The Importance Of Women’s Land Army Values And The Cultivation Of Victory

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Perhaps the most common effects that wars can have on agriculture are price fluctuations of products (Higgins, 3), postwar fertilizer explodes, people’s change of diet, lack of food security, and famine with the reasons being enemy blockades, turning of farming fields into battlefields and labor shortage (Butler, 2). Before entering the first World War both Britain and Germany were importing a huge portion of their agricultural products and relied very little on domestic sources, with having a huge part of their workforce working in manufacturing and services (Offer, 1). And being a male-dominated industry, agriculture was especially prone to suffer severely since farmers shared the same inescapable fate as other men: getting drafted. Leaving their farming fields, men left a huge labor shortage behind. During the World Wars Allies shared the same strategies in trying to respond to the agricultural crisis. They decided to control the crisis by encouraging gardening at home, reducing waste and changing the diet, and employing migrants, prisoners-of war, high school students, and finally women as a response to the labor shortage which was the most concerning issue at the time (Carpenter, 163). Although farming organizations, agricultural sectors and State officials believed employing women would not make a huge difference, famous women activists and their organizations started training women to work in the farms and women were given a chance to take part in their nation’s freedom and prove useful. In Britain, women responded to the agricultural workforce need by creating the Women’s Land Army, a famous organization consisting of 23,000 rural and middle class women ranging in age from eighteen to sixty eager for the adventure and opportunity to serve their country. Later Women’s Land Army of America was established and not only responded to the food shortage in the US but also helped Britain with their food crisis. While the activities and role of the ones who left for war have been thoroughly analyzed and studied, the role of those who were left behind, specifically women in agriculture, has been largely ignored (Carpenter, 4). This paper is a short introduction to the Women’s Land Army in the United States and Great Britain: their formation, mission, and achievements.

Introducing WLA: history and formation

“In the minds of men, food, from its seed sowing up to its mastication, has always been associated with women…. Mention food and the average man thinks of women” (Blatch, Director of Women’s Land Army of America) Just like men on the battlefield, women also responded to the call of duty to their country and in the “two continents fought for cultural and social values, honor, and patriotism” (Gowdy-Wygant, 15). This was at a time in which women in both continents, under the dark shade of old social and cultural traditions, had very limited recognition and opportunities and were fighting for suffrage, political voice, and equity in labor. “Though women made great strides in organizing unions in areas such as the needle trades, the textile industry, as well as laundry and service industries, areas such as metalworking, woodworking, printing, and agriculture held strong gendered cultural norms that stymied the position of women as equal laborers” (15). Even when they did farming in their own yards or in rural areas their work was claimed by their fathers or husbands since there was no formal recognition whatsoever for any work they did. As a result, women received the opportunity of serving their countries with open arms and eagerly joined the agricultural workforce in WWI. A lot of organizations helped with the smooth transition of women into the farming workforce, among them the International Council of Women (ICW), the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural International Union (WAHIU) as well as the many women associated with these organizations (23).

When Britain entered the war, a large number of women volunteered to respond to the workforce shortage. Women’s Farm and Garden Union (WFGU), formerly known as Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural International Union (WAHIU), undertook training women for farming through workshops and colleges (35). A series of efforts, negotiations, advertisements, and compromises for the recognition of women farmers led to formation of Women’s Land Army under the leadership of Meriel Talbot, director of the women’s branch of the Food Department.

American women also answered the call for additional labor with enthusiasm. On September 29, 1917, Hoover “called on American citizens to aid the war effort by producing more food with the slogan “Food Will Win the War”” (43). Famous suffragette Harriot Stanton Blatch worked hard to assist the nation during World War I. Being famous for her international leadership and oratory skills, she was appointed as the head of the Food Administration Speakers Bureau. She fought for women’s establishment in different professions and also trained and prepared a great number of women for the agricultural workforce and later became the director of the Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA) in 1917 (25). In 1918 WLAA consisted of 15000 women in farms and various emergency units (53).

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Women in Canada, Australia and New Zealand looked up to their sisters in Britain and the US and following their footsteps, formed their own WLA. Although their agricultural crisis was not as severe as other Allies, they were still facing enemy blockades, and perhaps “their greatest political concern was how to aid England in her fight against Germany” (38). Some women willingly left their countries to serve in the British WLA to help their fellow comrades. Women fought for their establishment in agricultural labor and thus for their nation’s victory and farming brought them “a sense of independence, personal responsibility, and self-assurance” (42). Through WLA, women expressed their patriotism and national duty, celebrated the adventures, opportunities, personal growth and the sense of recognition they were deprived of their whole lives.

Farming strategies during WWI:

Although allies shared the same agricultural strategies, they responded to the food crisis in different ways. The British government believed in “increased rural production” while the Americas proposed ”decreased consumption and increased efficiency of the urban areas” (64). In Britain women started farming more vegetables and other products when meats, sugar and fats were rationed. These “War Gardens” that were later referred to as “Victory Gardens” played an important role in food security and were as important for the agriculture industry as the official farming labor. Gardens in America also provided the nation with fruit, vegetables and herbs. Although the strategic importance of agriculture was known to all nations, the United States used gardening and cultivation as a tool for victory like no other nation (65). Herbert Hoober the leader of food administration took initiatives to help people ravaged by war by providing them with food, money and transportation and was known as the leader of food distribution in America. There were some conflicts of interest between him and the leader of the WLAA Harriot Stanton Blatch, however. Blatch believed in large-scale production and increasing and training of female farming labor while Hoover supported the idea of efficiency and believed that “increased production was not as significant as reducing wastefulness and understanding proper cooking methods” (68). 

Hoover advertised conservatory behaviours like “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” and would encourage citizens to replace the meat in their diet, that was more necessary for the diet of the Allies soldiers, with all sorts of vegetables (68). Britain not only relied on farming organizations like WLA and rural farming, but also on the United States importations. As previously mentioned, Britain was heavily dependent on importations from countries and entering WWI it could only produce one fifth of its agricultural needs. As a result, the increased food production of the WLA along with the conservation and waste management policies were of huge help to the Allies and great steps towards victory. In both continents the food administrations would encourage people to find new recipes that include more domestic products and that help with reducing waste and all these guidelines were addressed to women (78). Women had the responsibility to provide their families with meals and to work 8-10 hours during the day either in their own gardens or in WLA farming lands. Women in WLA had specific guidelines, uniform, training colleges, and recreational activities. They would engage in different activities that men would like fruit picking, packing, riding a tractor etc and they would engage in the activity that were most fit for based on their training. Farm women would mostly cultivate vegetable farms. Women who could not join the farming workforce for any reason would work in their home gardens and provide their own families with food.

WLA achievements and conclusion:

The Women’s Land Army helped women find their place in a largely male dominated industry, grow as individuals and turned “women of leisure” to “women of action” and influence (Gowdy-Wygant, 41). Farming to men has always been a tool to survive, but for women in WLA it meant much more. WLA gave women a chance to feel more confident, grow as individuals, break the cultural and social norms, gain recognition and respect, and take a great step towards labour equity. Women in return helped their nations with the “ fight against hunger on the home front” and brought considerable labor relief to their countries during both World Wars (21). They did not only cultivate the land, they cultivated victory (1).

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