At the agricultural front: the Women's Land Army during World War II

Date
1997
Authors
Carpenter, Stephanie
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R. Douglas Hurt
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History
Abstract

The use of women as farm labor has characterized American agriculture for centuries. However, it is not until the twentieth century and in times of crisis, that the American government sanctioned female farm labor through government programs; first in World War I, with a semi-private, semi-federal program, and then during World War II with the Women's Land Army. Through these programs the federal government legitimized the use of women in the nation's fields, and provided labor during times of national crisis. As part of the World War II defense program, the WLA had been part of the larger federal agricultural-labor structure, the United States Crop Corps and Emergency Farm Labor Program, administered by the Extension Service and established in 1943. As part of the Extension Service, this wartime legislation and the WLA recruited, trained, and placed agricultural workers on farms. During its operation, the WLA numbered at least three million farm and nonfarm women, surpassing other wartime farm labor programs. The path to this end had not been extremely smooth. Attitudes of farmers, farm educators, and governmental officials denounced the necessity of a women's land army and cautioned against the use of women as farm labor. Conversely, agriculturalists and educators supported the use of women as farm labor. Additionally, women's presence in local- and state-level initiatives during 1941 and 1942 crop seasons also influenced the government's decision to include a women's group within the eventual legislation. Subsequently, following legislation the WLA was organized at the state or county level and administered on that level. At first, regional biases related to race and class affected the operation of the program, but by 1945 most state agencies had effectively placed women on farms. The importance of the WLA on women's lives and agriculture is represented by the number of women who remain employed in the 1950s. With World War II being perceived as either the defining event for women to join the work force or only influencing them to join the labor market, the WLA, as an example, demonstrates that the use of women as agricultural workers in World War II altered the previous concept and structure of farm labor on the national and regional scale.

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