With so many women involved in FFA/ag education today, it’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. On Oct. 15, 1969, delegates at the 42nd Annual National FFA Convention voted all students of vocational agriculture classes could become FFA members. Before that, girls couldn’t wear FFA’s iconic blue corduroy jacket.
At its annual convention in April, Georgia FFA celebrated this upcoming 50th anniversary by recognizing some of the ladies who have opened doors for their gender in FFA. Visit www.gfb.photos/FFAwomen to meet them.
The way it was
In 1930, two years after FFA was established, members voted that membership was only for male students. At the 1935 national convention, Massachusetts FFA member Alfred Vaughan introduced the idea of allowing girls to join without success.
Before 1969, state and local chapters allowed female participation at varying levels. Some girls took ag ed classes but couldn’t become FFA members. Some FFA chapters let girls join but listed them on membership rolls by first initials instead of first names to keep gender hidden.
From 1949 to 1969, National FFA encouraged local chapters to select young ladies to serve as Chapter Sweethearts. Girls chosen for this honor received a white jacket to wear.
Katrina Cheek McIntosh, a retired teacher in the Colquitt County School System and wife of Moultrie Mayor Bill McIntosh, fondly remembers serving as the Butler High School FFA Chapter Sweetheart for the 1963-64 school year. It was a busy year for her as she was also serving as state president of the Future Business Leaders of America.
“It was a special thing to be selected by my peers to represent the FFA students,” McIntosh said. “I had a lot of knowledge of parliamentary procedure from Future Business Leaders of America, and I helped the FFA officers with that. I welcomed guests to their meetings and helped the members learn manners. They were very receptive to my help because they wanted to put their best foot forward.”
McIntosh also served as hostess for the chapter meetings and provided refreshments with help from her mother.
McIntosh graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in speech communication and rhetoric. While her husband, Bill, attended UGA’s law school, she taught public speaking at UGA for three years. After they moved to Moultrie, Bill’s hometown, she taught fifth grade until retiring.
McIntosh still admires the leadership and public speaking skills FFA teaches its members. That’s why she supports local FFA projects and works with students.
Times, They Are A Changin’
The 1960s was a time of empowerment for women across the U.S., and FFA took notice. At the 1964 national convention, a Connecticut delegate, Paul Miller, proposed opening membership to women. His amendment failed.
In January of 1966, a committee was formed to review membership. In August, the National FFA Board of Directors proposed a constitutional change based on the committee’s work to remove the word male from the constitution.
By 1967, about 3,300 females nationwide were taking ag classes and more states accepted women as FFA members. Delegates at the 1967 and 1968 national conventions shot down amendments to open FFA membership to girls before allowing female members in 1969.
Jack Spruill, who served as a Georgia FFA officer from 1969 to 1970, remembers being asked what he thought about letting girls become FFA members when he interviewed to be a state officer.
“I know I answered that I didn’t have a problem with it. The interviews took place behind closed doors, but I have to think anyone who answered negatively didn’t make it onto the state officer team,” Spruill said.
As a state officer, Spruill attended FFA chapter events across Georgia where he noticed young ladies attending FFA as silent members.
“There were a lot of young ladies at my school [Milton High School in Fulton County] who showed cattle and hogs through 4-H, but we didn’t have an FFA Chapter Sweetheart or girls at our meetings,” Spruill said. “I learned from going to FFA events across the state that ag teachers ruled their programs differently.”
Spruill, who now works for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, also remembers attending the 1969 national convention when the historic vote was cast.
“I think at that point there were lots of different attitudes. As students we were more shocked than not that it was the way it was,” Spruill said. “I don’t think we had a clue at the time how much our organization was changing history that day. I didn’t have the foresight to realize that convention was opening the door for my future daughters and granddaughters.”
Coincidentally, Spruill’s future wife, whom he didn’t know at the time, joined FFA a year later. Ada Pirkle Spruill became an FFA member her senior year at Jefferson City High School in the fall of 1970.
Ada recalls Albert Logan, the ag teacher/FFA adviser at her school, recruiting her and other girls who had been active 4-Hers to take a horticulture class and join FFA.
“We were very welcome,” Ada remembered. “They were just really good guys. They pretty much liked us being there.”
Jack and Ada had three children - Robert, Carol and Abby - all of whom joined FFA and experienced success in the program. You'll read more about Robert and Carol later on. Abby taught ag and is a former FFA advisor at Pike County Middle School and Oconee County High School.
Into the classroom
After girls were allowed to join FFA, it was only natural they would want to become ag teachers. The 201 women teaching agriculture in Georgia today have ladies like Connie Collier, Cindy Williams Greene and Lynne Cook to thank for leading the way.
Collier was an FFA advisor/ag teacher at Cass High School in Bartow County for 33 years before retiring in 2012. She became the first woman to teach ag ed in the Southeast when she started teaching in South Alabama in 1972.
“The younger guys that I came up with at Auburn were all really good to me. They didn’t show resentment, but when I started teaching it was hard for a lot of the older male ag teachers,” Collier recalled.
After teaching at several Alabama schools for seven years, Collier moved to Cartersville in 1979.
“When I started at Cass it was a different world. It was a much better environment to teach in,” Collier said. “Later on, when it wasn’t so difficult, I think girls saw females in the field of ag education and it encouraged them.”
Greene was active in the Dodge County High FFA in the early 1970s and was the first girl the chapter elected an officer. She earned a B.S. in agriculture and a master’s in ag education from UGA before she started teaching ag in 1979 in Toombs County then Dodge County from 1980-1994. She became a Georgia Agriculture Education (GAE) area horticulture teacher in 1997. In 2001 she was promoted to GAE Central Region Coordinator, a position she held until her retirement in 2010.
“My fellow teachers always treated me equally and made me feel welcome in the early years of my career when there were no other female teachers, ” Greene said.
Cook has been teaching ag ed and advising FFA students at Tift County High since 1988. Having been an FFA member for three years in high school, Cook was encouraged to pursue a career in ag education after she realized God didn’t intend her to be a veterinarian.
“FFA is a student transformation program. It’s amazing to watch students go from being shy to national winners and owning their own businesses,” Cook said. “It’s not because I’m a good teacher. The program itself was built on a tradition of success.”
During her 31-year career, Cook has taught 14 state FFA officers and inspired 15 students to become ag ed teachers.
Jaky Cervantes was one of Cook's former students. In 2013, Cervantes became the first Hispanic female to become a Georgia FFA officer. Today she teaches ag at Indian Creek Middle School in Covington. While Cervantes experienced much success with FFA, she says the organization also taught her how to deal with setbacks.
"I will always thank my ag teacher Mr. Nichols for not giving up on me after I quit the livestock judging team. Instead, he pushed me to do the parliamentary procedure event," Cervantes said.
Now, Cervantes is helping her FFA students find the right events for them to compete in that play to their strengths and maybe determine their career paths.
"Getting to see students find themselves and what they're good at has been my favorite part of teaching," Cervantes said.
She is working to connect students with no farming backgrounds with the hands-on activities they can learn in ag classes such as welding, mechanics, landscaping and greenhouse operations.
"I love that the students can gain speaking skills through FFA, but I really want them to be aware of the career development events and supervised agricultural experience projects that can prepare them for careers."
Setting the world on fire
In 1978, Georgia FFA elected its first female state officer - Jennifer Kelly of Floyd County. Since then, 156 females have served as state officers. Georgia FFA elected its first female president – Priscilla Weldon of Jackson County – in 1990.
Lynn Ress, Franklin County FFA, was the first girl to win the state tractor driving contest in 1984. Kay Farmer, Oglethorpe County FFA, was the first girl to earn the state Star Farmer award in 1991.
Hillary Smith Stringfellow became the first female from Georgia to serve as a national officer when elected National FFA president in 1997. A member of the Perry High FFA chapter, Stringfellow served as a state officer from 1995-1996. She was drawn to FFA because her grandparents farmed and her dad and cousins had been members.
Stringfellow says highlights of her national presidency were the National FFA Center relocating from Virginia to Indianapolis in 1998 and presiding over the last national convention held in Kansas City in 1998.
A lawyer in Brunswick, Stringfellow credits FFA for giving her the public speaking skills hat help her in her career today.
“Every FFA member today has the opportunity to become anything they want to be,” Stringfellow said.
Carol Spruill Lawrence made Georgia FFA history in 1997 when she became the first and only female to win the Georgia EMC-FFA Electrical State Wiring Contest. She said entering seemed normal because her dad, Jack Spruill, won the state event in 1968, and her brother, Robert, won it in 1996.
Lawrence became the second female elected as Georgia FFA president in 1997 and the second girl from Georgia elected as a national FFA officer in 1999.
Today, Lawrence runs Steadfast Farm, the horse stable she started as her FFA proficiency project. Her husband, Shannon Lawrence, is an ag teacher/FFA adviser at Jackson County High School. They are raising four children to continue the family’s FFA legacy. Their daughter, Emma, attended her first state FFA convention in April.
“I’ve been blessed to see FFA from several different sides. The time I spent on stage as an officer was fabulous but so is the time I’ve spent as the spouse of an ag teacher,” Lawrence said. “The time I’ve spent as an FFA mother has been my favorite. It’s neat seeing FFA through my children's eyes.”
In addition to Stringfellow and Lawrence, other Georgia females elected as national officers are: Rachael McCall Becker in 2004, Regina Holliday Fitzpatrick in 2008, Kalie Hall Blevins in 2012 and Abbey Gretsch in 2015.