Special Report

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

Farmerettes of the Woman's Land Army of America took over farm work when the men were called to wartime service in WWI. (Corbis)

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Purnell tried to handle the situation herself:

I remonstrated—mildly at first. I showed her again…At noon I made a special talk to the girls for her benefit, in which I pointed out that we were soldiers just as much as the ones ‘over there,’ that we too had a chance to make good—or to be classified as slackers and cowards. I made it clear that a slacker was a person who tried to palm off poor boxes of grapes for good ones. One bad bunch ruins a whole box, and that is the same as helping shoot cannonballs at our boys.

But the slacker farmerette did not improve: “In fact, she seemed to take a malicious delight in doing her worst, and trying to get away with it,” said Purnell. “I argued, pleaded, threatened and scolded by turns. Commanding did no good. “That night I made a report to the camp supervisor, and learned that mine was not the first complaint against her. Mine was the last straw, and she was dishonorably discharged.”

A saboteur farmerette in the ranks was exceedingly rare; more often the Land Army worker was hailed as the “Patriot Farmerette.” And in that role, she deserved a “pin-up” above her cot, a photo of a handsome movie star to inspire her, just like her brother in the army or navy had his starlets, teased L A Times reporter Alma Whitaker, who archly exhorted the local movie industry’s matinee idols to do their bit by becoming “godfathers” to farmerettes and other women war workers:

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.

There are no known photos of Charlie Chaplin donning a Land Army uniform, but the farmerette was truly a star in California in the summer of 1918.


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