The Historical Journal

Research Article

AGRICULTURAL LABOUR AND THE CONTESTED NATURE OF WOMEN'S WORK IN INTERWAR ENGLAND AND WALES*

NICOLA VERDONa1 c1

a1 University of Sussex

ABSTRACT

This article uses a case-study of agriculture to explore the range of anxieties and contradictions surrounding women's work in the interwar period. National statistics are shown to be inconsistent and questionable, raising questions for historians reliant on official data, but they point to regional variation as the continuous defining feature of female labour force participation. Looking beyond the quantitative data a distinction emerges between traditional work on the land and processes. The article shows that women workers in agriculture provoked vigorous debate among a range of interest groups about the scale, nature, and suitability of this work. These groups, such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Women's Farm and Garden Association, and the National Union of Agricultural Workers represented a range of social classes and outlooks, and had diverse agendas underpinning their interest. Consequently women's agricultural labour is exposed as a site of class and gender conflict, connecting to wider economic and cultural tensions surrounding the place of women in interwar society.

Correspondence:

c1 Department of History, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9SH. n.j.verdon@sussex.ac.uk

Footnotes

* I would like to thank the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) for the financial assistance provided during the year 2005–6 when I was a Research Fellow, and when much of the initial research for this article was carried out. The staff, as ever, provided invaluable assistance and expertise. A version of this article was delivered at the AHRC-funded Interwar Landscape and Environment seminar network in Sheffield, and at seminars in Huddersfield and Sussex. The audiences there helped formulate the structure of the argument, whilst Hilary Crowe, Alun Howkins, and Anne Meredith provided helpful comment on earlier drafts.