The Unsung Army of Women Who Fed America and Its Allies During World War II
At the height of World War II, the words "bread is ammunition as vital as bullets” were stamped on pamphlets, posters, and other public service announcements across the American heartland. President Franklin D. Roosevelt echoed the sentiment in a 1943 national address: “food from our country's farms is helping the United Nations to win this war ... food ships from this country are the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” America’s farm families, he explained, “made that victory possible.”
Roosevelt wasn’t being glib. The United States was facing a severe food shortage. With millions of men overseas, agricultural productivity had plummeted. By 1943, the farm population had dropped by 6 million from its high in 1933. Americans were rationing meat, wheat, sugar, and fats, while officials placed price controls on groceries in hopes of keeping food on the plates of its citizens and soldiers overseas.
America was busy feeding other countries, too. Britain leaned heavily on food imports from the United States and Canada, since German submarines regularly torpedoed cargo ships bound for the UK. In 1941, the Nazis developed a now-often-forgotten policy called the “Hunger Plan,” a blueprint to starve 20 million Slavs (it killed approximately 4 million Soviet citizens). That same year, the United States authorized the Lend-Lease Act, which would deliver 4.4 million tons of food to the Soviet Union alone.
All over the U.S. and UK, homegrown propaganda implored people to save and grow food:
Plant more sugar beets: Sugar is energy—let’s give 'em plenty
Food is a weapon. Don’t waste it!
Better pot-luck with Churchill today than Humble Pie under Hitler tomorrow
Dig for Plenty. Grow food in your garden or get an allotment
Grow more food: Dig for victory
Behind this “call to farms” is the story of millions of women—from farming wives to single urbanites—who dropped everything to plow fields, plant crops, cultivate gardens, rake muck, milk cows, slaughter animals, and drive tractors. They were members of an army all their own: the Woman’s Land Army.
Stories about women and the war effort typically revolve around Rosie the Riveter and the 6 million women who swooped onto factory floors to help build tanks, planes, and munitions. But their rural sister, the Woman’s Land Army, was equally vital.
These unsung “farmerettes” first grabbed their shovels during World War I, after a coalition of women’s groups—suffragettes, gardening clubs, the YWCA, the seven sisters colleges—responded to a heightened demand for food during the Great War. Inspired by a similar movement in Britain, approximately 20,000 urban, mostly college-educated women with little to no agricultural experience joined farms. These women didn’t just till the land American soldiers were defending. They also secured rights for themselves that had long eluded female workers, including eight-hour work days, overtime pay, and compensation insurance. The victories came in part because women finally had an upper hand during negotiations: Employers were desperate for a guaranteed supply of farm workers.
Two decades later, women’s groups such as the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association—and even Eleanor Roosevelt—called for a farmerette revival. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, these calls intensified: A 1942 Farm Journal article told women and children already living on farms to prepare “to train small town and city women for summer, seasonal and vacation jobs on the poultry, truck and fruits farms of the country.” An April 27, 1942 story in Time read, "If the U.S. [is] to feed the world, it must have a Land Army."
But the idea of reviving the Woman's Land Army initially met some resistance. In a story for Prologue magazine (a delightful quarterly magazine produced by the National Archives), historians Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith discuss the lengths to which the federal government went to ease World War II’s farmhand shortage without involving women. The government imported 230,000 workers from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Canada. It moved approximately 26,000 Japanese Americans—and 265,000 POWs—from internment camps to farms. It also would later convince 2.5 million teenagers to work as Victory Farm Volunteers.
Farmers themselves also often weren't interested in female help. Government surveys and magazine articles showed that most farmers were afraid to let inexperienced women handle heavy equipment. "If I have to have a woman helping me in the field, I want my wife, not some green city girl," one farmer in Jones County, Iowa told Wallaces' Farmer and Iowa Homestead. Farmers in Ohio were reluctant to talk about the idea, afraid that their neighbors would "ridicule them for employing women." One farmer in Clark County, Iowa simply didn't trust cityfolk: "Leave her in town. She'd not be worth a whoop in the field, and if you put her in the kitchen, we'd starve to death."
Across the pond, the UK had no problem employing women. Not only did the British implement a women’s farming program, they even started a “Women’s Timber Corps.” Working in nomadic squads, approximately 6000 women surveyed, cut, and processed lumber across Scotland, England, and Wales [PDF]. These Paulette Bunyans provided lumber for telegraph poles, British mining, and even the Normandy beach landings.
As the war wore on, more women insisted on helping in the United States. “There is an army of us, healthy, intelligent, some college graduates, some young wives with husbands overseas,” wrote a Vermont woman named Charlotte Goodwin in a 1942 letter to The New York Times [PDF]. “We can drive tractors. We can milk cows. We want to join up quickly in the farm production army. We are waiting to go. But we will not wait long, because there is too much to be done, and we will find farms for ourselves.”
And they did. The University of Maryland started teaching courses on gardening, poultry, and cow-milking. The University of Connecticut taught animal husbandry. Hunter College students, “bent on out-producing Hitler,” created a “Volunteer Land Army.” Meanwhile, the Volunteer Land Corps was established to send young cityfolk to farms.
Finally, in April 1943, the federal government caved. It announced that it would fund The Woman’s Land Army through the Emergency Farm Labor Program, or Public Law 45, which earmarked approximately $26 million to keep America's farms growing. Information booths popped up in department stores, and recruitment posters were splashed across small towns and big cities:
“WAR TAKES FOOD—FOOD for our fighting men. FOOD for our fighting allies. FOOD for workers at home. … ENROLL NOW in the WOMAN’S LAND ARMY.”
Women were generally offered between 25 and 66 cents an hour for their labor (a range that could extend to over double minimum wage). Recruiters, however, mostly crossed their fingers that patriotic duty would outweigh financial interests.
It did. In 1945, Florence Hall, the National Director of the Woman's Land Army, noted in an issue of Independent Woman that women of all stripes had joined the group: “Accountants, actresses, artists, bank clerks and tellers, beauticians, entertainers, buyers, nurses, dietitians, designers, editors, electrical crane operators, ferry command pilots, government employees … musicians, masseuses, models, stenographers ... Policewomen, research chemists, translators … and women from many other vocations.”
By the summer of 1943, about 250,000 women had participated in the Woman’s Land Army. They picked and harrowed potatoes, pitched hay, and fed livestock. Observing the WLA’s success, Dr. Milburn Wilson of the USDA claimed that “the major burden of harvesting the increase [in crops] will fall squarely on the shoulders of the women of the country and teenage boys and girls.”
He was right. The next year, 774,000 more “nonfarm” women were working the fields.
It took time for some farmers to warm up to the help, writes historian Stephanie Carpenter in her book On the Farm Front. Some farmers believed training people with no agricultural experience wasn’t worth the hassle. Others didn’t trust the work ethic or values of city women. But those suspicions slowly faded. According to Spencer C. Tucker’s encyclopedia on World War II, “Most midwestern and southern farmers who protested the WLA in 1943 would ultimately use women as farm laborers by the end of the war.”
Nothing washes away old prejudices like exposure. Across the country, reluctant farmers came away with ringing endorsements. The manager of a hybrid seed corn company in Nebraska claimed, "The women did the best job any crew has ever done for me." An unidentified farmer in Huron, Ohio agreed: They women "couldn't be beat." One WLA supervisor, based in South Carolina, said, “Some of the best farms are now being operated by women workers.”
By war’s end, approximately 1.5 million to 3 million [PDF] American women had joined the Women’s Land Army. Tens of thousands more women living in Australia, Canada, and Britain had joined the cause on their home turf as well.
“Why were we forgotten so easily after we were no longer needed?” recalled one member of Britain's 80,000-strong Women’s Land Army. “We were proud to wear our uniform and serve our country. Those of us who are left are still proud to have belonged to the Women’s Land Army, and we will never forget.”
The same can be said the efforts in the United States. As one Midwestern farmer commented, "The biggest factor to their success was their patriotic attitude." It wasn't money they were after: They simply "came to help."