Women’s Place on the Farm – November 1923

The opening lecture of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Agricultural Discussion Society for season 1923-24 was held on Wednesday evening in the Bible Training Institute, Bothwell Street, Glasgow, when Miss Margaret Shanks, Gosforth, Cumberland, or as she is more familiarly known, “Margaret” of The Scottish Farmer, lectured on “Women’s Place on the Farm.”

In delivering the opening lecture, “Margaret “ was renewing her acquaintance with the society, as some years ago she lectured to what was and still remains the largest audience the society has ever seen.

On this occasion the attendance, though not so large as formerly, was yet far above the average; and had it not been that many farmers refrained from attending on account of the prevalence of foot-and-mouth disease in their districts, the attendance would have been much larger.

Miss Shanks, who was greeted by a loud cheer when she rose to speak, said that it was the wives and the daughters in most cases who had the hardest work, the longest hours, the greatest responsibility, and the lowest pay.

If it was a stain upon the honourable profession of agriculture that it had underpaid its workers, it was an equal blot upon its history that it had overworked its wives.

“Most of you here know as well as I do some pitiful histories. I have heard of a woman who worked in the fields singling turnips with a suckling child wrapped in a plaid and laid in a furrow near her. When the child was fretful, and refused to lie quiet, she would tie it on her back and, stooping, go on with her grubby task. And that was a wife who would be responsible for the cooking and the washing and the mending after meal hours.

“Another farm wife, mother of a large family has told me that when the infant reached the creeping or toddling stage, she has tied it to the leg of the kitchen table so that it could not crawl into danger while she went about her necessary tasks of feeding pigs, washing pails in the intervals of attending to the household.”

Scottish wives were said to be greater slaves on the farm than the English, but I am not so sure of that. In one respect they have an easier time. They prepare only three meals. In the English county where I have spent most of my life, the custom is to have five, and the servants would consider they were being starved on less.

Think of the labour of five meals, two of which are sent out, mid-forenoon and mid afternoon, to the field workers. Not to mention additional and irregular meals on market days, sale days, when the children return from school, when there are visits from dealers, vets and others.

Miss Shanks went on: “I wish it were possible for me to suggest even one practical way in which the lives of women on the farm could be lightened and widened. I am alternately oppressed and uplifted by the thought of the travail of man and woman, mostly unrequited toil in their lifetime, which has made this land of ours, once savage and inhospitable forest, mountain and morass, a fairer, safer, sweeter place in which we spend our few years of trial.

“And perhaps the hard lot of so many in the present day may be laying the foundations of a saner society, and a more reasonable and humane way of food production. I mean a method that will be kinder to the servants of the soil. Until then, it is merely a lover’s dream for the woman when her man assures her:

“At barn and byre thou shalt not drudge
Nor naething else to trouble thee
But stray amang the heather bells
An’ tent the wavin’ corn wi’ me.”

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