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WAREHOUSE DISTRICT 641 Tchoupitoulas St. (504) 304-1485 

By Molly Bourg

The Early Dairymaid

If we’re going to talk about women in dairy, we have to start with the word itself. Dairy comes from the Old English, daerie, which can be split into two.

  • Dǣge (Old English) or deigja (Old Norse) translates to ‘female laborer,’ ‘housekeeper,’ or even ‘kneader of bread.’
  • Erie (Anglo Norman) is used to denote ‘a place for’.

So a dairy is a place for women workers. Gendered labor was very typical in medieval and renaissance Europe, with the average farming family dividing labor based on whether something was inside or outside the home. So the husband would be herding and maintaining the livestock in the field, but when the milk came inside it was the wife’s job to process and preserve it into butter, yogurt and cheese. This was also true for bread and beer making, meat curing, and preserving fruits and vegetables.

Although roles would vary slightly from community to community, dairy was largely seen as a women’s task. In medieval Denmark it was even considered creepy or emasculating for a man to milk a cow! A family’s cheese recipes were highly guarded and often referred to as ‘the secret knowledge,’ which was passed orally from mother to daughter. This was because cheese and butter were valuable commodities that could be used to pay rent or taxes. If you had a particularly tasty recipe, it would mean a more comfortable life for you and your family.

Even after the fall of the fiefdom and the rise of yeoman farmers, women were still sought out for their knowledge and expertise. In a time when women could not own property or operate businesses, dairies were a rare exception for women to make and keep their own money.

Stolen Labor: Men gain the ‘Secret Knowledge’.

Unfortunately as cheesemaking evolved from a cottage industry to a capital-driven one, women were slowly stripped of their power or forced out completely. As Europeans migrated to the Americas, farmwives were being shouldered out of the market by the slavery system. Records from 18th century Rhode Island and Connecticut show that the majority of the cheese produced in those two states was made by enslaved black dairymaids. The largest dairy plantation in Rhode Island produced between 360 and 720 pounds of cheese a day, all made by the 24 women enslaved there. These women never saw credit for their recipe development or craftsmanship, and all profits would have gone to the male slaveholder.

Back in England, the Age of Enlightenment was in full swing. Educated men were looking to use new scientific methods to standardize many parts of the English Economy, including agriculture. Researcher Josiah Twamley began to intrude on the women’s sphere, observing their work and recording the previously “secret knowledge.” His 1796 book, Dairying Exemplified, plagiarized the dairymaid’s techniques and recipes while simultaneously portraying them backwards, narrowminded, and superstitious. The 19th century brought the invention of the industrial cheese plant in 1851 and the founding of dairy science programs at colleges only men were allowed to attend. Women had been pushed out of the cheesemaking sphere.

Women Fight to re-enter Cheesemaking

Adda F. Howie inherited her family’s  Wisconsin dairy farm in 1897. Adda was not pleased with industry standards of the farms surrounding her, seeing them as profit driven and depressing. She would go on to create diary practices that were 30 years ahead of their time. All milking staff were required to wash their hands, stalls were enlarged to give cattle room to lie down, and windows were installed to let in light and circulate the air. Other aesthetic changes were included to make the farm a pleasant place for employees. Walls were whitewashed, curtains were put in, and flowers were planted. Originally her practices were mocked by her peers, even the local papers published comics that labeled her as frivolous and silly. But when an independent dairy survey found that Adda’s farm was producing five times as much milk as the average farm, people changed their tune. Adda went on to become the first woman to serve on the Wisconsin Board of Agriculture in 1925. She is considered one of the matriarchs of American dairy.

In the late 1970s and early 80s we see a return to small batch artisan cheesemaking in the United States. The main powerhouses in this American dairy renaissance were primarily women: Judy Shad (Capriole Farms), Laura Chenel (Chenel Chevre, Chez Panisse), Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove), and Alison Hooper (Vermont Creamery). These women had a tough task ahead of them. They had to convince the average American consumer that strange new things like goat cheese and soft ripened cheeses could be edible. They had to convince European chefs and restauranteurs that American dairy was more than just string cheese and processed cheese product.

The Modern Day Dairy Maid

                Women are continuing to promote cheese and education into the modern era. Their reach has extended past the physical dairy itself to the schoolroom and beyond. Agela Abdullah is currently heading the charge to promote equity and inclusion in the cheese industry for BIPOC communities. She leads The Cheese Culture Coalition, which is a nonprofit that provides educational grants to BIPOC cheese professionals and intro classes for middle and high school students. Cheese has also broken into the digital sphere! Take for instance the cheese high priestess of Chicago, Erika Kubick, who promotes cheese education and adoration through her social media platform: Cheese Sex Death. Her perfectly paired plates and witchy aesthetic have catapulted her to TikTok and Instagram fame.

                Women have always had a hand in the education and craft of cheese. From the secret knowledge of old passed from mother to daughter, to the viral posts now available to the masses. We are so thankful for the continued work of women around the world, and the delicious creations the bring to the table.

Lady Produced Cheeses at St. James

These are only a few, feel free to ask a monger for more options next time you're in the shop!

Sources Used:

Casella, Mary. 2021. Women’s Work: The History and Legacy of Women in Dairy [ PowerPoint presentation]. American Cheese Society Annual Conference 22 July, Portland, OR.

Kindstedt, Paul. Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization.  White River Bend, Chelsea Green, 2012.

Kubick, Erika. Cheese Sex Death: A Bible for the Cheese Obsessed. New York, Abrams, 2021.