Many people are familiar with "Rosie the Riveter," the iconic gal in overalls and bandanna who represented the wives, mothers, sisters and sweethearts who took over jobs in defense industries during World War II while their men folk were off fighting. Another (mostly forgotten) contingent of women who admirably filled men's shoes during that struggle were members of the Women's Land Army (WLA). Based upon a similar program in Great Britain, these women filled jobs on America's farms, although against a good deal of opposition from farm folks.
Of course, farm wives and daughters had long helped with barnyard chores and were often pressed into fieldwork during busy seasons. However, most farmers (and their wives) firmly believed that non-farm women would be useless, except possibly for harvesting truck crops like fruits and vegetables, or helping with house work.
Letters to the editors of rural newspapers from farm wives expressed the general attitude. "(Town women) are glamour girls," one writer declared, "(who won't) get their hands soiled, or the polish off their nails or a curl out of place." An Ohio farm wife wrote, "...these girls could help if they would do anything besides lie about in brief sunsuits and roll their eyes at the farmers." "If we can get city women and girls who can live without bathrooms and nail polish," wrote an Iowa woman, "who can pump and carry water, work over a hot range all day, who can eat at a table with sweaty men in dirty overalls, we can use them in our homes." "Leave her in town," wrote an Iowa farmer. "She'd not be worth a whoop in the field, and if you put her in the kitchen, we'd starve to death." Do I sense a bit of class resentment here?
Not only farm folks were skeptical. Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard and the USDA were at best lukewarm to the idea. Meanwhile, as able-bodied farmers and particularly their sons went into the armed forces, their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters tried to fill the farm labor gap. When his sons were drafted, an Iowa farmer told his daughter, who worked in town, "Annette, it's time for you to quit that job, get into some overalls and give me some help around here." Unfortunately, there just weren't enough Annettes and something had to be done, especially with the increased demand for farm products due to the war.
Non-farm women and girls were eager to help, and not just by carrying water and cooking. One wrote the New York Times in 1942, "We can drive tractors. We can milk cows. We want to join ... the farm production army. We are ready to go. Let us get together and organize a Women's Land Army."
In some areas women took the matter into their own hands rather than waiting for the government. Famed journalist Dorothy Thompson organized the Volunteer Land Corps in 1942 to recruit college students (male and female) to help on Vermont farms. Although the VLC program didn't place a lot of people, it demonstrated that non-farm youths could do farm work.
In New York, where the 1942 program was called "Farm for Freedom," the story was mixed. Truck farmers in the eastern part of the state employed women to harvest crops and do other fieldwork, while farmers in the rest of New York let crops rot rather than resort to female labor. West Coast states used women labor on farms from 1942, while Midwest farmers were much more resistant to the idea and Southern farmers were downright hostile (unless the women were black).
Through most of 1942 and into 1943, Congress held hearings and dithered over the farm labor problem, before finally authorizing the USDA to establish a Women's Land Army. In February 1943, the WLA was organized to recruit non-farm women "for the appropriate types of farm work whenever practicable."
Florence Hall, a senior economist with the USDA, was appointed head of the WLA. Hall began recruiting immediately and, much to the surprise of many, women rushed to join the WLA, most for patriotic reasons or adventure, as the low pay often didn't cover their expenses.
A uniform of blue denim overalls, light blue sports shirt, denim jacket and cap was adopted and could be bought for $10.05 (equivalent to $126.75 today), a lot of money given the low wages. Most WLA women couldn't afford the uniform and settled for an armband with the WLA insignia. Those without uniforms were urged to wear safe clothing – slacks or overalls, cotton shirts, heavy low-heeled shoes – and were warned, "Do not wear shorts and halters. They are unsuitable from every angle." That first year of 1943, the WLA recruited more than 600,000 women, although only 250,000 were actually placed on farms.
A college student who worked on a Pennsylvania farm in August 1943 wrote, "If you have never threshed you don't know what physical labor is! Down by the barn they had a great machine that looked like a hideous, eternally greedy insect, run with a long belt attached to a tractor. A wagon piled with bundles of barley is drawn up beside the platform. Two people toss the bundles with pitchforks to the man who pitches them into the monster's gaping jaws. I helped load 100-pound sacks of barley into wagons. (Later she helped load the bundle wagons). I stood on the wagon and placed the bundles as they were pitched up. I liked that job much better. There are drawbacks – you have to look out for pitchforks and it is the filthiest job I ever encountered, (but it) doesn't give you blisters. And it is a job of skill. You have to ... put the bundles in the right places so they don't fall off. There is an art to it. Topping a load is tricky and Bernie (who she was helping) told me I was smart and learning to do it fast – a regular farm girl I was."
A girl who worked one summer on a dairy farm said, "(I) had no idea of the work involved in getting milk from the cow to the doorstep. A bottle of milk will never be just a bottle of milk to me again."
All in all, the WLA was a success, with nearly 3.5 million women joining the effort by war's end. The men were convinced too. One farmer after another commented, "The women I had were unusual," not recognizing that his women were the average. One Vermont dairy farmer who had no other help said of the girl assigned to him, "She's the finest girl I've ever known. I don't know what I'd do without her."
If there are any WLA veterans reading this, we'd love to hear from you. FC
Much of the information for this column came from On the Farm Front; The Women's Land Army in World War II, by Stephanie A. Carpenter and published in 2003 by Northern Illinois University Press, along with several wartime farm magazines in the author's collection.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.