Fifty years ago, FFA extended membership to women
When you look at today’s FFA leadership, both in the state and national organizations, young women are strongly represented at the student and executive levels.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the vote by delegates at the 42nd Annual National FFA Convention on Oct. 15, 1969, that welcomed all vocational agriculture students to become FFA members regardless of gender. Before that vote, young women couldn’t don FFA’s iconic blue corduroy jacket.
The vote came 41 years after National FFA’s founding and 39 years after national members voted that membership was only for male students. State and local chapters allowed female participation at varying levels before membership was officially opened by a two-vote margin in 1969.
National FFA elected its first female officer in 1976 and Georgia FFA elected its first female state officer in 1978. Since then, more than 80 women have served as national officers and 156 women have held Georgia FFA state offices.
Among those groundbreaking women have been several alumnae of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Hillary Smith Stringfellow (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’00) became the first woman from Georgia and the first CAES alumna to serve as a national officer when elected National FFA president in 1998. A member of the Perry High School FFA chapter, Stringfellow served as a state officer from 1995 to 1996. She was drawn to FFA because her grandparents farmed and her dad and cousins had been members.
Now a lawyer in Brunswick, Georgia, Stringfellow credits FFA for giving her the public speaking skills that 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 (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’03) 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 (BSA — Animal Science, ’74), won the state event in 1968, and her brother, Robert Spruill, won in 1996. Lawrence became the second female Georgia FFA president in 1997 and the second female national FFA officer from Georgia in 1999.
Today, Lawrence runs Steadfast Farm, the horse stable she started as her FFA proficiency project. Her husband, Shannon Lawrence (BSA — Agricultural Education, ’03; MAL — Agricultural Leadership, ’04), is an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Jackson County High School, and they are raising four children to continue the family’s FFA legacy.
“The time I spent on stage as an officer was fabulous,” 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.”
Involvement in FFA led Rachael McCall Becker (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’08), both directly and indirectly, to her election in January 2019 as O’Brien County attorney in Sheldon, Iowa.
“FFA is pretty much the reason why I live in the Midwest,” said Becker, who met her husband, Ryan Becker, at an FFA leadership conference in Washington, D.C., when she was a visiting national officer and he was a presenter from Nebraska. After graduating from CAES, Becker enrolled in law school at the University of Nebraska, where her future husband was in medical school.
“FFA really offered me a great opportunity as a national officer, getting to travel to different parts of the country and the world , as well as equipping me with the communications skills, confidence and other real-world skills that would be hard to develop in any other organization,” Becker said.
Living in a small, largely agrarian country of about 14,000 and serving as county attorney — which in Iowa is the chief law enforcement agent in the county — Becker said it is valuable to have an agricultural background to understand the complexities of the law and how it effects the county’s citizens.
“My agricultural roots allow me to better understand certain situations that arise and better connect with people in my agrarian community,” she said. “I have had several cases where my agricultural knowledge has helped me to understand whether a ‘crime’ has truly been committed.”
Shy and studious as a high school freshman, Regina Holliday Fitzpatrick (BSA – Animal Science, ’11) insists she would not have pursued any extracurricular activities if it hadn’t been for her agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, Al Garner (BSA — Agricultural Education, ’93) and, later, agriculture teacher Kasey Mixon Jackson (BSA — Animal Science, ’02; MAL — Agricultural Leadership, ’04).
Fitzpatrick eventually began entering public speaking competitions and taking leadership roles in her local FFA chapter. During her senior year of high school, she served as Georgia FFA vice president.
After graduating from CAES, Fitzpatrick spent six years leading the FFA Leadership Program at Clemson University before returning to UGA as events coordinator for CAES and to pursue a doctorate in animal science. Fitzpatrick hopes to use her degree to teach and perform scientific research on feed efficiency in cattle based on taste preference through studying bovine taste buds.
Kalie Hall Blevins (BSA – Agricultural Education, ’15) comes from a strong FFA family and began showing livestock in middle school. That experience led to deeper involvement in FFA and a desire to take on state and national leadership roles.
“I found that, during my time traveling the state and country as an FFA officer, I most enjoyed visiting local schools and interacting with students there,” said Blevins, who is now an agriculture teacher at Madison County High School. “I saw that the real impact came from the constant influence of a teacher who invested in students each day. I love the opportunity to get to know students and facilitate growth over some pivotal years.”
Blevins works with fellow UGA graduates Cindy Jones (BSA — Animal Science, ’79), Josh Daniel (BSA — Agricultural Education, ’14) and Kathrine Bell, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Warnell School of Forestry, as advisors for the high school’s FFA chapter.
“It is important to remember the impact others made in our lives by investing time, knowledge and resources into us and pass those along to the next generation,” Blevins said.
Recent CAES graduate Abbey Gretsch (BSA – Agricultural Communication, ’19 ) said her participation in FFA in high school helped her discover a pathway to a career in agriculture when she learned about UGA and CAES while attending the National FFA Convention.
“Through FFA I gained everything from soft skills to sound agricultural business practices that I use in my daily life. UGA allowed me to take foundational skills I learned in FFA and develop them,” said Gretsch, who served as National FFA Southern Region vice president in 2015-2016.
She is grateful for the “agricultural educators, life coaches and sincere friends” she gained from FFA and for the encouragement they offered.
“Those women in agriculture who paved the way without drawing much attention to themselves are the giants whose shoulders we stand upon,” Gretsch said.
By Jennifer Whittaker (BSA — Agricultural Communications, ’94) and Maria M. Lameiras
From top, Carol Spruill Lawrence; Hillary Smith Stringfellow; Adabeth Pirkle Spruill, left, and Barbara Nuss Artett (BSA – Animal Science, ‘83), right, are welcomed into Jefferson City High School FFA by chapter president Danny Yates in 1970; Adabeth Pirkle Spruill’s FFA jacket; Jaky Cervantes (BSA – Agriculture, ‘17); Emma Lawrence (left), Spruill Lawrence (right), and FFA advisor Jimmy Mock (BSA – Agriculture, ‘65).