Gender history permeates every field of study where women are concerned and since women account for 49.5 per cent of the global population (some 3.908 billion persons), that’s a lot of fields. I’m researching the Homefront during the Second World War and the women left behind to keep the home fires burning and the war machines running by focusing on the women who toiled in the fields to grow and process the food needed to keep Britain alive and fighting, or what I’m calling rural studies through a gendered lens. It’s ended up being much more than I anticipated.
From 1920 until 1960, agriculture in England and Wales changed drastically and nowhere was the arrival of ‘modern’ machinery more pronounced than on the farms and in the factories. While the Industrial Revolution saw the first use of mechanized equipment, the 1920s-60s saw a conglomeration of technology and swift improvements in chemical and biological understanding. It was not unusual to see women reapers with sickles working alongside coal powered threshing machines in one field while internal combustion engine driven Fordson tractors ploughed up the neighbouring field, all while under the constant threat of bombardment. Yet for the mostly young, urban women who took up the mantle of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and became the Land Girls or the Timber Corp’s Lumber Jills, their new set of skills often came with a steep learning curve.
Most of these women received very little training. Some were lucky and went to a WLA hostel and training center before being sent on to farms, while others were called up and dropped off in the same breath, and for a seventeen-year-old hairdresser from London or thirty-year-old secretary from Manchester, suddenly being left on the roadside and trekking across a field only to find a small cottage with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing must have been daunting. Thank goodness for the Women’s Institutes and the County Advisory Staffs!
Begun in 1915, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) were formed to address the concerns and issues of the everyday woman and by 1925 had established firm ties with both the Boards of Agriculture and Education and held as one of it’s primary tenets the goal of filling the gap of countrywomen’s education through short courses, lectures and demonstrations in what came to be known as courses in Rural Domestic Economy (RDE). Meeting minutes from the WI and county sub-committees on Agriculture and Agricultural Instruction show thousands of participants from the first RDE course in Berkshire in 1932 until the end of the research period in 1960. In 1943 alone 2,259 individuals participated in RDE courses which covered everything from war-time cookery to domestic poultry keeping. For comparison, the total WLA numbers for that same year in Berkshire was less than 1,400, showing that most of the participants were normal countrywomen.
Additionally, cooperative cheese schools and fruit and vegetable preservation centres dotted the countryside under the watchful eyes of Instructresses like Miss Matthews, the Dairy Instructress for Berkshire County. The minutes show a steady increase in both her salary as a full-time county advisor and her participation as a member of the county sub-committee on Rural Domestic Economy under the auspices of the WI. She travelled throughout the county and even abroad on behalf of both, learning new techniques to bring home and show her fellow countrywomen in town halls and the WI’s travelling lecture van.
For rural women, as well as the Land Girls, these instructresses became a key factor in learning their new roles milking cattle, culling chickens and harvesting eggs, fruits and vegetables for the greengrocer and butcher. A civilian organization, the training certifications the Land Girls undertook, often given by these instructresses, became key selling points when they applied for positions at farms. The instructresses also worked closely with local schools, young farmer’s clubs and farm institutes, and pushed for government and county grants to promote the education of women and girls in the new university degree programs and trainings at RDE centres.
The blueprints found in the Berkshire Records Office shows a building featuring large handicrafts and lecture rooms and three kitchens for preservation, demonstration and preparation, as well as various storerooms, including a bacon curing and storage room to go along with the courses offered showing the newest technologies in food preservation. The Marcham Society’s Denman College collection gives us a unique look inside the demonstration kitchen in a series of photographs. Here one can see an electric chest freezer and range along one wall while the traditional paraffin range sits on the back wall; a combination of old and new technology common during the 1940s and 1950s as the electrification of villages increased.
Figure 1: Inside the Rural Domestic Economy Centre, Marcham, 1950s.
Female farmers were also not unheard of for the period. The popular bi-weekly newspaper Farmer and Stockbreeder promoted Successful Women Farmers throughout the country in 1935. One such was Mrs. Taylor of Oare Farm in Hermitage, Berkshire. The article concludes by stating:
“Mrs. Taylor manages this big farm entirely by herself, she has no bailiff or foreman, and superintends all the work. It is difficult to see how she can find time for outside work, but last year she was chairman of Newbury F. U. [(Farmer’s Union)] (the first woman to be elected to such an office), and is now a member of the Berkshire County Milk Committee and of other agricultural bodies.”
Such multi-tasking was common for women, many of the members of the Berkshire WI appeared in various sub-committees and ran events, attended trainings and managed their own families and businesses.
Figure 2: Successful Women Farmers, Farmer and Stockbreeder, 1935 (MERL)
These types of archival items combined with diaries, meeting minutes and census reports, paint a picture of a tireless group of women striving to make the most out of what they had available to them while breaking barriers in both gender and ethnicity, such as the first black Land Girl, Amelia King. And as government policies changed and women were allowed to attend universities and sit for examinations, more female scientists such as Dr. Elfreida Mattick broke historic barriers to participation. Dr. Mattick researched calcium chloride’s use to alleviate the symptoms of milk fever and was also the first woman to receive a Board of Education Agricultural Scholarship from the Ministry of Agriculture and received her PhD from the University of Bristol in 1923.
By reviewing the archival records found in museums and historical societies, doing ethnographic interviews and biographical information on scientists, nutritionists and farmers, we find the women behind the curtain. The forgotten and often overlooked voices from the past that have made a future where we have female scientists making lab-grown food, female MPs and a female president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). Gender history isn’t just about the politics, it’s about the people-both male and female-that tells a story from multiple angles and through multiple lenses. As one of my interviews said, “without those girls, we all would have starved. They won the war and it’s a damn shame they haven’t been given the respect they deserve.” While I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since 1945, we still have farther to go, and yet, every voice raised is one step closer to when Gender History will just be called History.
Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences. To read more about Amelia King, go to the Museum of English Rural Life’s blog. https://merl.reading.ac.uk/news-and-views/2020/08/breaking-the-colour-bar/
 Sussman, M. Society for Applied Microbiology: a short history. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006.
 The largest farmer’s union in the UK at over 55,000 members.
 Interview with farmer, Roy Barwick (2020).
 Farmer and Stockbreeder, April 1, 1935, pg. 753.
 https://countrymeters.info/en/World as of 24 May 2021.
 WLA participant numbers taken from the monthly WLA’s The Land Girl newsletter and RDE numbers from the various meeting minute notes.