Women in Ag History: The Farmettes

Smithsonian.com

Smithsonian.com

“The WLA provided a fascinating example of women mobilizing themselves and challenged conventional thinking about gender roles.” (Before Rosie the Riveter, 2009). 


Women in agriculture have come a long way throughout history, now making up 43% of the agricultural labor force in developing countries. We have worked our way from the bottom up, and part of what I love about writing for Modern Prairie Woman is being able to share stories from women of all facets of agriculture in an effort to bridge the divide between men and women farmers.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending (for my second year in a row!) the 2016 Executive Women in Agriculture conference in Chicago, Illinois. There, I heard from so many inspiring women in agriculture, from Diane Holdorf, Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President of Kellogg Company, to Marji Guyler-Alaniz, founder of Farmher. One particular discussion stuck with me, however - “What Women Want for their Legacy,” lead by Jeanne Bernick, Ag Consultant with KCOE ISOM

During her talk, Jeanne laid out “Where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going” as women in agriculture. For example, in the past, a woman’s job on the farm meant bookkeeping, gardening, or taking care of livestock. In Jeanne’s words, “valuable, but invisible.” It took a lot of determination for women to begin to change the way they were viewed in the ag industry - a journey partly led by a group of women called the “Farmettes,” or “Woman’s Land Army of America (WLA).” 

During World War I, farmlands and properties across the United States were left untended to. Fields were abandoned as men were called to war, leaving America with a crucial need for farm workers to continue with harvest. Thus, the WLA was established - women stepped up to the plate to save these farmlands, operating on regional and state levels and employing more than 20,000 women. 

Funded by nonprofit organizations, colleges, and universities, WLA sought women working as school teachers, professors, secretaries, and/or other jobs which allowed them flexible hours during the summer and harvest months.  Women were selected for their physical stamina, drive, and work ethic, much how men are selected for the army. They voluntarily arose each day to take on the task of sustaining the farms that would feed the American people, and were assigned locations based on their regional or state WLA program. 

The Farmettes were pioneers not only for changing the role of women in agriculture, but also for women’s rights in the workplace. In California, for instance, the severe lack of farm workers, coupled with the demand for commodity supplies, allowed the California WLA to to appeal for “extraordinary employment terms,” such as “equal pay, overtime, and worker protections [like] comfortable living quarters, designated rest periods, and worker’s compensation.” (Before Rosie the Riveter, 2009). These terms were, at that time, essentially unheard of for women. 

Many of us have heard of Rosie the Riveter, but the Farmettes set the stage for the rise of women’s roles on the farm, and though less familiar, are similarly remembered as a ‘wartime icon.’ 

Stories such as these are what inspire me to continue spreading the knowledge and empowerment of women in agriculture today, and conferences like Executive Women in Agriculture are extremely valuable ways to connect with and learn from mentors in the industry. 

What inspires you?


References

Weiss, Elaine F. "Before Rosie the Riveter, Farmerettes Went to Work." Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, 28 May 2009. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.