In the early 1900s, Georgina Binnie-Clark lobbied for women farmers’ equal right to claim government land grants and she educated new generations of women agriculturalists. Her story is particularly interesting in light of the present-day women’s farming movement and also because she campaigned for justice during an era that disapproved of outspoken women.
In 1905, Georgina Binnie-Clark, an upper-class English woman, sailed from Dorset to visit her brother’s Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan homestead. She quickly discovered that he was woefully behind in clearing acreage—so much so that he risked jeopardizing the land patent being offered by the government. Not wishing their father to lose the money he’d invested in her brother’s venture, she bought a team of work horses, hired a farmhand and assumed oversight of planting the next crop.
Two years later, she purchased her own operational wheat farm about 8 km away. Her brother balked at her choice, warning that she risked becoming a target of ridicule. Women can’t farm, he warned.
The success of her farm fluctuated from great to poor and back again. In lean years, Georgina called upon her journalistic training and earned extra money as a writer. Wages, livestock costs, and the mortgage awaited payment.
A new wave of women, who were neither farmer widows nor daughters, were taking up the plow as a means of income and independence. Single farmer women, then known as bachelor women, were denied claim to the quarter section (640 acres) land grants offered by the Canadian government in a bid to attract men to come west. Several neighbours shared Georgina’s frustration at the injustice, so she took her argument the government. Women, she reasoned, were capable of performing tasks beyond their traditionally feminine household roles. The government was not to be swayed. They believed that extending land grants to women would lead to their disinterest in marriage, and this would be harmful to Canada’s plan for expanding the west.
Georgina’s cause gathered attention in 1908 when she published several articles on the subject in the Canadian Gazette. She garnered the support of women editors of the Grain Grower’s Guide and the Winnipeg Free Press who embraced the women’s homestead movement. The papers ran petitions, that although signed by 11,000 men, did nothing to budge the government.
The fight continued while Georgina taught agricultural skills to women, published books, and spoke publicly about women’s right to farm. (Also noteworthy is her description of First Nation people in a more non-discriminatory manner than her contemporaries.) For the duration of WW1 (1914-1918), she returned to England where she oversaw crews of young women farm workers. She then returned to Saskatchewan in 1921 to manage her brother’s farm after his passing. Along with farm groups and individuals, she continued to campaign. By 1930, only Alberta declared “every person that has lived in the province three years and has obtained the age of 17 is entitled to obtain entry for a homestead.” At the end of Georgina’s farming career, she and her sister managed farm holdings of 275 acres.
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