How The Woman's Land Army Fed America In World War I, while U.S. servicemen were fighting "over there," American women from all walks of life moved to rural areas to work as farm laborers. They were known as the Woman's Land Army.
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How The Woman's Land Army Fed America

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How The Woman's Land Army Fed America

How The Woman's Land Army Fed America

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Coming up, a young woman's story of her childhood in Sierra Leone.

Ms. BAINDU GEORGE(ph): (Through translator) They are using shovels, using shakers, look out for diamonds.

HANSEN: That was Baindu George talking through a translator nine years ago about her experience as a diamond slave in Sierra Leone. She's a teenager in the United States today. Her story in a few moments.

First, the story of some forgotten American women and what they did for their country during the first World War. When U.S. servicemen were called to fight over there, the women stepped in to feed the population here. The farmerettes were members of the Women's Land Army of America.

Elaine Weiss will deliver a lecture at the Library of Congress about the army. She's a journalist and the author of the book, "Fruits of Victory: The Women's Land Army of America in the Great War." And Elaine Weiss is in NPR's New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ELAINE WEISS (Author, "Fruits of Victory: The Women's Land Army of America in the Great War"): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: So, I've never heard of them. Who were these farmerettes of the Women's Land Army in World War I?

Ms. WEISS: Well, the farmerettes were just an enormous organization of women who mobilized themselves to serve the nation during war on the nation's farms. So the men were called off to war and there was a lot of fearfulness about food shortages and high prices. And the farmers needed labor and the women said, we'll do it.

And they organized themselves all over the country in 25 states and sent more than 20,000 women in uniform and living in communal camps to take over the work of the men.

HANSEN: Were they accepted by the farmers?

Ms. WEISS: Not at first. They really - very skeptical. Women, of course, had always worked on farms, but they'd never been paid to work on farms. And these women demanded an eight-hour day, and they demanded to be paid the same rate of pay as men, which was a rather audacious demand. And they did prove themselves in the field.

And after a very short while - and this happened in every community and every state all across the nation - the farmers began to realize that the women were very conscientious and really could do all of the work that men could do, even the heavy labor, partly because they were able to use tractors.

HANSEN: They even had, kind of, camp songs that they would sing?

Ms. WEISS: Yes, they did. A lot of the women came from different socioeconomic groups, different ethnicities - not different race. That was just a taboo that couldn't be breached. But they did live in these camps in very close quarters. Sometimes they'd be living in an abandoned house sometimes, in a barn sometimes, in tents, and they would sing.

They'd sing in the fields. They'd sing in the evening. Sometimes a song would be written for a recruitment campaign. So there were some really very neat songs to popular tunes of the day.

HANSEN: There is the Land Army song - this seems to be the big song, and it's to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." If you like, please, you can read some of the lyrics, but…

Ms. WEISS: I could try.

HANSEN: Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEISS: This was a favorite - this was actually written by the Southern California Land Army organizer. A woman named Myrtle Shepherd Frances, who was very big in suffrage and civic reform movement there, and she wrote this.

Ms. WEISS: (Singing) Our mother earth has called us for the nations we must feed. We have rallied to her standard to produce our greatest need. We will labor on her bosom and achieve that worthy deed as we go marching on.

Ms. WEISS: I'll cut the hallelujah.

Ms. WEISS: (Singing) We are told by Herbert Hoover that the war by food is won. So, we're laboring at production from the dawn 'til set of sun. We have donned the khaki uniform to fight the might hun. And we go working on.

HANSEN: Oh my. My, and it does go on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEISS: It does go on.

HANSEN: You know, they will help to win this with the Kaiser win this wicked war with hoe, and rake and spade.

Ms. WEISS: Yes, they did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: This was 1918 when the Women's Land Army was at full force. Some of the leaders were actually involved in the suffrage movement, in some of the other labor and progressive movements. Was there a connection between the Women's Land Army and the quest for suffrage?

Ms. WEISS: Oh, there was a very strong connection. The suffragists saw this as a way for women to break into a new field, do something that was considered men's work of the time and also to prove their citizenship. To prove that they were patriotic, that they could serve their nation and so deserved the vote.

HANSEN: So what happened after it was over? I mean, their history is pretty much forgotten. It appears that at least in American society, the farmerette was replaced by the flapper.

Ms. WEISS: Why they're forgotten, I don't really know. They were in every magazine and newspaper. If you could imagine, Liane, they would've been on the cover of The New Republic and the Ladies Home Journal. They would've been on NPR if there was radio. They were very, very famous. Ziegfeld Follies had them, Broadway shows had them. And how they could've just slipped from the national memory is still a mystery to me.

HANSEN: "Fruits of Victory: The Women's Land Army of America in the Great War" is published by Potomac Books. Its author, Elaine Weiss, joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks a lot.

Ms. WEISS: Thank you, Liane.

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