Montana’s 4-H clubs grew from three thousand youngsters in 1914 to over twenty thousand members a century later. The organization encourages children to develop skills that enable them to better their lives and strengthen their communities. Its emphasis on the economic importance of women’s work created leadership opportunities for women and inspired girls to partake in 4-H clubs, camps, and competitions. Women and girls in 4-H have proven their abilities while broadening the organization’s objectives and expanding its opportunities for boys and girls alike.
When Montana’s Cooperative Extension Service hired Augusta Evans to organize the state’s first 4-H clubs in 1914, the nation’s agricultural industry was striving to stabilize food production. The Extension Service and experimental agricultural stations engaged 4-H youth in their efforts to apply an industrial approach to farming: maximizing efficiency using new technologies and boosting production by applying scientific methods. Initially, almost all Montana’s 4-H members were boys, and these early clubs produced corn, peas, potatoes, beef, and sheep. In contrast, the state’s first girls’ clubs focused on corset making. By 1930, however, the number of girls in Montana’s clubs exceeded the number of boys, and their activities had greatly diversified.
Home Demonstration agents effected this change when they brought up-to-date techniques to rural women. Even women already experienced in canning and cooking benefited from the expertise of agents like Helen Mayfield, who demonstrated food preservation for maximum nutritional content. A 4-H leader from Rosebud County noted in the 1930s that farm women were often more bashful than their daughters but just as eager to try the newest technologies. This outreach to rural women stimulated a rapid rise of 4-H club leaders.
Home Demonstration clubs—also known as Homemakers clubs—were created in 1914 as part of the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics. Their goal was to bring “expert” instruction on the subjects of home economics and agriculture to rural women. Originally intended to “uplift” rural women through professional instruction, Home Demonstration clubs became a way for Montana women to socialize and learn from one another and to serve their communities. While the clubs attempted to reinforce conservative domestic values, the experiences of Home Demonstration clubwomen in the post-World War II era suggest that farm women adapted them to their own ends.
At their inception, Homemakers clubs reflected a Progressive-era faith that expertise and government intervention could improve American society. Targeting women who were unable to attend college, Home Demonstration agents instructed women in “scientific” methods of child rearing, food preservation, cooking, consumerism, nutrition, women’s and family health, and home and farm management. Department of Agriculture employee Mary E. Creswell expressed optimism that proper instruction would improve the lives—and character—of rural women: “With increased opportunity for training, . . . and with the opportunity for permanent service in her county, the work of the county woman agent will continue to be the most potent influence for progressive and happy country homes.”