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Women kept farms productive during the war years

Women’s Land Army pick cotton

Members of the Women’s Land Army pick cotton on an American farm.

While their fathers, brothers and husbands held rifles and grenades during World War II, many American women were armed with rakes and hoes.

The Woman’s Land Army (WLA) is a somewhat forgotten group formed during the most significant event of the 20th century. While WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and WAF (Women in the Air Force) programs get most of the attention in history books, the agricultural component of women on the home front may have been equally important to victory.

“As in World War I, the government was convinced that wheat would win the war,” said Pam Riney Kehberg, an agricultural historian at Iowa State University.

About 15 million men were called to service following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, greatly diminishing the labor force not only in other industry, but also agriculture. In some ways, it was the rural equivalent of the utilization of female labor in the factories illustrated by Rosie the Riveter. The WLA and related programs employed 3.5 million laborers during the war years.

“In both wars, men in the U.S. could get draft deferments for agricultural labor, but many chose to go anyway,” Kehberg said. “In World War II, a huge proportion of the population in the countryside left immediately at the beginning of the war, so there was a real need for agricultural labor.”

Wives, daughters and other females living on the farm already did a lot of the work, but the men who owned the farms and those who were hired hands were in short supply. The government responded with WLA, in which women were recruited to work on farms. Ironically, many ended up doing other functions.

“Largely they were recruited out of urban areas, and that’s where the problem lay,” Kehberg said. “There was a lot resistance by farmers using Women’s Land Army laborers because they didn’t want to trust their precious machinery to people who might not be well enough trained. So the Women’s Land Army person ended up doing household labor while the farm wife went out and drove the tractor.”

The war years accelerated the adoption of mechanized farming. Before the war, Kehberg pointed out, most work in the fields was done with horses and other draft animals.

“It was impossible during the war to buy a new car, but you could get a tractor or a combine,” she said.

The federal government recruited the workers, trained them and assigned them to farms across the country in the program based on the British initiative that dated back to World War I. In America, women on the farm were used to hard work in the home and the fields. The war expanded their chores.

“The wives, daughters and sisters were already doing a huge amount of agricultural labor, but whether they wanted to or not, a lot of them had to take on additional chores,” Kehberg said. “They had to be more willing to drive the tractor and milk more cows.”

Once the war ended, the WLA, which began in 1943, was no longer needed. By 1947 it was over. But the experience radically changed the role of women on American farms.

“One of the big examples is with egg production,” Kehberg said. “Going into the war, large numbers of women had fairly large flocks. Eggs become a huge business during the war, a product of the fact that they were using enormous amounts of dried eggs to feed the army. But it became more a job for men to run off the farms with the large battery egg production.

“A lot of women who had added fairly significantly to their family incomes lost that. It no longer paid for them to raise chickens on the farm. By the 1950s it’s almost completely gone except maybe a chicken or two for home use.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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