If you haven’t heard about “Farmerettes” or “The Woman’s Land Army of America” [WLAA or WLA] then read on. These female heroes of the great war – WW I, which lasted from 28 July 1914 until 11 November 1918 have been virtually forgotten the better part of 100 years. We’d like to spread the word about them because March is Woman’s History Month, and also because we attended a Women in Agriculture conference recently where we met many an enthusiastic female farmer of the 21st century. It’s important that we recognize the female pioneers who came before us.
The United States Food Administration motto during the great war was “Food Will Win the War!” Food security during wartime was paramount not just for the United States, but also for our ability to aid our European allies at war during the conflict. Back home someone had to continue the farm and food production labors as more and more men were called to war. Women too were called upon to do their part for victory to this end. From 1917 to 1920 more than 20,000 women from all walks of life moved to rural America to take up the labors of men who had entered wartime service. While some areas met these women with scorn, some areas like Elsinore, California were so grateful for their assistance they met arriving Land Army recruits with speeches of welcome and keys to the city. A brass band welcomed the first unit of the California Woman’s Land Army when it arrived in the town of Elsinore on the first of May, 1918. The whole community turned out to greet the fifteen women dressed in their stiff new uniforms. The Chamber of Commerce officials gave speeches of welcome, the Farm Bureau president thanked the “farmerettes” for coming, and the mayor gave them the keys to the city. The Land Army recruits drove the fifty miles from the WLA headquarters offices in downtown Los Angeles to Elsinore in style: the mayor had dispatched a truck to chauffeur them. At the welcoming ceremonies, Mayor Burnham apologized for the lack of an official municipal key ring, and offered instead a rake, hoe, and shovel to the farmerettes, “emblematic of their toil for patriotic defense.” The grateful citizens of Elsinore gave the farmerettes three loud cheers.1
The Woman’s Land Army’s farmerettes drove horse teams and tractors, hauled lumber, plowed, planted and harvested.
Asked if the strenuous labor might prove too hard, and some of the farmerettes might give up after a short stint, the recruits denied that was even possible. “Would we quit?” one farmerette told a reporter, “No, soldiers don’t.”2
Quite astounding for the time period, farmerettes were paid the same wage as male farm laborers, had an 8 hour work day, overtime pay, designated rest periods, decent housing, and other benefits considered radical at the time, especially for women. The WLA was one of the first to break down conventions of the era on how women should dress, what kind of work they were capable of, and that there should be equal pay to the men for equal work.
The WLAA itself was based upon Great Britain’s own movement called “Land Lassies” all women who performed similar wartime service.
The women of the WLA and the Land Lassies were all serving at the epic transition to mechanization as horse power inexorably changed to the gas driven tractor on farm. The far away soldiers witnessed similar changes on the battlefield where the once essential mounted cavalry units were replaced by modern machine guns, artillery and tanks. At home or in foreign lands, it was the dawn of a new era for all. Here at Seven Trees Farm, sometimes we can’t help but feel we stand at another transition point as fuel costs skyrocket and food security as well as safety concern us all more and more. This is why Kate our draft cross mare and single horse farming is such an important part of what we hope to do on our own farm. Eventually maybe we can feel a little like our WLAA sisters must have, farming with their horses a century ago. Don’t be a slacker Be a picker or a packer WLA, Rah, rah, rah!3
For more information on the WLAA read Elaine Weiss’s book, Fruits of Victory – The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War. Weiss is a journalist of 35 years residing in Baltimore, Maryland who learned about the Land Army from an elderly woman in the 1970’s when collecting oral histories in Vermont.
Also Women’s E-news has an article by Juhia Bahtia titled, Female Food Pioneers Celebrate ‘Land Army’ Roots from 8 November 2010.