The Langham Place Feminists and Women Farmers/Farming for Women

The Langham Place Feminists and Women Farmers/Farming for Women

by Karen Sayer

Based on the research of Karen Sayer and Nicola Verdon

Our story begins in the mid-1860s with a paper read by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1866. During the course of the lecture, she read out a letter from Matilda Betham Edwards in which it was argued that well-to-do British women were prevented from investing their money in land because they did not have the vote. Landowners wanted their tenants to exert power in parliament, which was impossible for the un-enfranchised widow or daughter of a farmer:

It is not perhaps sufficiently considered how large a proportion of women occupy and cultivate farms entirely on their own account, nor how sensibly a share in the suffrage would affect their interests. …Farming is a healthful, easy, and natural profession for women who have been brought up in agricultural counties, and have thus been learning it from childhood. Moreover, for holders of capital, it is a tolerably lucrative one. I know many and many a single woman living upon the narrow income derived from a fair property invested in funds, who would gladly hire land instead, and thus obtain a higher interest for her money. It seems to me not a little hard that a woman possessing capital should be deprived of the privileges other capitalists enjoy, but it seems harder still that she should be robbed of her livelihood, simply because an anomalous custom has shut her out from such a privilege. [1]

At that moment, the British public were far more interested in the work of labouring women. They were captured regularly within inflammatory statements such as that by Charles Dickens, who wrote in the first half of 1867 that field work ‘…converts girls into demons…’,[2] which was a typical representation of the women who worked in agriculture at the time. Quick to defend any woman’s right to work, the feminists of Langham Place responded to any and all labouring women’s critics: ‘The demoralisation [of field women] at present is great; but by removing the corrupting element, no further demoralisation need take place. …If deprived of this resource, their condition would be wretched indeed, as there is absolutely no other honest employment open to them.’[3] But, this range of differing statements highlight the need to address what was a dynamic and very complex relationship between class and gender in rural Britain during the second half of the nineteenth century. The changing perception of agricultural work and of farming for women, as discussed by contemporary commentators and the Langham Place Group, provides a particularly useful example of this dynamic in action.


Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, one of the more radical of the (largely-Liberal and Nonconformist) metropolitan Langham Place group’s members, was not directly involved in agriculture, but, as the letter suggested, Matilda Betham Edwards was. Brought up on a farm in Suffolk, when her father died Betham Edwards continued to manage the tenancy with her sister for two to three years, until the property was split up. After losing the farm, she travelled Europe with Bodichon and Betham Edwards became a full time travel writer, journalist and novelist on their return.[4]

The Langham Place feminists were far from being the first to outline the advantages of farming to women. As the Fussells noted back in 1953, the anonymous writer of Farming for Ladies[5] (1844) suggested that women should keep a cow, pigs and poultry in order to enjoy the benefits of the best cream, butter and eggs. This treatise, however, was typical of its kind in that it was aimed at wealthy women more interested in finding a diversion than in the practicalities of running a farm. As the Fussells themselves observed, Farming for Ladies was meant for suburban house-wives who had access to a little ground attached to their (villa) homes and time on their hands.[6] In that text, the work that was traditionally undertaken or managed by the farmer’s wife, was moved to an urban bourgeois setting, idealised and treated as a hobbyist’s accomplishment rather than an economically productive activity. Though it exhorted women to understand enough to ‘superintend’ the work done, Farming for Ladies fell entirely within the bounds of leisured domesticity. The Langham Place group’s approach was quite different; while building on the traditions of women’s farm work, they increasingly saw, and built a case for, agriculture as a suitable and lucrative business for the well-to-do woman.

First of all, in 1866, we can see that the Langham Place feminists had already decided farming was a suitable employment for women. However, as Betham Edwards’ letter makes clear, at this point it was only viewed as an acceptable occupation if the woman concerned had been brought up to it. All of the examples provided in her letter were of widows and daughters like herself who had been left tenancies on farms which they had worked or lived on, and this was relatively common, if awkwardly position in terms of what was deemed respectable ‘femininity’ in Britain at the time.[7] Assuming that the decennial Census data might be taken at least as a minimum figure, there were on average about 22,000 women farming in their own right in England and Wales during most of the nineteenth century, and they continued to number about 9-10% of all adults returned as farmers and graziers in the Censuses until the end of the period. And, in 1861 the Registrar General, George Graham, suggested that these women ‘often [displayed] remarkable talent in the management of large establishments’.[8] If the prizes awarded at agricultural shows are anything to go by, then many of them were demonstrably capable agriculturists.[9] Yet, as one of them wrote in a letter to the Field in 1870, only their male counterparts could join the Royal Agricultural Society of England. Why, she asked, should she be debarred from the benefits of ‘the “Royal”’ simply because she was a woman?[10]

Four years later, The Englishwoman’s Review — founded in 1858 as The English Woman’s Journal[11] — took up and widened the issue. Articles in the Review, like Bodichon’s paper, began by addressing the position of farmers’ widows. It was argued that widows of farmers should be allowed to occupy the farms that they had worked on all their lives, rather than be left at the mercy of sons who might turn them out. Next, they asked why women were not allowed to participate in the meetings held by any of the various local agricultural societies that sprang up from the 1840s to promote scientific farming, though they could and did take part in the agricultural shows held by those same societies. In other words, as it became increasingly clear that farming women suffered discrimination in law and practice, so the Langham Place group determined to support their cause. By 1879 they had moved on to suggesting that agriculture was a profession (a novel understanding in its own right in the UK at the time), and that it might studied as such by any woman of an appropriate social standing, in an article by Jessie Boucherette on ‘Agriculture as an Employment for Women’.[12]

The Langham Place group thus challenged dominant conceptualisations of respectable femininity for rural women throughout the second half of the nineteenth-century, by stretching the boundaries of what they might do to generate an income, regardless of class, and by tackling head-on issues of franchise, property- and land-ownership. As a consequence, they were also among the first British commentators to treat agriculture itself as a profession that might be learned like any other. When feminists like Barbara Bodichon and Matilda Betham Edwards argued, as they did, that women ought to take advantage of the agricultural depression by becoming farmers in their own right, they produced new maps of sisterhood that refigured the gendered relations of the countryside and the relationship of country to city.

[1] Leigh Smith Bodichon, B., ‘Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women’ (a paper read at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, October 1866) published in Lacey, C.A., op. cit. pp.105-107.

[2] All  the Year Round, A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens, with Which is Incorporated Household Words (London) December 1866-June 1867, p.588.

[3]The Englishwoman’s Review of Social and Industrial Questions (Reprinted London, 1980) No. III, April 1867,  p.196

[4]Black, H.C., Notable Women Authors of the Day (London, 1906) pp. 120-130; Todd, J., (ed.) Dictionary of British Women Writers (London, 1989) pp. 62-63; Buck, C., (ed.) Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature (Bloomsbury, 1992) p. 341. Her long standing interest in France and the French was rewarded in 1891 when she was decorated by the French government for her work on rural France.

[5] Probably Farming for Ladies: or, a guide to the poultry-yard, the dairy and piggery. By the author of “British Husbandry, viz. John French Burke, (pp. xviii. 511. J. Murray: London, 1844)

[6] Fussell English Countrywoman, p. 168

[7]Leigh Smith Bodichon ‘Reasons for the Employment of Women’ pp.106-107.

[8] Census for England and Wales for the year 1861, Vol. III, General Report (London 1863) p. 36

[9] The Englishwoman’s Review took to listing and commenting on the prizes awarded women farmers in the 1870s. E.g. ER No. XIV, April 1873, p. 156 ‘First Prize awarded to Mrs Mary Elizabeth Millington’ farming ‘890 acres of light land’ by RASE for best farm.

[10] November 5th Field 1870 cited by Englishwoman’s Review January 1871, No. V, p. 66

[11] This periodical covered most issues connected with women’s rights between 1866 and 1900 through debate, letters and clippings of public opinion.

[12]Women’s Review No. XIV, April 1873, p. 156; No. XVIII, April 1874, pp. 87, 144; No. LII, Aug. 1877, p.376; No. LIII, Sept. 1877, p.426.

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