Before Rosie the Riveter, Farmerettes Went to Work- page 3 | 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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Be a picker or a packer

WLA, Rah, rah, rah!

They took the early train to Vacaville, just beyond Napa, a journey of about sixty miles. “It was hot in the orchard at Napa,” Idella Purnell recalled.

The sun rose higher and higher, and the long ladders grew heavier and heavier. Perspiration started on our foreheads and beaded our lips. The golden peaches were so high—so hard to reach! The peach fuzz and dust on our throats and arms began to irritate the skin, but we did not dare scratch—we knew that would only aggravate the trouble. One who has never had “peach fuzz rash” cannot appreciate the misery of those toiling, dusty, hot-faced girls.

Purnell, who would make her career as a writer and editor of an influential poetry journal, was getting a crash course in the less romantic aspects of farmerette life. As word of their good work spread, more northern and southern California farmers asked for WLA units to be based near their orchards and ranches. The newspapers charted the farmerettes’ summons into the golden groves with headlines like: “Hundreds Go Into Fields at Once” and “Women to Till Thousands of Southern California’s Acres.” Sunset magazine carried an editorial in its July issue titled “The Woman’s Land Army is Winning” illustrated by a photo of farmerettes in uniform posing with hoes slung over their shoulders like guns.

The Los Angeles Times sent one of its star reporters, Alma Whitaker, to spend a day working with a Land Army unit, and she came away rather dazzled. Describing one farmerette as “tall and husky and wields a spade like a young Amazon her sword” and another as possessing “a pair of shoulders and muscular arms like a bantam lightweight” Whitaker was taken with the farmerettes’ serious attitude:

“This woman’s land army, composed of able-bodied young women, selected just as the men are selected by the army, for their physical capacity, their good characters, their general deportment, and trained and disciplined even rather more strictly than the men... are acquitting themselves with amazing efficiency.”

Whitaker took note of the Land Army uniform, which became a hot topic of conversation in that summer: “The official uniform has called forth criticism,” she reported. “Farm laborers don’t wear uniforms. But those uniforms are proven to be an essential and desirable asset, for not only are they intensely practical, but they have exactly the same effect on girls as they do on the men—one lives up to a uniform.”

As in the military, the Land Army uniform also served as a great social equalizer and provided a powerful sense of social cohesion. “The cotton uniform,” wrote one California farmerette, “soon muddy and fruit stained, in which some girls looked picturesque, but no one overwhelmingly beautiful, leveled all distinction except those of personality, manners and speech.”

As the season progressed, Idella Purnell was promoted to the captaincy of her own squad of Land Army workers. But amid the grape vines of Lodi, captain Purnell encountered what every American feared in this time of war: the snake in the garden, the saboteur. At first Purnell assumed the woman was simply that lesser form of wartime menace, the slacker, not willing to do her share, but Purnell’s suspicions hardened when her lazy farmerette resorted to shoddy picking: “She took to sabotage,” Purnell explained. “Green grapes, rotten grapes—anything and everything went into her boxes, tossed there by a hand careless of the precious bloom—and they all were only half full.

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