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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

Idella Purnell didn’t lie about her age in order join the Northern California division of the WLA, which opened its San Francisco headquarters just a week later. She didn’t need to. The daughter of American parents, Idella was raised in Mexico but came north in preparation for entering university at Berkeley that fall. As a patriotic gesture, she wanted to serve in the Land Army in the summer months, but she was only seventeen years old, a year shy of the official entrance age. She passed her physical at headquarters, “and as I am ‘husky’ they decided to let my youth go unnoticed and simply make me 18!” Purnell confided, after the fact. The San Francisco recruiting officers were willing the bend the rules as they faced the prospect of trying to fill their large quotas; requests for more farmerettes were pouring in daily.

“This is the recruiting slogan of the Women’s Land Army of America,” reported one San Francisco area newspaper: “Joan of Arc Left the Soil to Save France. We’re Going Back to the Soil to Save America.”

An “advanced guard” of women, mostly Berkeley students, was sent to the University of California’s agricultural farm at Davis for training and soon proved themselves “extremely efficient and as capable as men workers.” Another unit was based in the dormitories of Stanford and worked the crops of the Santa Clara Valley in WLA uniform.

Sacramento set up a district WLA office, and more than 175 women enlisted for service in the first month. “Up in Sacramento they are nearly as proud of the WLA as of the new aviation field,” reported the San Francisco Examiner. “In both cases justification lies in actual achievement…the WLA shows that the women and girls are serious…and mean to do their bits.”

In mid- June on the eve of their deployment, twenty-four fresh recruits gathered in the San Francisco WLA headquarters, located in the Underwood Building on Market Street. They were the first group assigned to the brand new farmerette camp at Vacaville, and they were summoned together for a pre-departure pep talk.

The Vacaville Camp was constructed and furnished by a consortium of local fruit growers, who paid for it out of their own pockets. They built the camp on high ground near the Vacaville train station, with a six-foot high pine stockade surrounding it for privacy. Inside the stockade were canvas sleeping tents with wood floors, a screened kitchen and dining room, showers, and a dressing room, as well as a hospital tent. The camp cost about $4,500 to build and the growers agreed to share the investment: only those who contributed towards the camp were to enjoy the assistance of the farmerettes.

These farmerettes now assembled in the San Francisco WLA office, listening as their supervisor, Alice Graydon Phillips, explained what their life and work would be like in the Vacaville Camp. She warned them that the summer heat would be brutal, and that picking fruit atop ladders would make their backs, arms, and fingers sore.

She read them the Woman’s Land Army pledge and then asked aloud if they willingly would arise to the sound of a bugle at 5:30 in the morning? “Yes!” they shouted. Would they consent to the WLA military-style structure? “Yes,” they agreed in unison. Would they agree to muster for inspection, line up for exercise drills, take kitchen police duty, and eat the rations they were served without complaint? “Yes!” Would they submit to strict rules of discipline—including the provision that five offenses for lateness constitutes one breach of discipline and an honorable discharge? Here the “Yes” chorus was punctuated by some sighs, but they assented..

They signed the pledge forms. They elected two “majors” from their ranks to lead them—one, a girl who had four brothers fighting at the front; the other, an older woman from Santa Barbara with girl-club experience. Led by a college girl from Berkeley, they all joined in a rousing cheer:

Don’t be a slacker

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