Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.


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A DANISH WOMAN’S AGRICULTURAL TRIUMPH, 1924

Clio recently stumbled on a story about a Danish woman who in 1924 undertook farming on the tiny island of Sprogoe (Sprogø), which lies in the straits west of the island of Zeeland and east of the island of Funen. A home for women (apparently wayward women – or “pathologically promiscuous” according to Wikipedia) had been established there circa 1923, and Miss Dagmar Kristensen took on the challenge of making this Institute sustainable and self-sufficient.

At that time, the island boasted of little more than an old lighthouse and quantities of seagulls. By proving that women could develop and maintain a major farm, Miss Kristensen sought to combat existing prejudices as to what women could accomplish.

Here is the story, as reported in the Danish women’s press (and subsequently translated in the International Women’s News in 1931).

"Miss Dagmar Kristensen was the first Danish woman to be nominated to a Town Council (1910), and since that time she worked steadily on her own farm for 14 years, when she came into the limelight again in connection with the Farming Institute on Sprogoe. In 1923 the island of Sprogoe was made over by the State to the Kellerske Commission for the foundation of a Woman’s Home calculated to take about 43 women of all ages between 16 and 50 from all parts of the country. The land was to be cultivated partly from the point of view of utility and partly in order to provide work for those women who were fit for it.

"During the first year a man was put in charge of the farming but it was soon evident that a man was not suitable for the position, and when Miss Kristensen was invited to take it over she accepted and went to Sprogoe in the Autumn of 1924. The fact that a woman was to superintend the farming was met with skepticism from many sides, for agriculture on Sprogoe has always been neglected and yielded little. All the men who have leased the island from the State at a yearly rental of 300 Kroner have been reduced to poverty so the sceptics reasoned thus: if men are not capable of cultivating the land on Sprogoe how could a woman do it? But if one considers that the “men” only plowed a small proportion of the land available it is easy to understand the reason of their poverty.

"When Miss Kristensen came to the island there were only about 135 acres (55 hectares) under cultivation, the rest was left to nature – and the gulls – a peaceful growing place for thistles and other troublesome weeds, but an Eldorado for gulls and their young, though these legions of birds must surely in the course of time have contributed to making the ground fertile and it has only been waiting for people to come and cultivate and utilise it. When the property was made over to the Woman’s Home a certain amount of stock was acquired and when Miss Kristensen arrived there were 10 milch cows, 8 young cattle, 2 horses and some pigs. She was then faced with the problem of making the island produce as much food as possible for the animals and consequently also for the inhabitants, so that the least possible would have to be bought and imported. So she set her mind to plowing and during the first year she plowed nearly 500 acres (200 hectares) and sowed as much as possible. But the earth also needed lime and luckily Miss Kristensen also managed to find a lime deposit so that it was not necessary to incur the expense of bringing this by sea, though a considerable amount of work was involved in digging up the lime, transporting it, distributing it and plowing it down. One can understand now that the daily round of work – seeing that the animals were looked after properly and the milking done correctly, and all the agricultural work necessary to cultivate the area of nearly 700 acres (300 hectares) now involved – was strenuous enough for one person, especially as she usually only had the assistance of three girls of the not so specially energetic type for 6 hours a day, but nevertheless Miss Kristensen herself found extra time and energy for developing the land. There were many both small and large swamps on the estate which caused much harm and annoyance; these she filled up, using at least 8000 cart loads, as she estimates. The large courtyard of the farm was soft and uneven so she covered it with gravel and stones, doing this work in the evenings. And of course there were no roads leading out to the fields – she had to lay these herself, an undertaking involving much heavy work and careful calculation. She says herself that when the weather was favourable she worked from 5 in the morning till 11 at night. In 1925 one of the girls set fire to the Institute and most of it was burnt down, though the animals were saved thanks to the courage and energy of Miss Kristensen, who also took out of the burning stables the bull which no-one else dared to approach.

"During the following three years new buildings were erected, larger and more modern than the previous, with accommodation for 50 people and with a special laundry, sewing room, weaving room, etc. Under these improved conditions, the stock was increased and the stables enlarged, and new barns were built to store the extra machinery and larger crops. All these enterprises also laid claim on the woman farmer’s time and strength, for all the material had to be fetched from the landing-place and the necessary quantity of sand collected from the beach and carted to the building place.

"No wonder then that the agricultural specialists of the Committee of the Rigsdag [Parliament], which inspected the Woman’s Home exclaimed: “But how is it you have been able to do all this work” and she could only answer with the question: 'Who else was there to do it?'

"When Miss Kristensen now returns to her own home after 7 strenuous years she can look out over 700 acres (300 hectares) of cultivated land, clover fields, corn – turnip – and potato fields and a collection of stock that has grown to 15 milch cows, 8 large cattle, 3 horses and one bull. The whole island has in fact entirely altered in character. Miss Kristensen leaves Sprogoe in the knownedge that her work has resulted in an economic gain to the whole community, since much more food is being produced for the Institute than formerly. The last year’s accounts show this in a nutshell. Her pioneer work will also be of incalculable value to her successor.

"Last but not least Miss Kristensen herself points out that the work she has accomplished during these 7 years has been done for the honour of the woman’s movement, as the scepticism with which she was met spurred her on to prove that a woman is capable of doing what has always been called a man’s work but which has time and again been neglected by men."

Clio's thoughts: In our own time, when so much attention is focused on women’s economic empowerment, it is heartening to know that women in earlier times have also found empowerment through agricultural work – and have received recognition for their accomplishments.

However, Miss Kristensen's work was ultimately not sustainable. The Women’s Home closed in 1959 and today, no one lives permanently on the island of Sprogoe (Sprogø), which is now connected to its neighboring islands both by train and automobile bridges. Did Miss Kristensen’s efforts in developing farming there go for naught? Did her efforts succeed in empowering the women who had been sent to the Women's Home? Is there any marker to acknowledge her work?


Source: “ A Woman’s Triumph in Agriculture,” The International Women’s News, vol. 26, no.8 (May 1932), 88-89; from Kvinden og Samfundet.


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