Gardening Women Exhibition at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

A member of the garden team hard at work

Women of all classes have always gardened but until the late 19th century, there were no opportunities for them to have a career in horticulture.

The bothy, the traditional living quarters for gardeners and their apprentices, was strictly men-only. In family-run nurseries, women helped to raise plants but with little credit for their efforts. Only the most poorly paid work was available to ‘weeding women’, earning just a few pence a day.

" Gardening taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life's work (for a woman), it is almost an impossible thing. "
- Sir Joseph Hooker, March 1906

By the middle of the 19th century, there was growing awareness of women’s lack of rights in property, marriage, work, and especially, suffrage. Alongside the fight for the vote, attitudes were shifting towards the acceptance of - particularly middle-class - women’s right to train for careers. This exhibition follows the evolution of women’s horticultural education, the establishment of training schools and colleges that ran parallel to, and involved women gardeners in, the suffrage movement. These pioneering establishments laid the foundation for the wealth of professional opportunities for women in horticulture today, something reflected across the National Trust’s properties – including in the history of Sissinghurst. 

Suffragettes on the march.
Suffragettes dressed in whitte marching.
Suffragettes on the march.

Although middle-class women in the 19th Century were unable to become professional gardeners, many were keen amateur botanists studying plants in their gardens and the surrounding countryside. This was an acceptable accomplishment even for married women. Lydia Becker (1827–1890) went further than most in her studies, winning a Gold Medal from the Horticultural Society (later the RHS) for her collection of dried plants. In 1864, she published Botany for Novices. Two years later, she became interested in suffrage after John Stuart Mill presented his first petition on it to the House of Commons.

After that, she devoted her life to the fight to get women the vote and is seen by most as the first female leader of the suffrage movement. However, her links with botany were never forgotten and she was frequently lampooned in the press where her large figure, plaited hair, and steel-rimmed glasses made her an easy target for cartoonists.

The Gardening Women exhibition runs from Sat 5 May - Sun 21 October and is open between 11am - 5.30pm, with last admission at 4.45pm. Normal admission charges apply.