March is Women’s History Month. There is a great deal to celebrate about women’s history…including women’s work on the land. However, we have so much more work do on that front, including getting more women farming. This means increasing access to land, capital and education.
One of the projects I’m really taken with is Audra Mulkern’s Female Farmer Project. I’ve included a link to a Q&A with her at the end of this post. Audra recently told me this about a new documentary film project she’s working on, Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmers:
“As I traveled the country and the world with the Female Farmer Project, I couldn’t help but think about the women of our past: the farm women who created a legacy by nourishing family and community…There are generations of of women who have made incredible contributions and advanced agriculture in significant ways, yet they remain invisible…”
The Woman’s Land Army
A group of women who worked in agriculture 100 years ago – members of the Woman’s Land Army – remained largely invisible for decades. Yet, they used their work on the land to press for suffrage, equal wages and more. This happened during World War I, when nearly 20,000 women – many of them urban and suburban college coeds – enlisted in the Woman’s Land Army of America (WLAA). Their goal? To help on the “farm front.” The program in the U.S. was modeled after programs in the U.K. and Canada.
A generation before Rosie the Riveter, then, there were the “farmerettes”…or “the girl with the hoe.” These women provided vital farm labor “over here” as American men were mobilized to fight “over there.” One of the groups that helped found the Woman’s Land Army was the Suffrage Party of New York. In Northern California, the group issued a “manifesto.” They secured important labor rights and positioned their work within a larger labor movement. The University of California was involved in the Land Army work, collaborating on agricultural labor studies and providing training at the University farm at Davisville (you probably know this as today’s UC Davis campus, but the campus had its beginnings as the UC Berkeley – “Cal” – farm). #GlobalFood
One farmerette, Helen Kennedy Stevens, was a recent college graduate when she enlisted in the land army in New York. She wrote about farm work and life in an agricultural camp in a piece for the New York Times:
“Every morning, when you started off, it was with a feeling of adventure – no telling what might happen before you got home…No one minded taking chances.”
The Woman’s Land Army would likely have never come into existence in America without an earlier effort: an obscure horticultural school for women in Philadelphia that served as a catalyst for the creation of this land army. Humble in its beginning, the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women proved to be of national importance in subsequent years. Located in Ambler (the site is now the Ambler campus for Temple University and home to one of the nation’s leading landscape programs) women’s work there there drew national and international attention.
The founders of the school held this philosophy:
“The trained hand with the trained mind means mastery and success.”
Reading for Women’s History Month
Elaine Weiss has written an important book about the Woman’s Land Army during World War I: The Fruits of Victory. It provides a lively account of the program and the era and is well worth reading, especially as we enter the rolling centennial commemorating World War I.
To learn more about the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, check out Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I. In addition to discussing the work at Ambler, this book includes a brief history about professional women horticulturalists, devotes a chapter to the Woman’s Land Army and shares how women supported the war effort on the food front during World War I.
Included in its rich collection documenting women’s history, the Library of Congress has taped a 39-minute talk (2005) by James Beard award-winner Laura Schenone. It’s entitled “A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes and Remembrances.” You can read the UC Food Observer Q&A with Laura Schenone here.
Here are some other #goodreads featuring women who have made (and are currently making) history in food and agriculture:
Lisa Kivirist: Farmer, Author, Activist
Shirley Sherrod: Civil Rights Activist/Farmer Advocate
Audra Mulkern: Advocating for Female Farmers/Documenting the Movement with Photos
Have a great day.