The Women’s Land Army “Farmettes” for Suffrage During World War I


“The man with the hoe is gone. Six hundred thousand of him left the fields of America last year,” observed the Los Angeles Times in April of 1918. Hundreds of thousands more would follow as a mobilizing U.S. military called millions more to serve. Wasted harvests and diminished agricultural production could be avoided, but it meant that others would have to farm the fields.(1) “The woman with the tractor must take his place,” wrote the Times. The Woman’s Land Army of America (WLA), particularly its California chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Elsinore, would provide critical labor toward the nation’s food production, further what would become the small farms movement in the state, and bolster the drive toward women’s suffrage.

In April of 1917, the nation declared war on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire thereby joining France, and Britain in the Allied cause during World War I. However, the war had been raging in Europe for three years by the time the US entered and during that time many American military and civil leaders prepared for eventual war.

Though women undoubtedly provided critical support for the war, many Americans viewed female volunteerism warily seeing it potentially as “a frivolous search for entertainment that needed to be controlled rigorously lest it detract from the serious business of war.”(2) In contrast, the Women’s Land Army of America (WLA) existed as a female-led and female-staffed organization that not only helped put food on American tables amidst WWI but also provided a generation of women with agency and inspiration.

In the short term, the WLA helped avoid agricultural crisis and brought about the passage of the 19th amendment. In the long term, WLA workers would become respected academics, business leaders, and elected officials laying the groundwork for twentieth century feminism. As we sit at roughly the mid-point of the World War I centennial, approach the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the conflict, and celebrate the 19th amendment’s 95th year, it seems a good moment to think about how California’s WLA chapters brought women into the public sphere and serves as a reminder how the state proved a trendsetter in 20th century American life.

Until the boys come back. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-10239 (color film copy transparency).
Until the boys come back. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-10239 (color film copy transparency).

Beginning in England 
When World War I broke out in 1914, it did so as Britain’s female citizens had been drawing increased attention to their distinct lack of rights, notably the inability to vote. The war interrupted the UK feminist movement, but also opened up new possibilities in the fight for suffrage. Feminists like Emmeline Pankhurst demanded a role in the war as a means not only to contribute to the general effort but also to demonstrate that women as equal citizens deserved a seat at the table.

Pankhurst organized a late 1914 march demanding “the right to serve.” Thirty thousand British women descended on the streets of London carrying with them cloth banners reading “Mobilize the brains and energy of women,” “We demand war work and service for all,” and “Women’s battle cry is Work, Work, Work!” Worried about food production and recognizing a need for labor and the chance to blunt demands for women’s equality, the government directed women’s labor into munitions production and the like. By 1916, however, the nation’s food supply emerged as a central concern. Soon after the government organized women into War Agricultural Committees. By 1917, Britain’s women and the government had formed the Woman’s Land Army, taking to the fields to maintain agricultural production.

As early as 1915, due to labor shortages, the idea of a woman’s land army in the U.S. had circulated, however, British feminist Helen Fraser helped to bring the idea to greater prominence through a series of lectures on British women’s war work at Vassar college in 1917. 3 Fraser’s popularity demonstrates the transnational nature of the suffragist movement; American women channeled these influences when the nation’s leaders soon committed it to the war.(4)

A parade of women promoting women's suffrage on Broadway and 4th Street, looking north, sometime before 1920. From Security Pacific National Bank Collection. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
A parade of women promoting women’s suffrage on Broadway and 4th Street, looking north, sometime before 1920. From Security Pacific National Bank Collection. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Coming to America 
From the beginning of mobilization, Americans expressed great concern over agricultural production. Food riots struck several cities in winter of 1917, the most notable in New York City where “housewives reacted to an overnight jump in the price of vegetables by overturning vendors’ pushcarts and setting them ablaze,” writes historian Elaine Weiss. (5) In a speech to the nation in April, President Woodrow Wilson emphasized agriculture’s importance. “Upon the farmers of this country, therefore, in large measure rests the fate of the war and the fate of nations,” he acknowledged. “The time is short. It is of the most imperative importance that everything possible be done, and done immediately, to make sure of large harvests.” (6) The New York Times agreed: “For every man who must shoulder a rifle for military duty we had better furnish inducement for another to take up a hoe for farm work.” (7)

Unfortunately the draft, America’s first ever, soon meant that the very labor Wilson deemed so crucial would now be sent overseas. National political and civic leaders floated numerous plans to fill the labor void, but none came to fruition, forcing governors, mayors, and localities into action. States created agricultural committees; declared Agricultural Mobilization Day; some even offered the labor of school children as the answer, but none of these piecemeal solutions accomplished much. “[T]he urgency of the food situation and a noticeable lack of male leadership gave women a freedom to thrust themselves into the agricultural arena in a bold way,” writes Weiss.(8)

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-11192 (color film copy transparency).
Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-11192 (color film copy transparency).

Various efforts took shape across the U.S. The National League for Women’s Service (NLWS) and the Women’s National Farm and Garden Association (WNFGA) led the way in terms of mobilizing for agricultural production. At the same time, Hilda Loines and Mary Hamilton established the Woman’s Land Service League. “All over America today suffragists are leading a back to the land movement in response to the nation’s call for greater production of foodstuffs … they have put their hand to the plow and are not turning back.” wrote the Woman’s Journal. However, despite such a flurry of activity, it lacked a centralized focus, until Loines and others held a Christmas time conference in Times Square Manhattan when and where the Women’s Land Army of America (WLA) would be born. (9)

Drawing upon the example of British women across the Atlantic, the WLA took form and quickly created state organizations. By the summer of 1918, 33 states had WLA bureaus with the most successful in New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, and California.

California would be the only state to have two divisions one in Northern California centered around University California Berkeley and its second division, located in Southern California which would be split between two centers, one in Elsinore and the other working out of theLos Angeles Chamber of Commerce (LACC). Both the University of California Berkeley and the LACC would be influential actors in California agriculture for years to come: Berkley through its College of Agriculture, notably its Davisville university farm (the future site of UC Davis) and Agricultural Experimental Station and the LACC for its promotion of “gentlemen farming” as a means for real estate investment and L.A. suburbanization. (10)

California goes WLA 
“The Woman’s Land Army, with 500 strapping wenches gladdening the hearts of Southern California farmers, has passed the stage of criticism and ridicule. It’s one of those established war revolutions that has happened with bloodless efficiency and nobody is sorry,” wrote columnist Alma Whitaker in July of 1918. Though singing the California WLA’s praises, as demonstrated by his word choice, Whitaker retained more than a touch of chauvinism. His sexism came into clearer focus when he depicted the Southern California WLA board as beset by petty grievances and complaints that a reorganized leadership “preferably with a couple of brainy men on it” might avoid. (11) Even with his prejudices laid bare, Whitaker had to admit the success of the California WLA.

In many other parts of the U.S. WLA farmettes encountered initial resistance by farmers who doubted women’s ability in the fields. In the South, the WLA, with a few exceptions such as in Virginia and Georgia, proved unable to overcome deeply embedded ideas about gender, race, and the urban/rural divide. The idea of white women picking cotton in fields violated much of the South’s segregated culture. (12) In contrast, California farmers welcomed them from the start. California’s long history of importing Asian and Mexican labor, and often exploiting it, made women in the fields a “logical, practical, business decision,” notes Weiss. The government contracts many farmers held to provide food for the Army and Navy only heightened anxieties regarding production, making growers more receptive to WLA proposals. (13)

It also helped that several powerful women made up the progressive faction of the state’s politics. Figures like Katherine Philips Edson, a valued advisor to Governor and California Senator Hiram Johnson, labor reformer, suffragist, and state chairwoman of the NLWS, served as critical allies to the WLA. (14) As a result, the California WLA secured labor contracts that guaranteed wages, hours, and working conditions that agricultural labor would rarely experience again. (15) With mobilization pressures mounting, California WLA workers benefited from their white, largely middle class background. Non-white labor had long endured exploitation, but college educated white women, represented in negotiations by some of the state’s most powerful female civic leaders attained wages and labor protections rare for the time. (16)

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-26998 (digital file from original negative)
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ggbain-26998 (digital file from original negative)

Due to the fact they had a guaranteed labor supply, the WLA was able to secure equal pay with male laborers for its workers, referred to as farmettes, including a minimum wage of .25 per hour and an eight hour work day. All work over eight hours counted as overtime with no more than ten hours a day. Farmers had to also provide safe, clean, state approved living quarters and even offered workers’ compensation insurance. Considering the national minimum wage and maximum work-week would not be established until the 1930s under the New Deal, the WLA in Northern and Southern California performed a minor miracle in terms of labor rights. (17)

Northern California’s Division also fought hard for better pay and labor rights due in part to the fact its farmettes consisted of larger numbers of working women rather than college students. In addition, Alice Graydon Philips, the Northern California division leader, and her fellow WLA members issued a “labor manifesto” to the public through Republic magazine. Ultimately, the California Divisions achieved higher pay for their workers than their counterparts elsewhere, including the Northeast. (18)

Who joined the WLA? The organization’s leaders wanted to emphasize unity across classes. Working class trade union members and middle class college students were placed together, all donning the farmette uniform as a means to emphasize common purpose and obscure economic difference. That said, according to one of its 1918 brochures only 11 percent of WLA farmettes came from trade industries. (19) However, distribution varied according to location.

Santa Monica’s Miss Rachel Karn, provides an example of the typical L.A. area enlistee. Karn, “a dainty brunette of No. 1344 Fourteenth Street in Santa Monica” became the first woman from that city to join the WLA. She preferred to “put my good muscles to work on the farm,” she told the Times. “I know how to milk and I can learn to plow, drive a team or any other kind of work of the kind.” Assigned to Arden dairies near El Monte, Karn shrugged off criticism that she was wasting her young life away milking cows. Instead, she envisioned a much larger goal for herself while also contributing to the war effort. “I am determined to put all my practical knowledge of arm work to the fore, and believe me, I expect to be in charge of a big ranch before the war is over.” (20) The idea of women living in all-female communities without male supervision and physically laboring in an occupation like agriculture rather than more traditional nurturing volunteerism like nursing pushed back against dominant ideas regarding gender.(21)

One should not gloss over some of the negative aspects of the WLA that reflected ideas about race and ethnicity of the day. When the organization established a newsletter known as the Farmette some of its articles “touted openly the significance of farming for Americanization – a process of enforcing white middle class values, beliefs, and lifestyles upon America’s immigrants, African Americans, and the poor,” notes historian Cecilia Gowdy-Wygant. (22) Moreover, WLA leaders, like Barnard President Ida Helen Ogilvie openly appealed to racial prejudices in promoting the labor of white women. “What the WLA emphasizes is that the women we send out are intelligent, not the class of cheap labor supplied heretofore where three Mexicans were required to do the work of one white man,” she told listeners in a statement as racist as it was inaccurate. (23) Soon after the war ended, regional agricultural and business leaders would be clamoring for Mexican labor.

Still, in Southern California WLA leaders embraced African American organizations like the California Civic League, which launched a recruiting drive for black women. African American weeklies made appeals for enlistees, as did leaders at Sunday meetings in “Old Fellows” halls in the city’s black communities. (24)

The media everywhere loved the WLA. Even the conservative Los Angeles Times embraced it describing farmettes as “gallant” and “robust” wholeheartedly endorsing the venture: “The Times believes the Woman’s Land Army should be given a fair trial and every encouragement: that old prejudices should be held in abeyance.” (25) Though based on ideas of masculinity, the “gentlemen farmer“/small farms movement of the 1920s would also receive hearty endorsements by the newspaper and the LACC as part of a larger scheme to expand Los Angeles suburbanization and raise real estate values. One could argue the WLA contributed to this idea.

In contrast, the federal government displayed a great deal of schizophrenia regarding the WLA. George Creel and his wartime propaganda machine, the Committee of Public Information recognized its symbolic value and consistently promoted its efforts. The Department of Agriculture looked upon the WLA with hostility often belittling its efforts. (26) The Department of Labor, which eventually would assume authority over the WLA, displayed something closer to ambivalence, letting the organization die on the vine in 1919.

With the reintroduction of Mexican labor into the region, Southern California’s WLA disbanded. Of course, migrant labors received none of the wages or labor protections that the WLA secured, leading some historians to argue the organization existed as a stop gap measure only. Yet, in Northern California the organization persisted through the summer with the University of California’s backing. However, by September lack of funds and diminishing recruits made its existence impossible. “The California farmette strode into 1919 atop a vegetable festooned float in the Rose Bowl Parade in January,” writes Weiss. “By September, she was gone.” (27)

Ultimately, somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 women worked for the WLA from 1918 through 1919, but California proved one of its most successful outposts. Its disproportionate press coverage gave it a leg up and its unique organization created and run by women while delivering real wages and labor protections decades before the New Deal contributed mightily to the war effort and suffrage. The WLA’s “girl with a hoe” might not have been an exact equivalent to World War II’s Rosie the Riveter but it remains a relevant and meaningful precursor and California the perfect setting for the work and goals it symbolized. (28)


1″Women to Till Thousands of Southern California Acres,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1918, II1.
2Christopher Cappozola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern Citizen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90.
3Rose Hayden-Smith, Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Books, 2014), 147.
4Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 4,6, 11.
5Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 23.
6Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 28.
7Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 24.
8Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 31.
9Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 36, 67.
10Hayden-Smith, Sowing the Seeds of Victory, 150; Laura Barraclough, <
11Alma Whitaker, “Woman’s Land Army,” Los Angeles Times, July 27, 1918, II4.
12Hayden-Smith, Sowing the Seeds of Victory, 175.
13Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 112.
14Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 112.
15Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 112.
16Hayden-Smith, Sowing the Seeds of Victory,
17Weiss, Frutis of Victory, 113.
18Hayden-Smith, Sewing Seeds of Victory, 170.
19Hayden-Smith, Sewing Seeds of Victory, 156.
20″Santa Monica Girl Joins Land Army,” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1918, II5.
21Hayden-Smith, Sowing Seeds of Victory, 174.
22Cecilia Gowdy-Wygant, Cultivating Victory: The Women’s Land Army and the Victory Garden Movement, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013) 57-58.
23Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 254.
24Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 113.
25Hayden-Smith, Sowing Seeds of Victory, 156; “The Woman’s Land Army,” Los Angeles Times, May 31, 1918.
26Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 89.
27Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 262-63.
28Weiss, Fruits of Victory, 113.