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Calamity Cora – how one woman’s uncanny ability to predict crop harvests went global. By Elizabeth Bartram

Have you ever considered the role of women in milling? Milling is an integral part of feeding the world, from putting food on the table to influencing global decision-making. It has touched on almost every facet of our lives, feeding, clothing and equipping us. So where are the women?

As in many processes that have become industrialised, the contributions of women have gone largely unnoticed. In fact, women have always been involved in milling (the production of a more palatable, digestible and malleable form of staple grains), from ancient times and up to the present day. In recent centuries, women have helped to run a mill as part of the family, taking up the responsibility of miller when their father or brother was unable to do so. In the past 100 years in particular, with the industrialisation of flour production in the West, women have been employed in a variety of related and essential roles, such as the home economic experts and nutritionists of the 1940s onwards, and the cereal chemists and marketeers today.

There are women millers nowadays, but they are certainly uncommon. One of the founders and trustees of our charity, Mildred Cookson, was a miller for more than 30 years, and has amassed a large and internationally important collection.

I work for the Mills Archive Trust, a nationally-accredited non-profit archive and research centre that exists to preserve and promote the history of milling. We have started to explore where women are mentioned in our archive, through whose lens they are presented, and where they are silent.

In one of our current projects, funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation, we are uncovering and telling the stories of some of milling’s heroes – and heroines. We are working with others to learn more about the connection between sugar milling and slavery. Our Caribbean postcard collection regularly features posed and objectified pictures of women labouring on the plantations, which continued long after slavery was abolished.

One woman whose contributions to milling are documented, is Dr Ella Cora Hind (1862-1942). A Canadian agronomist and journalist, Hind’s almost perfect predictions of annual wheat crops were widely admired. However, those companies for whom her forecasts were not rosy, were less keen! From these critics she attracted the nickname ‘Calamity Cora’. I first encountered Cora when reading her obituary in one of our volumes from the US-based milling journal called the Northwestern Miller (circulated from 1873 to 1973).

Cora was well-travelled and wrote two books about her time spent in 27 countries over 2 years. Her trips were commissioned by the Winnipeg Free Press, so that she could study the handling and marketing of Canadian wheat. Her remit was broad: as long as she examined these issues, she could also explore and write about the social conditions, history, landscape and memorable individuals encountered during her travels.

On her time spent in Russia, Cora wrote in her book ‘Seeing for Myself’ (1937) that the ‘work of women in science of all kinds is very highly regarded in Russia and you find scores of them carrying on almost every branch of scientific research’ (p83). At the Gigant Farm (a massive state-run farm), Cora found that 40% of the 600 farm workers housed there were women, and that women did the same jobs as men for the same pay. When she asked her guide about women workers, he laughed and said: “Oh, of course, you don’t do that in Canada. Here we no longer think about whether they are men or women, it is whether they can do the job” (p89).

The Northwestern Miller journals are a rich and unique resource that shed light on how society viewed women, through the lens of the flour-producing industry. At any one time during its circulation, women seem to have been considered as symbols for selling milling and mill-related businesses and their products, potential customers, consumers, and rivals for milling’s sister industry, baking. The bakers’ marketing dilemma: why would you buy or eat a store-bought loaf if you can enjoy the homemade variety?

We must have one of the world’s largest sets of these journals. Our goal is to encourage more researchers to use this resource. Covid has delayed this somewhat as the journals are large and difficult for us to digitise, therefore requiring any researcher to consult them in person. With a grant or sponsorship, I sincerely hope we can secure funds to improve access to their content, so that people around the world can enjoy exploring them for free.

Any ideas on how we can do this – or how we can develop our work to reveal the role of women in milling – would be most welcome and I encourage you to get in touch by emailing me at Liz.Bartram@millsarchive.org

None of this is to say that women are deliberately excluded today. The modern commercial milling workforce remains male-dominated, particularly in certain roles, and the reasons for this are complex. However, I think that times are also changing, with more women millers and trainees working their way through the ranks. Some of the historic milling dynasties have prominent women fulfilling important and visible functions today.

To read Cora’s full biography, and to explore those of other women pioneers in milling that we have identified so far, please visit our website: https://new.millsarchive.org/2021/03/03/e-cora-hind/

References: ‘Seeing for Myself’ by E. Cora Hind (Macmillan, Toronto, Canada, 1937)

The Northwestern Miller (Miller Publishing Company, Minneapolis, USA)

https://new.millsarchive.org/2021/03/03/e-cora-hind/

https://new.millsarchive.org/2011/10/05/women-in-milling-2/

Elizabeth Bartram is Director of the Mills Archive Trust. She is passionate about uncovering and amplifying the stories of people who tend to be overlooked by the recorders of history, and embedding milling within broader historical contexts.