Why haven't we heard more about the WWI-era Woman's Land Army of America?
A fascinating article in Smithsonian - which excerpts Elaine F. Weiss's recent Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army in the Great War - gives a group of forgotten patriots their due. And were they patriotic! Inspired by England's "Land Lassies" - women sent to the country to help pick up the slack of ag work, in the absence of male farmers - from 1917 to 1919, the WLAA recruited more than 20,000 city girls to till the nation's fields. Bearing the slogan, "Joan of Arc Left the Soil to Save France. We're Going Back to the Soil to Save America," uniformed and patriotic, the WLAA were a source of national pride, greeted by brass bands and cheered by grateful farm communities.
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."
Organized largely by suffrage and women's groups, the WLAA was a progressive enterprise: Despite their inexperience, the Land Army workers were expected to do the same work a professional farmer would, and were, accordingly, given contracts, paid equal wages, overtime, worker's comp, and protected by the same eight-hour workday laws. This was largely made possible by the demands made on farmers: California fruit-growers, for instance, had contracts with the army that increased demand even as labor dwindled. The WLAA was big on campuses - apparently Stanford and Berkeley and U.C. Davis all contributed corps of "farmerettes," and the Seven Sisters were well-represented - but was also notable for its socioeconomic diversity; one of the "captains" the article profiles was Mexican-American. Says Weiss, "One of the great social experiments which the Land Army wanted to undertake-and very explicitly-was to have wealthy women, working women, immigrant women, well-educated and not-so-well-educated women, all living and working together in the camps."
So why isn't their history better-known? Partially, perhaps, because people simply aren't as interested in the Great War as in WWII. Maybe because the initiative was relatively short-lived. And perhaps because it was superceded by gains like suffrage, the relative liberation of the 20's and later, of course, the wide-ranging accomplishments of WWII-era women. After all, many "farmerettes" would have died by the time interest and technology really caught up. But in many ways the WLAA was before its time: the women's working conditions and terms of service were superior to those of many comparable efforts from the Second World War. While the WLAA seems to have been an idyllic experience for most of the young women - an adventure in equality several years before suffrage - there were dark spots; the article tells the story of one grape-picking "saboteur" who was dishonorably discharged after filing her baskets with rotten grapes with "malicious delight."
And despite the romantic fervor of the WLAA's supporters, L A Times reporter Alma Whitaker noted,
Now, while our masculine regiments are well supplied with fair godmothers, not a single godfather has arisen for the benefit of the land army girls or the war efficiency motor maids or the Red Cross chapter girls… It isn't fair. What are the stylish picture heroes thinking about? Why isn't Charlie Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks offering themselves in this guise? Is masculinity trying to assert, in this day and age, that women's patriotism is not as important and self-sacrificing as men's patriotism? Pshaw! Think of the land army girls, exuding honest sweat on California farms, day in and day out, in uniforms quite as becoming as any at Camp Kearny…all without a godfather. It would be such a nice compliment if, say, Charlie Chaplin should adopt the first unit of the woman's land army and go down to see them decked in a land army uniform, just as Mary Pickford wore khaki when she went to San Diego.