A Brief History of the Gender of Home Gardens and Gardening

I like gardening, but I don’t have much of a green thumb.  The way I think of it, sometimes the things I plant “take,” and sometimes they don’t.  Gardens and gardening was never something that I gave much thought to as a topic of sociological analysis until a saw a presentation at the Eastern Sociological Society meetings in 2006 that changed my mind.*  I went to a session because Marjorie DeVault was presiding (and I LOVE her work).  It was an interesting panel full of people at all different stages of their careers.  One woman’s presentation dealt with front yard gardens and she convinced me the topic was worthwhile.

Gardens and gardening (particularly domestic gardens and gardening)—as you might imagine—are not topics of study that receive a great deal of attention.  When gardens are mentioned in sociology, it’s often a variable included somewhere in a list of “chores” people do around the house.  Quantitative studies of the division of household labor sometimes have oddly exhaustive lists of chores like this.  But gardens are also a space.  They are places we go to relax (sometimes even while we’re “working”).  Like our homes, they are part of a performance of domestic identity that we labor to keep up.  Gardens are also gendered spaces and gardening, a gendered activity.  Bhatti and Church put it this way,

meanings of gardens are highly gendered, and… the garden is a place within which gender relations are often played out or re-negotiated…  [I]t is necessary, as with studies of the home as a domestic sphere and consumption in the home, to view domestic gardens not simply as sites where man and women adopt different roles, but as places shaped by the continual restructuring of gender relations. (here)

If pressed to assign gardens and gardening a gender, I think I’d suggest feminine.  And this is significant both because that is in no way inevitable and because this wasn’t always the case.  Suburbanization was really the start of it all.  It afforded homeowners more space—and these new more spacious properties allowed, and possibly even encouraged, people to take some kind of interest in the landscape surrounding their homes.  The rise of elite women’s gardening at home started at some point in the mid-19th century with a woman named Jane Loudon.  The wife of a horticulturalist, Loudon wrote Instructions in Gardening for Ladies.  It may well have been one of the first books in the Western world to have encouraged elite women to get their hands dirty.

The book itself is full of odd directions for the most routine practices, assuming (perhaps appropriately for the time) that upper-class women knew next to nothing about the outdoors or manual labor of any kind.  It’s one of the sleepiest reads you’ll come across.  Here, for example, is Loudon’s discussion of sowing seeds:

The principal points to be attended to in sowing seeds are, first, to prepare the ground so that the young and tender roots thrown out by the seeds may easily penetrate into it; secondly, to fix the seeds firmly in the soil; thirdly, to cover them, so as to exclude the light, which impedes vegetation, and to preserve a sufficiency of moisture found them to encourage it; and, fourthly, not to bury them so deeply as either to deprive them of the beneficial influence of the air, or to throw any unnecessary impediments in the way of their ascending shoots. (here)

The entire book reads like that.  Mrs. Loudon also includes instructions to enable women to garden outside of “men’s supervision” with suggestions like: ensuring not to work too vigorously, making use only of light tools, and being careful not stand on “damp ground” because vapors would rise up from the earth and would be unhealthy “under women’s skirts.”

Despite the dry tone and oddly detailed instructions, the book was in print for the entire second half of the 19th century.  Bill Bryson suggests that this was the case less for the information contained in the book and more for what the book represented: “permission to go out and do something” (here).  Loudon’s book was successful precisely because she was able to convince women (and men) that they could garden and that they might like it.  In 1841, this was probably an outrageous idea and thought of as scandalous by many.

This is just one small part of the ways that gardens can be understood as “places shaped by the continual restructuring of gender relations.”  I love histories that trace the transformation in objects and activities from being associated with one gender to the other.  The stories always illustrate so clearly how socially constructed gender is.

*I tried to look up the program, but was unable to find the 2006 program.  I’d love to give this scholar credit, but I can’t recall her name or affiliation (sorry).

One thought on “A Brief History of the Gender of Home Gardens and Gardening

  1. And I once overheard at a wedding, a very drawn out analogy between the “art” of garden pruning and a theory of child rearing. Well, I heard most of it.

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