all women count and are visible.
To achieve a sustainable rural community, one that is both equitable and egalitarian, soon.
What’s so good about this?
Rural women have a special role in society. They contribute to the development of agriculture, food security and the improvement of their family’s welfare. This is an excerpt from Tierra de mujeres (Land of Women) by María Sánchez, reprinted here with the author’s permission. A bestseller in Spain since its 2019 publication, it was translated in 2022 into English by Curtis Bauer.
TOPIA met María Sánchez at Diálogos de Cocina (Kitchen Dialogues), a congress at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastián, Spain. The unique two-day event offers a journey through gastronomic transformation.
Meet the writer
María Sánchez is a Spanish writer and field veterinarian and the author of Cuaderno de campo (Field Notebook), Almáciga: Un vivero de palabras de nuestro medio rural (Seedbed), and Tierra de mujeres: Una mirada íntima y familiar al mundo rural (Land of Women), a bestseller in Spain. She is a regular contributor to publications on literature, feminism, and rural culture. She lives in Galicia, Spain.