Meet the New Faculty: Gabriel Rosenberg

New women's studies faculty member studies gender issues and animal reproduction in rural communities

Gabriel Rosenberg's new book explores how industrial reproduction of farm animals has affected our beliefs and policies concerning human reproduction.  Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography
Gabriel Rosenberg's new book explores how industrial reproduction of farm animals has affected our beliefs and policies concerning human reproduction. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

When Gabriel Rosenberg started unraveling the relationship between farm animals, rural reformers and breeding, he found clues about the history of human reproduction.

Rosenberg, a new assistant professor of the practice in Duke's Program in Women's Studies, researches the history of gender roles in U.S. agriculture after the Civil War. His focus is on feminism and how food has historically been produced, from farm to table. This semester he is teaching a course on "Food, Farming and Feminism."

Rosenberg's research on food production and genders roles on farms led to his first book, "Breeding the Future: 4-H and the Roots of the Modern Rural World," which explores 4-H clubs and their efforts to economically develop rural spaces.

The clubs educated people on correct farming and homemaking techniques, Rosenberg said.

"There was an emphasis on how to be healthy and proper young men and proper women. To be a good man, one has to be a good farmer," Rosenberg said, adding that the goal of reformers in the early 20th century was to arrange for the best rural kids to stay on the farm, get married and have children instead of leaving the countryside for the city.

"If your plan is to have the best kids stay, you have to figure out who the best kids are," Rosenberg said. "Their ideals of beauty had a lot to do with pristine white skin. Eugenics emerges organically from that type of environment."

Rural reformers of the early 20th century who wanted to modernize the countryside, like E. A. Ross, Kenyon Butterfield, and Seaman Knapp, claimed cities were decadent, allowed too much freedom between the sexes and between ethnicities, and encouraged socially irresponsible behavior. They advocated instead for modern agricultural practices, homemaking techniques, and cleanliness.

The reformers created health contests where youth competed to determine who is the most physically fit. They also created social venues for youth, where boys could meet girls, receive sex education and dating advice.

Farm kids were already learning about reproduction from breeding animals, Rosenberg said. The increasing systemization of animal reproduction on American farms forms the basis for his second book.

"Purebred: Making Meat and Eugenics in Modern America" will be about purebred livestock animals and the history of what happens to them in a capitalist system. He's curious about how the industrial systemization of animal reproduction has changed human reproduction. Most notably, the process behind human in vitro fertilization originated with livestock.

"A considerable amount of the [fertility] technology deployed on humans originates with the market demand to provide more meat to American consumers," he said.  "They applied what they learned about breeding animals to men and women, primarily to regulate women's bodies."

As farmers become better integrated into the global meat market, "you have an increasing overriding market concern, which pushes out any other consideration as to how you should relate to animals," said Rosenberg citing the cruelty of the contemporary system.

"If humans are always learning about their own reproduction from animals, how does that transformation affect how we think about human reproduction?" he said.

Reproduction can be separated from an animal's body. Semen and eggs are harvested. Genetic characteristics can be controlled. Does this predict an application to humans? Rosenberg said that in the early 20th century animal breeders frequently talked about animal "races" in magazines, livestock expositions and fairs, and they used their expertise with animals to make arguments about how to control human reproduction.

"Once they start talking about it in terms of race, it affects how their contemporaries think about human racial categories as well and all of the political controversies that surround it," Rosenberg said, referring to forced sterilization and immigration, as examples. "Ultimately I'm interested in how society organizes the space between bodies and desire."

Since joining Duke's faculty, Rosenberg has grown to love Durham and teaching at Duke.

"My students are wonderful. The food scene is great and I love the weather," he said. "As a native of Indiana, Durham often reminds me of home -- particularly the intense passion for basketball."