Before “Rosie the Riveter” became the face of women supporting America’s war efforts, it was “farmerettes” that replaced male laborers that were called into military service. For those not familiar, Rosie the Riveter was an iconic female factory worker pictured on a WWII-era poster that urged women to take jobs previously done by men, as the mass recruitment of men into the military resulted in a shortage of available workers. But America’s original industry, agriculture, suffered massive labor losses as well and the farmerettes that stepped in to fill these critical roles are an often overlooked part of our country’s history.
Started during the First World War, the Woman’s Land Army of America (WLAA) helped mobilize tens of thousands of women to help ensure the country’s food supply. The organization was resurrected as the Women’s Land Army (WLA) during the Second World War when some 3.5 million women heeded the call to help feed the country and troops fighting overseas. The WLA is actually considered one of the most important sources of labor in American between 1943 and 1945.
The idea for the Woman’s Land Army came from Britain where women at the outset of WWI had organized the Women’s Land Army, better known as the Land Girls. When the U.S. entered the war, a consortium of women’s groups like the YWCA, women’s colleges, suffrage societies, and even gardening clubs established the WLAA. The involvement of women’s suffrage groups led to the nickname “farmerettes,” which was initially not a term of endearment. However, those views eventually evolved and the farmerettes became symbols of patriotism and female support for the war effort.
Women from every walk of life signed up, the majority of which had never worked a day on a farm. Many of them were college-educated, recruited through “Community Units” associated with local schools. Other common backgrounds included secretaries, teachers and other seasonal occupations that offered summer vacations. The WLAA operated on regional and state levels but ran up against sexism toward women working such jobs in some areas, particularly the South and Midwest. The women were initially trained in “home gardens” before being sent in “squads” to work on nearby farms. The squads were accompanied by chaperones, which were deemed to be “sensible, practicable women of a mature age.” Farmerettes did everything from picking and sorting produce to planting and cultivating crops, as well as general farm labor like building fences.
When WWI ended and men began returning home, the WLAA demobilized as women were no longer needed to support the country’s agricultural production. The WLAA was officially dissolved in January 1920. During its short 18 months of existence, the organization placed between fifteen to twenty thousand female workers in agricultural jobs and had expanded into thirty of the then-48 states. Just days before the group disbanded, General of the Army John J. Pershing remarked that he could not understand why the women agriculturists had not been given credit for their significant accomplishments. One English official, Sir George Parish, did offer high praise to the women, saying, “when I hear people say that America won the war, I assent. I go further. I say that the war was won by the women of America. In the years of food shortage it was the American women who made it possible for us to have enough food to go round.”
When the U.S. found itself thrust into the Second World War in 1941, the country was actually already suffering from a farm labor shortage. By the end of 1942, at least two million men had left the farm. Some states such as Connecticut, California, and New York began employing women farmworkers out of necessity as early as 1941. The USDA and the Women’s Bureau actually proposed the Women’s Land Army in 1941. However, Congress, facing sexist pushback as well as farmers reluctant to let inexperienced city girls handle their equipment, didn’t approve the WLA until 1943.
By that time, the U.S. was facing a severe food shortage as agricultural productivity had plummeted. The words “bread is ammunition as vital as bullets” were stamped on pamphlets and posters across America to remind citizens why food items were being rationed. According to the Agricultural History Society, by the time WWII ended in 1945, an estimated six million farmworkers had left to fight overseas or seek better opportunities working in war industries.
While six million women hit factory floors in American cities, millions more hit the fields via the WLA. Again, the women came from all walks of life, consisting of students, soldier’s spouses, clerks, teachers, and secretaries. The first year of the program in 1943 saw about 250,000 women participate but those numbers climbed steadily, with over 3.5 million estimated to have joined the WLA by the end of the war. Looking back at her WLA experiences in 1990, one woman recalled the remarks of her father, a North Carolina farmer who had depended upon Land Army recruits: “Men may have fought to defend the land but women toiled it. Women saved our heritage.” (Sources: National Council for the Social Studies, National Archives “To the Rescue of the Crops“, Mental Floss)