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    a farm woman and a cow

    The Farm Woman Speaks

    What can Mrs. Poyser in George Eliot's Adam Bede teach us about the worthy work of farm women?

    By Gracy Olmstead

    March 8, 2024
    • Anne Ramirez

      Excellent article on a neglected topic. I grew up on a farm myself and have always thought that women's domestic work, as well as the contributions of rural women to the farm enterprises, has never received enough attention and respect. I did not begin pursuing a doctoral degree and until my children were 16 and 19, so did not work full time outside the home until they were fully grown. George Eliot shows the lives of social classes that are largely invisible in Jane Austen's works, although Austen has other merits. I really appreciated this essay.

    According to local legend, my great-grandmother was quite the chicken killer. Nearly every morning, she would be out chopping off chicken heads before dawn. Lisa Jensen, who rented a house next to my great-grandparents, remembers waking up to the sound of great-grandma Iva swinging the ax. She would look out the window and see her decapitating birds. My great grandfather would be sitting next to her, pulling off feathers. The story is a fascinating and beautiful picture of their partnership. People often talk about my great grandpa as the farmer, the one who ran things. They admired my great-grandmother, but mostly remember her cooking and meals. But on those early mornings – and, indeed, all throughout their decades together as a couple – great-grandma Iva was a partner in every farming endeavor.

    In a 2017 interview with Yes! Magazine, Tanya Berry (photographer, farm woman, and wife of Wendell Berry) said that when she moved to Kentucky with her husband, “I got a whole other picture of ‘women’s work,’ and I changed a lot and got more pleased with the idea of women’s work being good. And when they worked hard, they deserved to be noticed for working hard and for doing good work.” There is a lot of interest in women’s work these days: excellent books by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Cassie Chambers, Sarah Smarsh, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Megan Stack all come to mind. Each seeks to elevate the labor of women, and to consider the role they’ve played in local economies throughout history. But there is still a dearth of writing about rural women – specifically farm women – and the work they’ve done for millennia. We still have not noticed them as we ought. In an essay for The Agricultural History Review, scholar Nicola Verdon suggests that farm women may be “the most elusive figures in agrarian history,” as few historians have examined their lives in detail.

    George Eliot would have liked my great-grandmother, I think – and would have appreciated the frustration Verdon expresses when she talks about the elusiveness of farm women and their stories. Mary Ann Evans (whose pen name was George Eliot) grew up on a farm. Her husband J. W. Cross recalls that the Evans home held a “long cow shed … where butter-making and cheese-making were carried on with great vigour by Mrs. Evans.” Young Mary Ann Evans learned the skills of dairying alongside her mother, Christiana Pearson Evans – and according to New Yorker essayist and author Rebecca Mead, she remained proud of this proficiency into adulthood: “in 1871, when she was the best-known novelist in England … she surprised a local farmer’s wife with her knowledge of fruit growth and butter manufacture.” There were even rumors that Eliot’s hands were shaped by agricultural labor: Olivia Rutigliano has written for Lit Hub that Eliot’s right hand “was evidently larger because she had pounded a large quantity of butter and cheese with it in her early years.” We don’t know whether this rumor was true. But the pride Eliot felt in her dairying background is evident – and is important to understanding her writing.

    a farm woman carrying a pail of milk

    Alfred Philippe Roll, The Farmer’s Wife, 1887, Oil on canvas.

    In each of her novels, Eliot elevates the work of quiet rural communities. But in Adam Bede, Eliot specifically celebrates the work of farm women. Cross suggests that the farmer’s wife in Adam Bede, Mrs. Rachel Poyser, is based on the life and character of Eliot’s mother. While Martin Poyser works the surrounding fields, producing wheat, barley, beans, corn, and tending the cow pasture, Rachel Poyser, his wife, makes high-quality butter, cheese, and beer. Mrs. Poyser rules over her dairy with “the keen glance of her blue-grey eye,” Eliot writes, operating a business characterized by “coolness, such purity, such fresh fragrance of new-pressed cheese, of firm butter, [and] of wooden vessels perpetually bathed in pure water.” Cross writes that Mrs. Evans, similarly, was “a very active hard-working woman … with a considerable dash of the Mrs. Poyser in her. Hers was an affectionate, warm-hearted nature, and her children … were thoroughly attached to her.”

    Seeing Mrs. Poyser as a celebration of Eliot’s own mother emphasizes her importance. Mrs. Poyser and her dairy are not fable or fiction; they capture a real place and a real presence that she wanted to commemorate. In and through Mrs. Poyser, Eliot offers a vital glimpse into England’s eighteenth-century rural household economy, explaining the division of labor on farms in preindustrial rural England. Mrs. Poyser emerges as the novel’s strong center: a picture of diligence and fidelity, elevating the work of farm women while at the same time capturing its struggles and injustices.

    Mrs. Poyser has always been popular. According to a July 7, 1928 edition of The Brisbane Courier, she was beloved by the members of England’s Victorian society, and “her sayings were quoted like proverbs.” There is some suggestion by the author of the Courier article, however, that Mrs. Poyser is merely a Dickensian comic character: a cartoonish personality meant to lighten the dismal, even funereal reality otherwise offered in Adam Bede. “The creation of Mrs. Poyser is essentially play,” the author alleges – although, he adds, Eliot could have been a bit more comic in her crafting of Mrs. Poyser: “I myself should have preferred Mrs. Poyser rather uglier (in a pleasant way).” Why does this author assume comedy in Mrs. Poyser? For her part, Eliot writes that Mrs. Poyser “was a good-looking woman, not more than eight-and-thirty, of fair complexion and sandy hair, well-shapen, light-footed.” Eliot’s Mrs. Poyser is strong and opinionated, but she never seems preposterous. The Courier’s allegation of comedy seems to stem from Rachel Poyser’s verbosity: she says what she thinks, with a strength of mind that refutes any assumption that women ought to be demure or indecisive.

    Mrs. Poyser speaks with strength and determination because of her standing and responsibilities within the local household economy, and her confidence in that position. In his 1825 Encyclopedia of Agriculture, John Claudius Loudon wrote that dairying was a crucial part of eighteenth-century English farms – and that dairies were almost entirely run by women:

    In most of those counties where the profit of the cow arises chiefly from the subsequent manufacture of the milk, the whole care and management of the article rests with the housewife, so that the farmer has little else to do but to superintend the depasturing of his cattle; the milking, churning, and in short, the whole internal regulation of the dairy, together with the care of marketing the butter, where the same is made up wholly for home-consumption, falling alone upon the wife. In this department of rural economy, so large a portion of skill, of frugality, cleanliness, industry, and good management, is required in the wife, that without them the farmer may be materially injured.

    Eliot supports this understanding in Adam Bede: the dairy’s surplus directly supports Hall Farm’s financial state. Without it, Martin and Rachel Poyser would not be able to afford their rent. “The woman who manages a dairy has a large share in making the rent,” Eliot writes, “so she may well be allowed to have her opinion on stock and their ‘keep’ – an exercise which strengthens her understanding so much that she finds herself able to give her husband advice on most other subjects.” It is important to note that Martin Poyser sees and treats Mrs. Poyser as his equal. Not every husband would have adopted this position. Many husbands took advantage of their wives’ labor, both before and after the eighteenth century. But the friendly, loving partnership of the Poysers could hint at dynamics Eliot observed in her own home growing up.

    Amid the dire difficulties of subsistence farming, women’s “value-added” agricultural operations (a term for any enterprise that takes the raw proceeds of the farm – such as milk or barley – and transforms them into more valuable assets, such as cheese or beer) kept farms afloat. Farm wives’ work was therefore not subservient to the work their husbands might do in the field and pasture; they were equal business partners, co-laborers, in the workings and prosperity of eighteenth-century farms. The produce of the dairy provided a steady profit, undergirding the more seasonal and precarious work of crop farming.

    Dairying was laborious work, however, and this is important to consider as well. A dairy woman’s daily labor would have involved a long and meticulous schedule of milking, churning, salting, pressing, and turning (among other tasks). From scrubbing kitchen floors to turning cheeses, Mrs. Poyser’s days are full of achievements that time, decay, and nature unravel. Everything must be repeated ad infinitum. From our own vantage point, women’s work on the farm might therefore appear tedious or unimportant. To accomplish great things for the farm, Mrs. Poyser must be faithful to habits of repair (darning socks, ironing clothes, cleaning floors, turning cheeses) that could be grueling and demanding. Butterballs could weigh as much as forty pounds, and cheeses might weigh as much as one hundred pounds. Despite this, H. Holland writes in his General View of the Agriculture of Cheshire (1808), “the labour of turning and cleaning cheese” was “performed almost universally by women.” Few visitors to the farm would have observed just how much work Mrs. Poyser and her dairy maids had to accomplish.

    Despite its tedium, however, farm women’s labor also required considerable knowledge and skill. Value-added farm operations – such as making cheese or brewing beer – served as a point of pride to those engaged in them. Farm wives were craftswomen in the same way carpenters, potters, or weavers might be. Cheesemaking alone requires a deft consideration of milkfat, microbes, the plants ingested by cattle, the weaning of calves, and perishability (amongst other things). Adam Bede is full of references to Mrs. Poyser’s “fine cheese and butter,” which townspeople praise at every opportunity. And in one scene, carpenter Adam Bede sits with Mrs. Poyser and discusses the artisanship inherent in “the secrets of good brewing, the folly of stinginess in ‘hopping,’ and the doubtful economy of a farmer’s making his own malt.” Mrs. Poyser’s perseverance, cleanliness, and prudence are thus testament to prosperous and important women-run trades. Her work would have been difficult and grueling. It would have involved many hours of “invisible” labor. At the same time, Mrs. Poyser is a craftswoman and an artisan, and she is proud of her work. Its rhythms of care, even when difficult, demonstrate virtues of prudence, diligence, and excellence she embraces with joy.

    Over the years, many rural writers have assumed that farm women contributed primarily to the household, and not to the workings of the farm itself. In his 1830 book Rural Rides, William Cobbett alleged “the wife and daughters are at the wheel or needle, while the men and boys are at plough.” This misconception is far from extinct; in 2020, a group of Michigan State University students wrote, “The ‘old-fashioned’ gender roles for women in agriculture in the United States was often the homemaker, emotional caregiver and family supporter…. The new cultural norm for working women in farming often looks more equally divided, with both men and women being involved in farm and family management.” As the story of my great grandmother and the Evans women (Christiana and Mary Ann) make clear, however, the picture is more complex than this. Rural women have always done farm work, and they’ve been vital partners in farm endeavors. Of course, most have also worked as homemakers and caregivers. But the dichotomy presented in the Michigan State piece overlooks a complex dynamic of farm work and home maintenance, familial care and familial partnership.

    Mrs. Poyser is a homemaker. At the same time, Hall Farm is equally divided. Sadly, the assumptions of our era can ignore this intricacy. We overlook the interdependency of home and farm in rural economies. But these dynamics are crucial to understanding and truly valuing farm women’s work throughout history.

    Despite the Poysers’ hard work, not all is well with Hall Farm. The farm is not their own. And despite their penchant for cleanliness and care, Martin and Rachel Poyser cannot convince their stingy landlord, Squire Donnithorne, to make needed improvements to the farm. Alongside Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century land enclosure, farmland increasingly consolidated in the hands of a small minority of the gentry. Instead of living as small landowners, able to invest their funds and to improve their farm as they see fit, the Poysers must submit to the whims of their squire. According to the estimates of eighteenth-century economist Joseph Massie, great landowners – including squires like Donnithorne – grew to own over half of Great Britain’s arable property during the 1700s.

    This situation grates on Mrs. Poyser. She’s a stickler for detail, cleanliness, and maintenance. But her squire expresses little to no interest in these vital aspects of farm care. Instead, Squire Donnithorne threatens to throw the Poysers off the farm if they do not consent to a new scheme for farm development – a scheme which involves expanding the Hall Farm dairy, thus doubling (if not tripling) Mrs. Poyser’s current workload. Squire Donnithorne has rightly noted that Mr. Poyser’s crop farming represents less opportunity for expansion and profit than Mrs. Poyser’s dairy. In a move that enrages Mrs. Poyser – and ought to enrage the reader – Squire Donnithorne pitches his business plan for the dairy directly to Mr. Poyser, only offhandedly addressing the dairy’s actual manager.

    Martin Poyser, thankfully, knows better than to shun or discount his wife’s opinion. And so rather than replying to Squire Donnithorne, he lets his wife answer the squire directly. In the delightful lecture that follows, Mrs. Poyser demonstrates her sound business sense and stands up for herself as a vital co-owner of the farm. The squire assumes that a bigger dairy will automatically offer more profit. Mrs. Poyser lists the many volatilities and unknowns involved in making butter and cheese, as well as the costs (physical as well as financial) such work involves. After Squire Donnithorne threatens to strip the Poysers of Hall Farm, Mrs. Poyser adds, “I’ve a right to speak, for I make one quarter o’ the rent, and save another quarter … we’re not dumb creatures to be abused and made money on by them as ha’ got the lash i’ their hands, for want o’ knowing how t’ undo the tackle.” Mrs. Poyser knows her worth. She knows her dairy’s worth. And so she refuses to go along with the squire’s ruthless expansion plan.

    The squire’s scheme is not fantastical. Eliot would have observed the enaction of similar expansion and industrialization plans throughout her lifetime. Many value-added agricultural productions (such as dairying) were deeply impacted by the British Industrial Revolution. Throughout the nineteenth century, most women-run value-added enterprises like Mrs. Poyser’s dairy turned into larger-scale productions. As production rates increased, some researchers believe that women and dairy maids were increasingly replaced by male managers (others suggest that women remained relatively constant in their oversight of dairies until the twentieth century). “On large dairy farms capital investment in machinery changed the balance of the workforce and eroded the traditional role by the farmer’s wife,” Verdon writes. It is interesting to see how deeply the eventual dangers of industrialization (including, but not limited to, an increase in the inhumane treatment of cattle, chemical usage, soil depletion, and water toxicity) are connected to the dispossession of female dairy owners. 

    For the Poysers, thankfully, Squire Donnithorne’s machinations come to naught. But it is Mrs. Poyser’s command of her farmyard and dairy that enable her to oppose Squire Donnithorne without retribution. He can’t afford to throw the Poysers off their property. He knows that when Mrs. Poyser speaks, she speaks true.

    Women’s work has often been treated as unimportant or tedious: work to belittle or to escape from. Because of this, we’ve assembled a biased and misleading history of the work involved in cultivation and repair. Like Tanya Berry, we haven’t always seen women’s work as good. In so doing, we have done ourselves a great disservice. In the diligence of history’s Mrs. Poysers – women who have undergirded household economies, built successful businesses, and served as good stewards of God’s creation – there is a pattern of good stewardship and care we ought to follow and applaud. Women like Mrs. Poyser are vital exemplars for both men and women today. They tenaciously care for the land, animals, and people who rely on them for health and wellbeing. They are thoughtful stewards and excellent artisans. Far from being a comic side character, I can’t help but think of Mrs. Poyser as Adam Bede’s secret heroine: feisty, strong, compassionate, and kind.

    And so I leave you with one of my favorite images from Adam Bede: that of Mrs. Poyser walking to the Hayslope church on a Sunday, her husband and children alongside her, looking out with satisfaction on crops and cattle, discussing their methods and future plans for Hall Farm. We should call her blessed.

    Contributed By GraceOlmstead Gracy Olmstead

    Gracy Olmstead is a journalist whose writing has appeared in the American Conservative, the Week, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others.

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