The Massachusetts Situation – The Fight to Allow Girls in the FFA Begins (1/4/2019)

Happy New Year! This year, 2019, is a momentous year in the history of the FFA – it marks the 50th anniversary of the decision to allow girls to be members of the FFA. But it also marks the 89th anniversary of the decision to EXCLUDE girls from becoming members of the FFA.

Most folks believe the 1960s was the decade in which the struggle to admit girls into the FFA occurred. That is partially true, but the 1930s was the era in which a very contentious fight occurred regarding FFA membership for girls. The events of the 1960s pale in comparison to the combative fight that occurred in the 1930s. This Friday Footnote will focus on the “public” events of the 1930s (as recorded in the official FFA Convention Proceedings and Minutes of the Board of Trustees). Next week we will examine what was going on behind the scenes. Then we will get to the 1960s in a couple of weeks.

1928. At the first FFA convention in 1928, a constitution and bylaws were adopted. Article III Membership. Section B. Active Membership reads “Any student(underline mine) of vocational agriculture… is entitled to active membership in Future Farmers of American.” (FFA Manual, 1929-30). There is NO mention of male or female; the wording states “Any student.” Thus it appears, according to the constitution, girls could be members during the early years of the FFA.

1929. However, the actions and words of the adult leaders of the FFA indicated that any student actually meant boys. Immediately prior to the 1929 FFA convention, the national FFA advisor, Dr. Lane stated in opening the meeting of state leaders “…that State Advisors have a wonderful opportunity to influence the boys (underline mine) for good.” (FFA Convention Minutes, 1929, p. 4). A close reading of the 1929 convention minutes finds nineteen references to boys. It is clear that the FFA is an organization for boys in spite of what the constitution states.

1930. It did not take long for the membership “mistake/oversight” to be rectified. At the 1930 FFA convention, it was proposed to amend Article III, Section B to read “Any male student …is entitled to active membership…” (FFA Convention Minutes, 1930, p. 6). This amendment was unanimously adopted.

1933. The minutes of the 1931 and 1932 FFA conventions are silent in regards to any membership concerns, but all heck broke out in 1933.

At the June 1933 meeting of the FFA Board of Trustees, the Executive Secretary of the FFA [W. A. Ross] reported that the Essex FFA chapter in Massachusetts had entered the National Chapter Contest. In the application, there was a list of members and there were five names that belonged to girls. This was a shock to the national FFA. There was considerable discussion as to what action should be taken since Massachusetts “had not gone along with the national set-up with respect to girl membership” (p.10). It was decided to “immediately” send a letter to the Massachusetts FFA President and the state advisor, Rufus Stimson, informing them of the problem.

Apparently, the letter didn’t do much good. The 1933 FFA Convention Minutes (p. 15-16) indicate that FFA President Howell told the delegates of “…the situation with regards to girls being admitted to F.F.A. membership in Massachusetts. It was pointed out that this was a violation of…the national constitution…and that the attention of the Massachusetts state officers [and state advisor] had been called to this fact…A lively and lengthy discussion followed…Practically every state delegation…stood solidly behind the proposition of maintaining the F.F.A. as a male organization.” The convention adjourned for lunch. After lunch, it was moved “…that the Massachusetts Association be given three months to conform to the national constitution, or the Board of Trustees be instructed to suspend Massachusetts; motion seconded and carried.”

1934. So did Massachusetts get suspended? No! Apparently, Massachusetts resisted the National FFA. The “Massachusetts Situation” was discussed at length at the1934 FFA convention. “It was very evident that the sentiment was exceedingly strong against making any change in the constitution which would provide for girl memberships or countenancing the practice of having girl members in any local chapter in any state (p. 13). The National FFA Advisor, Mr. Linke, indicated there was a legal issue that had to be investigated (it had been claimed by officials in Massachusetts that the FFA constitution was in conflict with the laws of Massachusetts) before the problem could be resolved. After a lengthy discussion, a compromise resolution was adopted.

The resolution stated that the FFA was fundamentally a boys’ organization but because of various local and state “circumstances” girls could be in the FFA at the local or state level with permission from the National Board of Trustees. However, the girls would not pay national dues and that chapters with girls could not participate in the National FFA Chapter Contest. Click here to see the complete wording of that resolution. The minutes (1934 FFA convention, p. 14) indicate “…this resolution was only a temporary measure to allow the National Advisor time to further investigate the legal restrictions which it was reported prevented Massachusetts from conforming to the membership regulations.”

It is somewhat ironic that the Toyack FFA Chapter in Roosevelt, Utah was recognized as the Outstanding FFA Chapter at the 1934 FFA convention. One of the unique features of this chapter was its girl’s auxiliary, which was comprised of girls taking Vocational Home Economics.

1935. The drama continued in 1935. At the March meeting of the Board of Trustees the Trustees decided to send a letter to the National Advisor, J. A. Linke informed him of their thoughts and concerns regarding the Massachusetts situation. The Trustees spent one evening preparing the six-page letter (click here to read it.) The letter in no uncertain terms called on Massachusetts to comply with the national constitution. The letter implied that Massachusetts had either not complied in good faith or had ignored the correspondence with the national organization in regards to having girls as members. The letter also suggested that Massachusetts might form some type of girls auxiliary organization or have a special type of membership for girls that did not conflict with the national constitution.

Fast Forward to the 1935 National Convention – On Wednesday morning at the 1935 National FFA Convention, FFA Vice-President Arrington read a special report from Mr. Linke, the National Advisor, detailing what had happened during the past year regarding the Massachusetts situation. Basically, the report reviewed the history of the issue and updated the delegates regarding recent actions. According to the Convention Minutes for 1935 (p. 10) “The gist of Mr. Linke’s report was that he had made a trip to Massachusetts and talked with leaders in vocational education there; that legal restrictions did not appear to have much, if any, bearing on the difficulty insofar as he was able to determine from reading a copy of laws said to be involved and that he was unable to bring about any further steps in the solution of the problem.” This report was to set the stage for new business to be conducted on Thursday.

At the Thursday morning session, the first item of business (after committee reports) was that of girl membership in the FFA. A motion was made to discuss the issue behind closed doors. The motion passed and all spectators were asked to leave the room.

Vice-President Meyers then read a resolution prepared by the Board of Trustees covering the question of girl membership in the FFA. The resolution read:

“That when officially found that any State Association in the Future Farmers of America has girl members on its rolls, such State Associations shall be denied participation in all national Future Farmer of America contests and national F. F. A. awards. And no funds from the national treasury shall be available to such State Associations for the purpose of transporting delegates to the national conventions until such time as the names of the girl members are removed from the official rolls of the State Association and local chapters in accordance with the constitution.”

The resolution unanimously passed. It appears the FFA was playing hardball with Massachusetts in regards to having girls as members.

1936. Massachusetts was down but not out in regards to the question of girl membership. At the 1936 FFA convention, delegate Clinch of Massachusetts spoke about the “girl membership situation” after which the Student-Secretary read the following recommendation from the National FFA Advisory Council (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1936, p. 21):

“Recommended that since the present national F. F. A. constitution is being revised, that during this process of revision, consideration be given to the making of satisfactory provision for meeting State constitution requirements with respect to membership in the F. F. A.”

The gist of the recommendation was to take no action until a new constitution is acted on. A motion was made to accept the recommendation but an amendment was offered that the resolution passed in 1935 be continued until the next year and that the Massachusetts Attorney General’s interpretation be obtained. The motion as amended was passed.

1937. So what happened next? At the Board of Trustees meeting in March the matter of revising the National F.F.A. Constitution received considerable attention and was discussed at length by the members of the Board and members of the Staff of the Agricultural Education Service (P. 3). By a unanimous vote, it was decided that the word “male” be included in the “active membership” section and at any other appropriate or necessary places in the entire proposed revision of the Constitution.

It was the sense of the meeting that the following, or similar provision, be made in the by-laws:

In case any commonwealth’s constitution will not allow discrimination between the sexes in secondary school organizations, exception will be made when the State F.F.A. Association involved furnishes the national organization with a written and signed opinion of the Attorney General to the effect that such a condition exists in said constitution, providing the activities of female members be limited to the specific State concerned and that no national dues be collected from said female members. (p. 3)

Two important points should be made. Massachusetts is only one of four states considered to be a “commonwealth”, so this provision appears to be aimed at Massachusetts since none of the other “commonwealth” states had membership issues The fact that the Board of Trustees was proposing this bylaw provision indicates they finally believed the Massachusetts claim that there was an issue with the FFA constitution and state laws and were ready to accept a compromise.

A “New” constitution and bylaws were adopted at the 1937 FFA convention. Article III, Section B Active Membership reads basically the same as the previous version “Any male student…is entitled to become an active member.” (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1937, p. 25). However, a close inspection of the new constitution (p. 31) reveals an addition to the Bylaws, Article VII. Procedure for Determining Standing of State Associations and Members. The new addition states “Whenever this constitution [referring to the FFA constitution] is found to be in conflict with State law and constitutional provisions of any of the states, The Board of Trustees is empowered to make adjustments found necessary, to the end that no State association or local member be barred by reason thereof from the enjoyment or his rights and privileges.”

The revised constitution and bylaws passed. While girls could not join the national FFA, the door was cracked open at the state level for girls to be members of state or local FFA organizations if the state leadership allowed it.

There was no discussion of the Massachusetts Situation or membership for girls at the 1938, 1939 or 1940 FFA convention; so apparently, the compromise worked – at least until the 1960s.

The Rest of the Story – Now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. This Friday Footnote focused on the “public record” in the fight to get girls into the FFA in the 1930s. However, a lot was going on behind the scenes. Copies of letters between the national FFA and the state leadership in Massachusetts regarding this situation reveal threats and terse language. Next Friday we will look at what was going on out-of-sight in regards to female membership in the FFA. It really gets interesting and at times nasty. So, stay tuned.