Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 85-88
National Council for the Social Studies

The Woman's Land Army, 1918-1920

Margaret Laughlin
Historically, women have always worked the land to provide food for self, family, and community. During World War I, drawn by a sense of patriotism and adventure, thousands of women took the offensive to be active participants in the Great Crusade. Several thousand activists, not confined to the military services, became a part of the Woman's Land Army and transformed farm work into a patriotic crusade to provide support and sustenance for both military and civilian populations.

The British Plan for Agricultural Production
With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, women in England recognized that they would be called upon to fill the ranks in agriculture and other industries being vacated by the young men who entered the military services. Before long, some 300,000 agricultural workers enlisted in the English military. Those remaining on the farms continued to provide agricultural products with help from older farmers and those released temporarily from the military for seasonal farm work. Soon various volunteer organizations began to organize women to engage in seasonal agricultural work. Caring for both civilian and military populations was a high priority.

Lord Selborne, President of the English Board of Agriculture, developed a plan to use women workers to organize agricultural production for the duration of the war. The plan included a provision for training and "passing out." The Board offered the women a "free outfit, free training, maintenance during unemployment for a term not exceeding four weeks, and a guarantee of a wage of eighteen shillings a week or the standard wage of the district, whichever is higher" (U.S. Council of National Defense 1918). In turn, the volunteers agreed to work as directed by the Board of Agriculture for the duration of the war.

By the summer of 1917, over 42,000 women had enrolled in the program. Over 8,000 were accepted and trained for agricultural production work. The trainees were required to be at least eighteen years old, submit to an interview, and provide appropriate references and medical clearances. They were given outfits of breeches, tunics, boots and gaiters or putties, and a soft hat, all of which were "cut to measure" (Fraser 1918, 161-164). They were housed either in farm houses, among residents in the neighborhoods, or in a center and taken to the fields by transport. For the most part, the volunteers were "in the class above the industrial worker"; "the comfortable and well educated women stood its work admirably" (Fraser 161). Not all of the farmers were pleased to have women agricultural workers, and they disliked having to train them. The Board of Agriculture therefore arranged for training centers at women's agricultural colleges, on some big farms, or on the home farms of the larger estates. Opposition to having women workers gave way when the workers showed their skills and abilities through their practical performance on the job.

Women from local English villages also came forward to assist with agricultural production on a full- or part-time basis. One English writer noted that:

men have become fighters and women have become soldiers. . . . [S]hould a man head for the country, from the train windows he would presently view women, harvesting, fruit-picking, turnip-hoeing, ploughing with great traction motors, cutting trees, milking cows, driving cattle to market, doing in fact the field toil of the season. (Tweedie 1918, 1-5)
One year later, over a quarter million women enlisted in the Woman's Land Army, and after three months of service, the enlistees were given an armlet and certificate of honor recognizing that "every women who helps in agriculture . . . is . . . truly serving her country as is the man who is fighting in the trenches or on the sea" (Daggett 1918, 108).

Canadian women organized similar war efforts in their country. The Young Woman's Christian Association (YWCA), for example, in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, organized groups of women to pick fruits on different farms, handle horses, drive fruit to market, and on many days work in canneries. One British Columbia farmer hired over 300 female workers to plant, hoe, and pick raspberries. The farmers provided cook stoves and sleeping accommodations while the pickers cooked their own meals. They were paid by the crate or pound. Those who stayed through the season received a bonus. These workers included teachers, college and university students, school girls, stenographers, and girls of leisure (U.S. Council of National Defense 1918, 2). Clearly their own active participation in the war effort appealed to many women. The women on both continents performed above and beyond what many believed were their capabilities.

The Women's Land Army of America
With the entry of the United States into the conflict on April 6, 1917, various wartime agencies were created to direct the war effort. The government recognized the importance of agriculture production to the war effort.

Secretary of Agriculture David Houston stated, "upon the American farmer rests in large measure the final responsibility of winning the war" (Houston 1917). Women's groups responded with letters and telegrams proclaiming their patriotism and pledging their energies to serve their country. They also responded to the Food Administration's request for food conservation with wheatless and meatless days and "clean plates everyday."

During the summer of 1917, various women's groups participated in a variety of experimental agricultural projects which included picking, sorting, and packing fruits; engaging in general farm work; ploughing, harrowing, planting, cultivating, thinning, breding, hoeing, mowing, reaping, and shocking grain; making fences and milking cows ("War-Winning Women" 1918), while others engaged in general farm work.

For the most part, women in the United States were assigned to units. They were to work for the farmers by day and live together under the direction of a leader. The "unit plan" would ensure proper food and living conditions, and allow for standardization of wages and hours. One example of this arrangement was the "Barnard Unit" so named because a large number of the female farmers were Barnard College alumnae or students. Initially they worked under the direction of an agricultural expert agent in the "home garden" before being sent in squads to work on nearby farms in the area. The workers were enthusiastic, determined, dependable, and conscientious. For these efforts, they were paid twenty-five cents per hour or $2.00 for an eight-hour day.

Women in England, Canada, and the United States were clearly contributing to the war effort. (Similar organizations were operational in France and Italy as well.) As 1917 was coming to a close, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, chair of the Women's Committee of the Council on National Defense in the United States, requested the Woman's National Farm and Garden Association call a conference of representatives of various women's groups that had an interest in agriculture to deal with the anticipated crises in agricultural production. The conference became the Advisory Council of the Woman's Land Army of America. Its purpose was to have women become agricultural workers to replace the farmers who were drafted into active military duty.

Plans were made to recruit workers through state employment agencies, voluntary organizations, women's clubs, college alumnae associations, colleges and universities, and agricultural and trade schools so as to secure the necessary labor force from both rural and urban areas. Agricultural schools would be asked to provide courses; various women's groups were asked to find "older" women to serve as leaders; and garden clubs were asked about local conditions, to help secure funds, enroll members, arrange for housing, transportation, and wages for the volunteers (Dean 1918, 43). Meanwhile, several national magazines described the efforts of the women the previous summer which generated a heightened interest in many women to become agricultural workers and sparked a debate about using city dwellers to work on farms.

Needless to say, overall support for female agricultural workers was less than enthusiastic by conservative farmers and some government officials. However, the Advisory Committee of the Woman's Land Army was already working to mobilize women as agricultural workers. The May 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal described how to establish a unit of the Woman's Land Army. A second article asked, "Is the Woman Needed on the Farm?" As a result of many publicity efforts, President Woodrow Wilson wrote the following letter which was published in the New York Times on April 11, 1918:

To the Executive Committee of the WLA
Mrs. Henry Wade Rogers, Chairman:
I am gratified to hear of the plan of the Woman's Land Army to help increase the food supply of our country and the allies through enrolling active and patriotic young women in self-supporting groups or units to aid in cultivating crops when the farmers have need of them. I trust that our farmers, like the farmers of great [sic] Britain and Canada, will avail themselves of this aid to the fullest extent practicable, and that the response of our loyal young women to this need, wherever it exists, will be generous and complete.
Cordially and sincerely yours
(Signed)Woodrow Wilson
On the same date, Rogers announced the organization of a Land Army was already accomplished in eighteen states and was in the process of being established in twenty other states. A few days later on April 24, 1918, the Woman's Land Army of America was officially incorporated with the approval of Supreme Court Justice Grey. By late June, WLA representatives from sixteen states met in New York City to plan the summer harvest programs. The sixteen states represented at this meeting were California, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont. The Bedford Unit plan was adopted as the model to use. The ideals of a WLA were attractive and mobilized for work on farms in twenty states (U.S. Department of Labor, 1919, 495).

The Northern California Experience
By late spring of 1918, the San Francisco office of the Woman's Land Army was in operation, and by May 13, had sent its first unit to the field-to the University of California Agricultural Station at Davis. Shortly thereafter, the headquarters office was filled with young women seeking information about the WLA. They were eager to spend their summer working the soil as their contribution to the war effort. As the school year concluded in June, other young women were sent to various sites to assist with harvesting crops, some as "packers and canneries." They received overall praise from the farmers for their efforts.

A typical day for the workers included:

5:15Reveille, followed by drills, roll calls, showers, tidying of quarters for inspection by the captain. Each occupant of the tent was to be present for inspection.
6:00Breakfast and packing lunches to take to the fields.
6:30Leave for fields for eight to ten hours of labor with time for two fifteen minute breaks and lunch.
5:00-6:30Return to camp, report on work for the day, showers, rest, and dress for dinner.
7:00Dinner and free time. Promptness was expected at all meals.
9:30 Taps and silence, except on Saturday. Sundays were days "free" from work. (San Francisco Examiner August 4, 1918, 27-28)
Workers were expected to purchase their own uniforms, which consisted of "coveralls," "womanalls," or "freedomalls" as they were described, as well as a broad brimmed hat and an armband. The total cost of one uniform was $4.75. The uniform, while varied, recognized that "traditionaquot; women's clothing was not suitable for work in the agricultural fields.

A shortage of agricultural workers for 1918 was anticipated by California officials. By mid-July, partly as a result of favorable publicity in several magazines and newspapers, numerous other women became farmers, and other camps were established throughout the Central Valley. Other women signed up to work in agriculture fields during the months of August and September. These workers were involved with fruit, livestock (cattle, sheep, ponies, and hogs), and turkeys and chickens. Some mowed alfalfa, raked hay, sprayed orchards, and engaged in general farming.

As the 1918 fruit crops were ready to be harvested, additional growers were requesting the help of women. The WLA leaders worked hard to meet these requests through continued recruiting efforts. As work was completed in one area, the women often moved to another camp and continued their war efforts.

However, the 1918 harvest season was not all positive. For example, the rains in the Central Valley came earlier (September 12), were heavier, and lasted longer than usual. Consequently, crops were threatened and losses were high. Next came a severe epidemic of Spanish influenza which struck California along with the rest of the nation. Soon the Red Cross was seeking volunteers to nurse and feed the sick. The numbers of those ill with the influenza increased daily. While safety precautions were taken (e.g., no large gatherings of people, and face masks were required in several cities), the flu epidemic took some 300,000 lives in two months while the total war casualties amounted to about 100,000 over the twenty months the United States was involved in the war. Amidst the flu epidemic, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a peace treaty was signed in a railroad car in Campaign Forest in France. The fighting ended, and people throughout the nation rejoiced with the prospect of peace.

President Wilson asked the Food Administration to continue its work until the peace treaty was ratified, as the United States would need to increase food productivity in order to feed U.S. citizens, the Allies, and the starving people of Southern and Central Europe (Sacramento Bee, November 11, 1918, 3). The following year the United States expected to export some twenty million tons of food to those in need. Enthusiasm continued to be high.

Postwar Efforts
After the war, various women's organizations merged or were consolidated. President Wilson placed the Woman's Land Army under the United States Employment Service of the Department of Labor rather than the Department of Agriculture since many of the volunteers were from urban areas. Efforts at recruiting for 1919 seemed promising. However, by spring the military regiments were returning home for demobilization, and many of the men would likely return to their farms now that their military obligations were concluded.

By the end of 1919, already three million military personnel had been demobilized, were returning home, and seeking to resume their prewar occupations. With the conclusion of the war, momentum was lost, and the WLA also demobilized since it was organized as a volunteer group to supply woman power to meet the needs of wartime agricultural production.

With changing economic conditions, the women were no longer needed for agricultural production. Many of the women returned to their homes which they had kept running by working overtime during the war. Following the example of the National Women's Committee, the Women's Committees of the various states submitted their resignations during 1919.

In January 1920, the national leadership of the WLA decided to dissolve the corporation since "there is no longer any demand for the work of the organization" (New York Times, February 3, 1920, 25). On February 2, 1920, Supreme Court Justice Plazer allowed the dissolution of the corporation "because the need of supplying women for laborers had ended with the close of the war" (New York Times, February 3, 1920, 25). During its eighteen months in existence, the WLA had placed between fifteen and twenty thousand workers in productive agricultural work and had expanded into thirty of forty-eight states.

Some days earlier, General of the Army John J. Pershing remarked that he could not understand why the agriculturists had not been given credit for their significant accomplishments: "The farmer who tilled the soil and thereby enabled others to go to the front is entitled to the most honorable and patriotic commendation for what he has accomplished" (Sacramento Bee, January 7, 1920, 1). Clearly the women who worked the land deserve some of this praise as well.

In England, the WLA held a farewell rally with the women wearing their uniforms. Service Bars were presented to fifty workers for their contributions to the war effort. Those present at the rally were entertained at a supper and with a concert. The WLA work in England had attracted nearly 300,000 women agricultural workers who contributed their talents to the war effort for approximately four and a half years. England, contrary to the United States, recognized all agricultural workers as part of its land army.

While there was a formal ceremony in London and a petition in New York marking the end of the land army, in Northern California the Woman's Land Army simply seemed to fade away even though it had placed hundreds of agricultural workers on nine million acres of land in various locations in northern California. Major California newspapers, while reporting land army activities during the war, failed to report its ending.

What precisely did the Woman's Land Army accomplish for women? Over 20,000 women displayed enthusiasm and patriotism, learned new skills, adapted to new demands, and demonstrated their abilities to accomplish the tasks before them with quality and precision. One English official, Sir George Parish, offered high praise to the women. He indicated that "when I hear people say that America won the war, I assent. I go further. I say that the war was won by the women of America. In the years of food shortage it was the American women who made it possible for us to have enough food to go round" (Schlesinger 1922, 150).

The work of the WLA contributed to the fabric of American economic life by establishing standards. It also raised the status of agricultural workers and improved the overall status of women. As a result of their war efforts, women gained political, economic, and physical freedom not only for themselves but for future generations of women. The young women joined in agricultural production with a sense of patriotism, adventure, enthusiasm, and dedication. They displayed teamwork, engaged in cooperative work and living, and developed skills useful in their postwar activities. They were ready to face the problems of postwar reconstruction and development and at the same time looked forward to peace and prosperity. Their short-term wartime efforts resulted in long-range consequences for women throughout the world.

I am indebted to Catherine G. Kipp who first alerted me to the work of the Woman's Land Army in her master's thesis at California State University, Sacramento (then Sacramento State College) in 1959. Her study forms the basis of this paper.

Curti, Merle. The Growth of American Thought. New York: Harper, 1951.Daggett, Mabel. Women Wanted. New York: Doran, 1918.Dean, Ruth. "The WLA of America." New Country Life, March 1918: 44-45.Fraser, Helen. Women and War Work. New York: Shaw, 1918.Harmon, Dudley. "Is the Woman Needed on the Farm?" Ladies Home Journal, May 1918: 105.Houston, David. "Big Crops vs Big Guns." Saturday Evening Post, May 12, 1917: 11."How to Form a Group of Women Workers." Ladies Home Journal, May 1918: 113.New York Times, April 11, 1918: 15; February 3, 1920: 25.Sacramento Bee, August 1, 1918: 1; November 11, 1918: 3; September 11, 1919: 12; December 27, 1919: 23; January 7, 1920: 1.San Francisco Examiner, August 4, 1918: 27-28.Schlesinger, Arthur. New Viewpoints in American History. New York: Macmillan, 1922.Smith, Alice. "The Battalion of Life, Our WLA in the West." Sunset, November 1918: 184.Tweedie, Ethel. Women and Soldiers. London: Lane, 1918.United States Council of National Defense, Women's Commitee. Women on the Land. New York: Advisory Council of the Woman's Land Army of America, January 1918.United States Department of Labor. Seventh Annual Report of the Secretary of Labor. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, June 30, 1919."War-Winning Women." Ladies Home Journal, April 19, 1918: 39.

Margaret Laughlin is professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.