by Susan Jarrett
Invisible No More is a series based on historical accounts of women who fought for the Allied Cause during The First World War. This series was presented in 2021 at The Association for Living History and Agricultural Museum’s Conference.
Women’s war contributions have largely been dismissed and were not formerly acknowledged until the late 1970s when women of the US Army Signal Corps Telephone Operator’s Units demanded recognition from the US government and equal status as military veterans. This series is based on first hand accounts as well as research by other historians. Women and WWI hopes to spark continued curiosity about the roles women played during The Great War and further propel women’s history into mainstream consciousness.
In July 1914, the world changed in a way that would inevitably rock the entire continent. While the beginning of WWI is often attributed to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the underlying tensions across Europe had been brewing for decades. Strategic alliances, fight for control over resources, and a changing industrial world were all factors that led to war on a scale never before seen in history.
Across Europe, war was embraced with patriotic mobilization as nations were confident in swift victories and short lived action. However, none could have imagined the level of destruction, carnage, and loss of life that would rage across the entire content for nearly 5 years. From August 1914 to November 1918, an estimated 20 million people would die with another 21 million wounded before Germany surrendered at 5:00am on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. The Treaty of Versailles was signed June of 1919 signifying the official end of the War.
In 1917, American President Woodrow Wilson issued the famous quote, “This is a war to end all wars.” However, as historians, we know this was indeed wishful thinking. For those who experienced The Great War, life would never be the same. The world could never be the same. And in less than 20 years, history would repeat itself.
Vera Brittain, a young lady of British descent answered the call of patriotism and writes in her memoirs [Testament of Youth], “When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans” (21).
“Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves – as I did that morning in Boulogne – to an end that they believed, and went on trying to believe, lofty and ideal” (374).
“…It is impossible,” I concluded, “to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization” (101).
“How fortunate we were who still had hope I did not then realise; I could not know how soon the time would come when we should have no more hope, and yet be unable to die.” (141).
The words found in Brittain’s Testament of Youth are the expression of just one woman’s account of The Great War. History has often overlooked the important contributions women have made to our past. Lost are the names of countless females who left their homes, moved by moral and patriotic duty, working the lands to provide food for their nation’s men at war, putting their lives at risk to collect valuable intelligence against the Central Powers, and even joined the ranks of the military itself to keep lines of communication open during combat.
Only a handful of these women’s names are acknowledged. The rest are lost to time, their work, their contributions, their risks written in invisible ink. It is time to dust the pages of history and reveal the hidden and often harrowing details of these women’s lives during the First World War.
The past two years have marked major milestones in our past. In 2019, we celebrated the end of WWI. In 2020, we honored the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment- a piece of legislation that prohibits government from using gender as a criteria for voting rights. But we know, this amendment was not inclusive and for women of color, the fight would continue on for much, much longer.
As a historian, I often reflect back and wonder- Do we now truly have equality in the eyes of society? Is the female voice valued? What opportunities are there within the living history and museum communities outside of the stereotypical gender roles? Is is now easier for women to challenge the status quo? What must the collective female experience have been like 100 years ago when women entered en masse, for the first time in history, arenas relegated to “the male preserve”- forever challenging the traditional female roles society had set for them?
Let’s find out.
“It is probably true to say that the largest scope for change still lies in men’s attitude to women, and in women’s attitude to themselves.” -Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman
THE WOMEN’S LAND ARMY OF BRITAIN and AMERICA
The story of The British and American Women’s Land Armies is really the story of the collective experience of all woman who chose to become involved in the advancement of women’s roles at the beginning of the 20th century. Whether stepping up to “do one’s bit” to “be the girl behind the man behind the gun,” there is no denying the onset of World War One ushered in exponential shifts in traditional gender roles for women of both nations.
The Women’s Land Army is the big sister of the The Women’s Land Army of America. The WLA was formally established in 1917 but efforts to prepare a female land army began as early as 1914 in anticipation of war. Unlike other European nations, Britain had no way of feeding its 36 million people as nearly half of all food consumed within the nation was imported. With the mobilization of 700,000 soldiers across the Empire in 1914, Britain was about to face a serious labor crisis. Prior to the war, several women’s farming organizations were in existence; however with war looming and men needed to fight, these organizations began devising ways to create an army of women labourers. By 1915, a Women’s War Agricultural Committee was in full swing- operating under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Leading historian on the Women’s Land Army, Elaine Weiss, argues in her book, Fruits of Victory, working the land was not only seen as part of the British nationalist movement, but also served as a catalyst for the Women’s Right to Serve Movement. Unlike the Suffragette movement, the opportunity to work the land “united women in their desire that the government allow them to assume a useful role- to do war work…” (3).
By the winter of 1915, three million men had joined the war. A poor fall harvest coupled with German submarine attacks left the country desperate and hungry. As a result, women began mobilizing en masse and by 1916, a reported 57,500 women had signed on for agricultural work with 29,000 already in the fields (Weiss, 11).
But the women’s help did not receive a hearty welcome. “The Lilac Sunbonnet Brigade” as they were characterized were “at first pressed upon the farmers in the teeth of a good deal of sluggish and bantering prejudice and opposition.” “ Meetings are called and no one comes!” complained a member of Parliament. “Hundreds of postcards have been sent to farmers, telling them there are women ready to work, and we’ve hard hardly any replies.” (Weiss, 9). Farmers simply responded “…It is impossible for women plow.”
Unlike women who entered the munitions plants of the cities, female agricultural workers faced opposition even through increasing food shortages. Farmers complained they did not have time to train these often middle and upper class women agricultural workers. As a result, the Women’s Farm and Garden Union began recruitment fairs offering six week training programs. By the winter of 1916, food prices has more than tripled and rationing was no longer sustaining the food supply. In Spring 1917, the newly formed Women’s Land Army held an exhibition demonstrating the “Land Lassies” abilities. Finally, after nearly a year of waiting, bargaining, and expositions to prove their worth, farmers across Britain, Wales, and Scotland began opening their farms to women.
That same year, America began mobilizing for war. For the United States, maintaining a consistent food supply was top priority. Taking note of the hard won efforts of the British Women’s Land Army, America wasted no time organizing and in 1917 formed The Women’s Land Army of America. “Farmerettes” as they were called, were urged to “Help the Farmer fight the Food Famine!” and “The Girl the Land Serves the Nation’s Need!” (Weiss 106). Unlike in Britain, American farmers did not fear women labour. Instead, agricultural towns like Elsinore, California welcomed the farmerettes welcomed them with a brass band and were even presented with the key to the city (Weiss, 111). It is estimated from 1917 to 1919, 20, 000 women were employed by the WLA in 42 states.
Like in Britain, most Farmerettes had never worked the land before and were from middle class families. Whereas in Britain, constant argument between fair wage and patriotic duty resulted in long work hours and little to no pay, in America, Farmerettes received equal pay as male laborers, worked 8 hour days, and attended formal agricultural training schools located at various Universities across the United States.
In a speech at a WLAA demonstration, guest speaker Perry Holden of International Harvester praised the farmerettes saying, “These young women have not been content to simply talk about what they were going to do to help win the war, they have come here and demonstrated determination to accomplish; have shown by their own hands what women can do…” (Weiss, 160)
Both the Land Lassies and the Farmerettes played an important role in keeping their nations and their soldiers fed during the war. By 1919, just as the women farmers were gaining ground within the agricultural community, the war ended and rumblings of demobilization echoed. In Britain, this meant the women of the Land Army would be sent home, their services ended. For American women, the end of the war signaled a transfer of governmental leadership and by 1920, America’s Farmerettes were no more.
The dissolution of the Women’s Land Armies in both Britain and America signified a desire to return to post war “normalcy.” Normal meant a return to gender divided labour norms and a return to domestic service for women. The hard won gains toward labour equality faded away as quickly as the songs of the fields as women were expected to return to their natural place within the home. Women’s advancements in agriculture were dismissed as simply war work.
Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth. Victor Gollancz Ltd. London, 1933.
Brittain, Vera. Lady into Woman. Andrew Dakers Limited. London, 1953.
“Chronicling America- Historic American Newspapers.” Library of Congress. chroniclingamerica.loc.gov
Mougel, Nadege. “WWI Casualties.” Reperes, 2011.
“On this Day.” The Western Front Association. www.westernfrontassociation.com
Weiss, Elaine F. Fruits of Victory: The Women’s Land Arm of America in the Great War. University of Nebraska, 2008.
“Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps.” cc. www.womenslandarmy.co.uk
White, Bonnie. The Women’s Land Army in First World War Britain. Macmillan, 2014.
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