Verdant Coloured Glasses: Rural Studies through a Gendered Lens, by Tamisan Latherow

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)[1], 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.[2]

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[1].”

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.[1]

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)[2]. 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.”[3] 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/

@SeshatofMars

[1] Sussman, M. Society for Applied Microbiology: a short history. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006.

[2] The largest farmer’s union in the UK at over 55,000 members.

[3] Interview with farmer, Roy Barwick (2020).

[1] Farmer and Stockbreeder, April 1, 1935, pg. 753.

[1] https://countrymeters.info/en/World as of 24 May 2021.

[2] WLA participant numbers taken from the monthly WLA’s The Land Girl newsletter and RDE numbers from the various meeting minute notes.

An Interdisciplinary Approach: Gender and Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales c. 400-1200 CE, by Arica Roberts

There are a total of 565 monuments for Wales c. 400-1150 CE. which cover three geographical regions: the South-East Wales and the English Border (Redknap and Lewis, 2007), South-West Wales (Edwards, 2009) and North Wales (Edwards, 2013). The three regions have 191, 216, and 158 number of monuments respectively. My questions about how gender was constructed and manipulated by high-status men in Wales through the surviving evidence of stone monuments relies on an interdisciplinary study that includes their archaeological, historical, and art-historical context.

Most of the stones with inscriptions include a name in the nominative or genitive case, which implies that the stone is the ‘monument of X’ and includes the filiation, frequently using filius or fili, followed by the name of the father in the genitive ‘X son of Y’. The stones also contain the formulaic Latin ‘hic iacit’ ‘here lies’and ‘pro anima’ ‘for the soul[s] of’, commemorating the dead and their souls in Christian fashion. The imagery on the stone monuments includes human figures, most of which are arguably Christian and depict familiar Biblical scenes or ecclesiastical figures. There are also identifiable secular masculine warrior figures.

The Pillar of Eliseg is one such exceptional stone monument in Wales that I employ interdisciplinary methods. This stone was erected by Concenn ruler of Powys (c. 854 CE), to honor his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the Anglo-Saxons from that part of Powys. The pillar is a round-shafted cross that stands on a barrow near the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. The lengthy inscription carved into the monument is now illegible, but two copies of the transcription in 1696 by Edward Lhuyd have survived, enabling a study of the inscription and its significance. The archaeological context of this pillar has recently been reconsidered, illuminating how its form and function emphasized the link of the rulers of Powys with the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the sub-Roman ruler Guarthigirn. The inscription was intended to be read out loud and that the monument was as an important piece of public propaganda erected at a time when the kingdom of Powys was severely under threat (Edwards, 2009).

Figure 1. Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales. Photograph © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas(http://www.castlewales.com/eliseg.html)

The separate elements of the inscription as well as its landscape context and function can be pulled together to present a clearer picture of elite masculine constructions of identity. What does the evidence reveal? Firstly, that the Pillar of Eliseg had commemorative functions, both political and religious.

The masculine names and filiation demonstrate patrilineal kinship and seek to commemorate Eliseg, the great-grandfather of the 9th century ruler, Concenn. It praises Eliseg for defending Powys from the Anglo-Saxons, using the words in gladio suo parta in igne “with his sword and with fire” demonstrating the importance of a forceful warrior masculinity amongst Welsh rulers. The inscription asks that those who read the stone give a blessing to the soul of Eliseg, “det benedictionem supe/[r animam] Eliseg,” an example of the “pro anima” commemorative Christian formulae. The inscription ends by Conocenn legitimizing his rule by explaining his Roman lingeage through “Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans” and asks for a blessing of the Lord upon Conocenn, his household, and the entire kingdom of Powys. The entirety of the inscription and its phrasing demonstrates a masculine construction of power and legitimacy through secular patrilineal kinship, links to the distant past via Roman rule, as well as Christianity.

The Pillar of Eliseg is only one example, but it clearly shows how men constructed their own intersecting identities of gender, status, religion, and ethnicity using an earlier Roman and pre-Christian past to assert the legitimacy and power of warrior-kings. It also reveals how high-status men also constructed their identities via patrilineal kinship, ethnic names, and patriarchal Christianity. These men engaged with gendered symbols of power and legitimacy across a variety of different cultures and the acceptance of a plurality of models of masculinity served political ends in helping to promote order and coherence for hegemonic masculinity in early medieval Wales.

Arica Roberts is an international student from the United States and a PhD Candidate in Archaeology  specializing in gender of early medieval Wales.

References:

Edwards, Nancy. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume II: South-West Wales, University of Wales Press, 2009.

 

——— A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III: North Wales, University of Wales Press, 2013.

 

——— ‘Rethinking the Pillar of Eliseg’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 89, September 2009, pp. 143-177.

 

Redknap, Mark and John M. Lewis. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume 1 Southeast Wales and the English Border. University of   Wales Press, 2007.