Mona Lisa on the Farm


| 5/8/2018 2:29:00 PM


Tags: June 2018, Leslie C. McManus, First Things,
Leslie C. McManus

One of my favorite ways to lose 15 minutes is to examine an old black-and-white photo with a magnifying glass. Something of interest nearly always turns up. But when I took a look at the cover photo of this issue, I didn’t need a magnifying glass to get my attention.

It is admittedly an unusual photo. It’s not every day you see a pre-1920 photo showing two women doing fieldwork with a tractor and plow. Taken during the years of World War I, when men were in scarce supply on Britain’s home front, this photo shows the Women’s Land Army in action.

There were no surprises for me as I studied the woman at the controls of the tractor. Her posture tells a simple story. Even seen from the back, there is something businesslike about her. The plow is where it should be and she is focused on her work. I think of her as Martha or Maude or Melba.

The woman operating the Ransomes plow, however, has something up her sleeve. Wearing boots and a dress, sporting a beret and a numbered armband, she holds a delicate balance atop a thin strip of iron. Hers is no smooth ride, but her posture on a tiny perch suggests confidence.

And then there’s her face. We can’t quite see her face but I am convinced she is smiling. Something about her profile suggests a toothy grin – at the very least, a broad smile. I think of her as Mona Lisa.

What in the world is making her grin so big? Is she amused by imagining the horror that would register on the faces of farmhands-turned-soldiers if they could see women running the farm? Is she a tomboy at heart, blissfully happy to finally have an opportunity to engage in the kind of meaningful work previously off-limits to her? Or is it just the sheer adventure of it all?