Rural story-telling

I took part in a Q&A following the production of Horseshoes for Hand Grenades at East Riding Theatre on 3rd October. Building on the themes within the performance and my PhD research, this was an opportunity to reflect on the changing roles of women in rural life and farming since WWI.

The show centred on changes to the lives of a rural community in Yorkshire during the war, most notably as their blacksmith trade shifted from horseshoes to weaponry. Gender relations were brought into question as the blacksmith’s son grappled with substituting his dream as an artist for his fate as a soldier, whilst his sweetheart entered the labour market for the first time in a breakthrough for women’s rights.

There is a tendency these days to focus on environmental sustainability of rural communities, but the show drew attention to the need to consider the social character of these people and places too. The significance of telling such stories being to challenge the assumption of social change as a universal experience. For example, I have found in my own research that measures to tackle gender inequality in the workplace are often not translatable to the rural economy. Farming can be kept in the family, where pay, let alone equal pay, is not taken for granted.

Farming remains shaped by notions of dominant masculinity which means that women farmers are faced with the tension of resisting and/or following these normative practices. I found instances where women farmers would emulate 'masculine' behaviours of risk-taking, such as heavy lifting, which forged belonging at the expense of injury. Like the forge in the play, farms are commonly inherited from father to son which can lead to women farmers without farming in their family not being taken seriously on two accounts; as a woman and as a first generation farmer.