Skip to main content

The museum, IMAX and Pictureville are temporarily closed. Find out about our major transformation.

Women in agriculture

Published: 12 August 2021

Women have long played an important role in British agriculture, though their work hasn’t always been acknowledged. These illuminating photographs from the Daily Herald Archive shine a light on women farm workers throughout the 20th century.

The Daily Herald Archive is a treasure trove of 20th-century photojournalism. It is organised into many sections of files, one of which is the vast collection titled ‘Industry’.

The photographs in the ‘Industry’ files cover everything from country shows to unusual jobs. Among them, there is a wealth of material showing women working in farming and agricultural roles.

What is the Daily Herald Archive?

The Daily Herald was a British national newspaper published between 1912 and 1964. At one point, it was the top-selling newspaper in the world, with a monthly circulation of more than 2 million.

Every photograph and negative taken for the newspaper was stored in a picture library, categorised and filed for easy access should they ever be needed again. This amazing collection—comprising 3.5 million photographs, contact sheets and glass negatives—is the Daily Herald Archive, which we now care for at the National Science and Media Museum here in Bradford.

The images in this selection were all taken from the archive.

Traditional roles

Women have played a vital part in helping to source and harvest our food since 10,000 BC. However, in the past, women farmers were usually referred to as farmers’ wives or farmers’ daughters, and the true extent of their work is often not fully recognised or recorded.

Gender roles in agriculture have varied across societies; in Britain, men have historically been more involved with field work and large animals, and women with domestic duties and caring for small livestock.

Intro gallery

Working together

Harvest season is the most labour-intensive part of the year. Men, women and children—some brought in from outside the local area—have always needed to work together to gather crops and store them for the winter.

With the introduction of machines to perform part of this labour in the 19th and 20th centuries—particularly the combine harvester—women became less involved in the harvest, but small farms continued to work in this way well into the 20th century.

Working together gallery

Mushroom farming

Mushrooms are a very easy crop to grow. Due to their short growth cycle, they require little manual labour, investment, space or even time.

Women have been involved in the cultivation of mushrooms since farming began in Western Europe in the 17th century. A few contemporary initiatives set up to help fight poverty have focused on training poor or unemployed women to farm mushrooms; it can be done from your own home and is therefore a very useful way to supplement household income or enable women to become self-sufficient.

Women collecting mushrooms in baskets © Science Museum Group Collection
Mavis Mellor and Veronica Sidebottom collect mushrooms in baskets at a farm in Buxton, Derbyshire, 1966
Group of women holding baskets of mushrooms © Science Museum Group Collection
A group of women hold baskets of mushrooms at a farm in Buxton, Derbyshire, 1966

The photographs below were taken in Bradford-on-Avon, where a large quarry—still in use until the end of the 19th century—was converted to a mushroom farm during the Second World War. The underground tunnels provided perfect conditions for growing mushrooms.

In the images on the right, taken in 1963, the women who worked at the farm are shown wearing miner’s lamps to help them navigate the dark tunnels. On the left, Mrs Audrey Pointing and Mrs Marlene Montecute are pictured checking mushroom spores in the culture room of the farm’s laboratory.

Strip of photographs showing scenes at a mushroom farm in 1963 © Science Museum Group Collection
Strip of photographs showing scenes at a mushroom farm in 1963

Women and the plough

Ploughing is a technique used to turn the top surface of soil to create optimum conditions for seeds to be sown and crops to be grown. Ploughing has traditionally been undertaken by men, as it requires considerable upper body strength to create straight furrows and control large animals—and is, at times, dangerous!

For these reasons, the development of the plough has long been cited as an explanation for why women were reduced to secondary roles in farming and feeding their families.

When agricultural societies developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, ploughing competitions became part of the annual calendar. Ploughing competitions have been traditionally male dominated but women have been allowed to enter these competitions for some time, demonstrating their skills and winning prizes!

The British National Ploughing Championship started in 1950 and is held in a different part of the country each year, with men and women competing side by side.

Women and the plough gallery

Land Girls

The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was set up to boost food production during the Second World War and free up male workers to fight. Before the Second World War, Britain had imported much of its food; when war broke out, it was necessary to grow more food at home and increase the amount of land in cultivation.

Women—often referred to as ‘Land Girls’—were initially asked to volunteer to serve in the Land Army, but from December 1941 they could be conscripted to work on the land. By 1944, there were more than 80,000 women working long hours milking cows, digging ditches, sowing seeds and harvesting crops to feed the nation.

The war had a positive impact on attitudes towards women in farming. The National Farmers’ Union, which started in 1908, was openly critical of women working on the land at the beginning of the war, but praised their contribution highly afterwards.

Women continued this vital work with the WLA until 1950. The Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service also helped on the land during the Second World War.

Land Girls gallery

Lend a hand on the land!

The Lend a Hand on the Land’ campaign was launched in 1945, continuing well into the post-war years, to encourage people to help with essential food production and agricultural work. It is often associated with the Women’s Land Army, but although a lot of women did take part, the campaign was aimed at a wider audience.

Urban dwellers were particularly encouraged to help by spending their holidays working on farms in rural areas. The campaign ran alongside ‘Holidays at Home’, which discouraged all non-essential travel.

‘Lend a Hand on the Land’ continued a long-term trend where the industrial workforce would help with the annual harvest.

Two women gathering oats and barley © Science Museum Group Collection
Barbara Fuller (left) and Maureen Cahalim (right) help gather oats and barley at a farm in Surrey, 1952

Back to school

While women have always played a huge part in practical and administrative agricultural work, they have often faced barriers to accessing education. The Women’s Farm and Garden Association (WFGA) was founded in 1899 in response to concerns about a lack of education and employment opportunities for women working on the land.

The Lancashire County Council Farm was set up in 1890 to provide training in practical and theoretical agriculture. The first intake of students were all local women, who attended classes in butter and cheese making.

The Cheshire College of Agriculture was opened in 1921 to provide courses in agriculture—initially just for men, but female students were admitted from 1926 and a dairy department was built soon after. Many agricultural schools and colleges were used for training the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain was faced with continued food rationing and so a special emphasis was put on training young men and women in agriculture, farming methods and food production. The role that women played in the Women’s Land Army and farming during the war led to an increase in women participating in this type of training.

Back to school

Looking to the future

Women have traditionally faced significant barriers to working in the agricultural sector, including difficulty obtaining land and tools (usually due to family land and farms being inherited by male heirs), financial challenges, difficulties accessing education opportunities, and lack of support to attain leadership positions.

Since men have traditionally played a more dominant role in economic development, they have been more likely to receive the appropriate education, training and access to technology required to work in agriculture.

Woman  testing soil from South Wales for plant food with an electric apparatus © Science Museum Group Collection
Laboratory assistant Betty O’Melia testing soil with an electric apparatus at the St. Ives Research Station in Yorkshire, 1946

However, women have played a vital role in agriculture for centuries, and their representation has increased considerably in the last few decades. Women are particularly well represented in fast-growing agricultural markets such as organic, local, direct-to-market, and farm tourism. Groups such as Ladies in Beef and Ladies in Pigs are also fantastic examples of women at the forefront of promoting quality British produce at home and overseas.

In February 2018, a milestone was reached when the 110-year-old National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales elected the beef farmer Minette Batters as their first female president. Changes to technology—as well as changing attitudes—in recent years have made career opportunities in farming more accessible to everyone, including women.

Further reading