Before Rosie the Riveter, Farmerettes Went to Work | Women's History Month | Smithsonian
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Farmerettes of the Woman's Land Army of America took over farm work when the men were called to wartime service in WWI. (Corbis)

Before Rosie the Riveter, Farmerettes Went to Work

During WWI, the Woman’s Land Army of America mobilized women into sustaining American farms and building national pride

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From 1917 to 1919, the Woman's Land Army of America brought more than 20,000 city and town women to rural America to take over  farm work after men were called to war.

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Most of these women had never before worked on a farm, but they were soon plowing fields, driving tractors, planting and harvesting. The Land Army's "farmerettes" were paid wages equal to male farm laborers and were protected by an eight-hour workday. For many, the farmerettes were shocking at first--wearing pants!--but farmers began to rely upon the women workers.

Inspired by the women of Great Britain, organized as the Land Lassies, the Woman’s Land Army of America was established by a consortium of women’s organizations--including gardening clubs, suffrage societies, women’s colleges, civic groups, and the YWCA.

The WLA provided a fascinating example of women mobilizing themselves and challenged conventional thinking about gender roles.

Like Rosie the Riveter a generation later, the Land Army farmerette became a wartime icon.

The following excerpt from Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army in the Great War chronicles the farmerettes of the California division of the Woman’s Land Army.

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.

While California fruit growers held lucrative contracts with the U.S. military to supply troops with dried and canned fruit, the extreme wartime farm labor shortage enabled the California Woman’s Land Army to demand extraordinary employment terms: a guaranteed contract, equal pay to what local male farm laborers could command, an eight hour day, and overtime pay. The employers also agreed to worker protections--comfortable living quarters, designated rest periods, lifting limits, and workers’ compensation insurance—considered radical for the time.

The Los Angeles Times trumpeted the arrival of the “Great Land Army” in Elsinore as an “Epochal Experiment” and proclaimed the farmerettes were “To Turn New Earth in History of the American Woman.” Photographs of the farmerettes’ first day at work, handling horse-drawn cultivators and gangplows, or at the wheel of giant tractors, were spread across the pages of the state’s newspapers. 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.”

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