Farmerettes, 1917-1919

Woman’s Land Army of America
Rosie the Riveter is a well-known icon used to portray how women stepped in to men’s jobs during World War II while men were overseas. A less well-known story comes from World War I when the Woman’s Land Army was formed to train women to manage agricultural duties while men served in the military.

Based on a concept first used in England, the Woman’s Land Army of America was created to fill a very serious need. At the time, few farming processes were automated, so food production relied on manpower to grow the crops. Food demand from Europe was at an all-time high, and in 1917 when the United States entered the war, the male farm workers began to enlist in the armed services.

The WLA was not a government organization; it was woman-organized and woman-financed by a consortium of women’s organizations—gardening clubs, suffrage societies, women’s colleges, civic groups, and the YWCA –worked together to plan for and recruit young women to serve their country. Women were trained and put to work plowing fields, driving tractors, planting and harvesting. From 1917-19 the WLA put about 20,000 women to work on farms in 25 states.

To understand their full importance, it is important to know that the official war slogan of the U.S. government at that time was “Food Will Win the War.” The United States had become the main food source for feeding the people at home, the American soldiers abroad, and much of the population of our European allies. After three years of war, the people of Europe were on the brink of starvation, and American food shipments were absolutely crucial to many.

Because the workers were badly needed, the WLA was able to demand an eight-hour work day and equal pay to male farm laborers, an impressive accomplishment for a day when women did not yet have the right to vote in federal elections. (The WLA went on to help push for the passage of suffrage rights for women, which went into effect in 1920.)

The WLA operated very much like a quasi-military unit. The women lived communally, wore uniforms (farm-appropriate clothes—pants were a novelty for most women), and were awakened at 5:30 a.m. by a bugle call. They took part in inspections, exercise drills, and they served kitchen patrol duty. There were strict rules of discipline with specific infractions meriting discharge.

To learn more about the Woman’s Land Army, read Elaine F. Weiss’ excellent book on the topic, Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War.

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