Open Eye: Views on life as a farm wife

Lambing, harvesting, cooking: no substitute for a real job, prize- winning OU research finds

The farmer may - in the words of the playground song - want a wife, but even when she's been lambing all night and cooking all day it doesn't count as a "real job".

That was one of the main findings to emerge from a research project conducted among her hill-farming neighbours in mid-Wales by social sciences student Sally Orton. Entitled The Farmer Needs a Wife, it earned her a course team prize.

After interviewing farmers' wives in their 30s, 50s and 70-80s for the course Studying Family and Community History, Sally discovered an ambivalence about the status of their work which transcended generations - and extended to other women in the community.

She said: "Without exception they had all had very negative comments from non-farming women. One told me that, when she left hairdressing to work on the farm, her previous employer couldn't understand what she was going to be doing with all her time.

"On the other hand, those who did go outside the home to work felt they had to justify it. One said she thought of her job as 'her little treat' and really felt she had to put in a lot of extra effort on the farm."

All the women in the youngest age group have found work outside the farm, but this may have as much to do with economic necessity as seeking the affirmation of a role the community does regard as "a real job", Sally believes.

Her choice of course was the logical extension of six years spent running a village shop and post office, where the main currency was conversation.

"I heard people's secrets and their life stories. Some of the customers really came in only to chat, and I thought I should be getting this down. My plan now is to do more oral history," she added. She is currently taking a break from OU studies, but hopes to return next year.

The Course Team Prize is awarded annually to the student who achieves first-class pass marks despite having the lowest entry qualifications on joining the OU. The judges said Sally, who left school at 14, had produced "a highly original piece of work based on her own community".

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