Manitoba History: Review: N. J. Fredrickson, Wheat and Women
by N. J. Fredrickson
In 1905, Georgina Binnie-Clark had all the qualifications of a British homesteader in central Saskatchewan, with one notable exception. She was not a man.
This peculiar failing made her ineligible for a free land grant under the Canada Homestead Act, but in no way lessened her determination to become a farmer An upper class English woman of limited means, she saw in Western Canadian agriculture an opportunity to establish economic security and independence. Fortunately she was able through bank loans, to purchase a quarter section near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.
Wheat and Woman is her account of the struggle to establish herself on that land in the years 1905-08. First published in 1914, the book was intended to persuade other women that they too could achieve what men had achieved in agricultural pursuits.
Recently reissued by The University of Toronto Press, the new edition contains a skillful introduction by Susan jackal. It places Binnie-Clark’s experiences in the context of British social history as well as Prairie settlement patterns. Jackal sees in Binnie-Clark an English gentlewoman barred by class from most occupations, having little prospect for economic security in her homeland. Emigration to Canada was an attractive alternative and farming the most promising of the business enterprises available there.
Binnie-Clark has many interesting observations to make from her unique position as a woman farmer The inequities of Canada’s Homestead Act placed a severe financial handicap on the woman farmer By her own reckoning, a farm which had cost her five thousand dollars could be obtained by any man for nine hundred and seventy dollars if he took advantage of the free land and the additional purchases Yearly payments on this five thousand dollar debt exceeded farm income in the early years and made development of the land a most difficult process. She warned women to allow for this very real financial handicap when they purchased their land.
But the most interesting feature of Wheat and Woman is the author’s recognition that most of her difficulties were shared by every Saskatchewan farmer She realized that she, like her neighbours, was “working out an experiment with very little knowledge and insufficient capital.” Knowledge and capital were hard-won commodities for farmers of both sexes.
Shortage of capital was a real problem on the prairies in those early years. Cash was scarce and banks were seldom willing to grant loans on the strength of wheat even after harvest. At the first hint of crop failure the banks would call in all outstanding loans.
Even scarcer than capital, however was labour Having the money on hand did not guarantee a farmer enough hired hands to get through the busy seasons. Binnie-Clark learned, as did most new farmers, to do her own cultivation of the land and maintenance of livestock, so that she could use her available cash to hire expert assistance for the more difficult seeding and harvest. She and her neighbours shared the services of harvesting crews whenever possible In a country where every man and woman could become a “landed” person, few were prepared to work for others.
Wheat and Woman is an interesting document in the social history of the Canadian prairies. It describes many of the difficulties which sparked the Grain Growers political movement in the early 20th centurythe inequities of grain grading, the unfairness of pricing, the problems of financing. Binnie-Clark, already an established author in England, was able to describe these grievances as only a farmer could. After all, she may have been ineligible for a homestead, but she was still a farmer.
Page revised: 23 April 2010