WHN Annual Conference

Women’s History Network Annual Conference 2-4 September 2021 – Homes, Food and Farm

Women’s History Network Annual Conference 2 –  4 September 2021

Homes, Food and Farms

*2nd- 4th September 2021 *  This is now going to be an online conference.  In recent years Women’s History has made a significant contribution to debates and explorations of histories of homes, families and domestic life. Women’s multiple and varied roles in the production, preparation and consumption of food, as farmers, housewives, gardeners and workers in agriculture and other industries have been uncovered. The 2021 Women’s History Network Annual Conference aims to build upon this work and bring together those interested in interrogating and expanding women’s history and the history of homes, food and farms. To download the conference programme please click here: 2021 WHN Annual Conference Programme (Final)

Booking will be available from the 4th June via : https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/womens-history-network-32350766195

Our Keynote Speakers will be 

Professor Samita Sen, Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge

Women, Work and Domesticity: Eastern India in Historical Perspective

In India, women’s workforce participation rates have been historically low.  Within India, however, there is considerable variation in this regard.  From the 1980s, feminist scholars have attempted to analyse long-term patterns and variations in gender division of labour.  In the attendant debates what has emerged most strongly is the trope of invisibility.  Many of the observed variations, national and regional, represent differences in valuation and measurement and not only the quantum of work women actually perform. In eastern India, for instance, where workforce participation rates have been found to be the lowest, the ideology of domesticity has also been powerful and pervasive.  Some women, who have always worked hard and long, had their labours invisibilised because they themselves and most of their work were hidden in the home.  New research is drawing attention to the figure of the young bride, labouring from dawn to dusk, subject to near-absolute familial authority.  Her ‘domestic’ work spanned cooking, cleaning and collecting water, but also field labour, home-based wage work, extended domestic work such as cattle-rearing and vegetable-growing, subsistence work such as food processing, fuel gathering, childbirth, childcare and myriad emotional labour in the family. In this paper, I will explore the family-household economy within which this maid-of-all-work with infinitely elastic supply of labour is located.  It has been noted that village exogamy and virilocality play a part, removing the young bride from her natal home and kin-network to be isolated in the marital household.  In addition, there is no exit from marriage, its irrevocability inviting comparison with forms of bondage. Taking a long-term view of social change from colonial to post-colonial Bengal, the paper will discuss the continued role of the household as a key determinant in labour arrangements, for men too but overwhelmingly so for women.  In the late nineteenth century, with the destruction of traditional industry, women became more dependent on the family for access to crucial resources, such as land.  Equally, spiralling rent and revenue demands made small peasant households more dependent on women’s unpaid work.  This mutual dependence was a crucial aspect of the colonial economy.  Given that Bengal has seen steady deindustrialisation from the 1970s, the coordinates of domestic femininity continue to subsume the economic activities women.  This paper will map a few aspects of change and continuity in the long term in the pattern of rural women’s work in eastern India.

Dr Laurel Forster– author of The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions (2010)

Self-Sufficiency, Countercultures, and the Dissenting Cookbook

The 1970s, best remembered by feminist historians for the Women’s Liberation Movement, was, of course, also a decade of other counter-cultural movements in Britain. One of these was self-sufficiency, with numerous ‘how-to’ books, and even a training centre designed to teach people how to live off the land. It offered a self-reliant alternative to city, consumption-driven life. No matter that dreams of the pastoral often fell flat, the idea, if not the actuality, of self-sufficiency, and a related re-imagining of a bucolic alternative to this troubled decade, went on to influence much mainstream culture. Television programmes like The Good Life (BBC 1975-8), and its more serious twin, Survivors (BBC 1975-7; 2008-10), focused on the implications of a self-sufficient life in suburban and rural locations for women in the patriarchal family. Counter-cultural arguments about farming, food and land use and abuse were made through publications such as The Ecologist magazine (1970-). And indeed, feminist writers like Mary Chamberlain in her acclaimed but controversial book, Fenwomen (Virago 1975), explored the difficulties of women’s life on the land. This paper will examine the ways in which arguments within and around counter-cultures – particularly self-sufficiency and the green movement as well as feminism – permeated representations of food and cookery on television and in cookbooks from the 1970s. This was often in contradictory ways. For instance, whilst Spare Rib and other feminist magazines were encouraging women out of the kitchen, so cookery shows such as the Farmhouse Kitchen (YTV/ITV 1971-1990) with its numerous spin-off cookbooks, appeared to advocate a return to a cosier, ‘old-fashioned’ self-sufficiency through a rural setting in its staging, and a reminder of a structured domesticity. New methodological approaches to the reading of cookbooks and other media platforms for cookery, have explored how diversity and dissent surface within representations of food. Some critics have used oral testimonies prompted by cookery books to discuss multiculturalism, while others have identified new community cookbooks, necessarily online during COVID. In other contexts, historical cookery books provide fertile ground for discussing print cultures and illustration practices. Moreover, cookbooks are now understood as a cultural lens through which class divisions are exposed, or sexualities explored. In these ways, recent close readings and cultural critiques enable us to understand cookbooks as texts of resistance and even as agents of cultural change.

Prof. Jane Whittle – Lead Investigator on Leverhulme funded ‘Women’s work in rural England 1500-1700: a new methodological approach

Women’s work in English agriculture and food processing 1500-1750

This talk begins by presenting an overview of women’s involvement in the production of food in early modern England using new evidence taken from court documents. This illuminates the range of tasks related to food production and the extent to which they were undertaken by women and men. It then focuses on three types of female worker: the wage labourer, the housewife, and the business woman. The types of work each undertook are explored, using examples of specific women from early modern England. Topics covered include agricultural field-work, livestock farming, dairying, vegetable gardening, the raising of pigs and poultry, malting, brewing, and the retailing of food and drink. Evidence is drawn from court depositions, probate inventories and household accounts. It is argued that women’s involvement in the food economy was profound, but has often been overlooked as a consequence of women’s activities being less obviously documented than those of men and as a result of historians’ misconceptions.