We're working for Victory, too; growing food for ourselves and our countrymen. While other women work at machines and in factories—we're soldiers in overalls. . . . We're running the place while Dad's away.
—Toni Taylor, "Women on the Home Front," McCall's, May 1942.
Women were an absolutely integral part of the farming operation for small family farms between 1880 and 1950, the period our museum focuses on. Even in earlier periods of American history, women often owned and developed their own land, despite colonial-era laws that restricted women’s ability to own land unless it was inherited and societal expectations that dictated women’s “proper” roles. Some laws in the colonial era limited women’s economic independence. For example, Virginia only allowed women to inherit land from fathers temporarily – until male offspring arrived. However, family systems of production in the colonial era meant women could often learn how to do their husbands’ or fathers’ work, whatever it may be, a fact that sometimes resulted in women being able to make a living from the same trade.
Alice Kessler-Harris, a historian, writes of colonial farmwomen in particular in Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States: “There was no question that women could be successful farmers. Too many examples of women who developed their own land, improved on land inherited from fathers and husbands, or managed the family estate in the absence of distant husbands refute any attempt at another conclusion. These women range from Margaret Hardenbrook Philipse, a New Amsterdam widow who converted her land into a commercial fortune, to Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who developed the first indigo crop.”
Despite societal restrictions and gendered division of labor, women were absolutely involved in farming and the production of food and fibers throughout American history. In the time period we focus on, from 1880-1950, when tobacco was the main cash crop in North Carolina and it was produced predominantly on small farms, farmers’ wives and daughters had active roles on the farm. Women were instrumental in making the family self-sufficient; however, the division of labor was usually along gender lines with women doing much of the work necessary at and around the house such as cooking, food preservation and storage, cleaning, caring for children, tending gardens, milking, making butter, and more. Many of these tasks enabled the family to support and feed itself between crop harvests. Men of the family were more likely to work in the field, plowing, planting, weeding, suckering tobacco plants, and harvesting. However, for tobacco specifically, harvesting and preparing the leaves for curing was a task done by all. The gendered division of labor was not a hard line, and if necessary, women were more than capable and expected to do work in the fields.
For farmworkers who worked on land owned by someone else, women were even more likely to work the land alongside their husbands, fathers, or brothers. This was especially true of poor sharecropping families and tenant farmers, of which African Americans accounted for a large proportion. In rural areas there were limited other economic options for work and many families needed the income.
Despite the importance of women’s work on small farms, women only made up 1% of the officially reported farm workforce before World War II. This statistic may not include farmers’ wives or family members. While women made up a small percentage of total farmworkers, agriculture was one of the main industries that employed women in the early 1900s. By 1920, 12.9% of employed women worked in agriculture. More women worked in agriculture during World Wars I and II due to a shortage of male labor as men left to fight in the wars or to take better paying defense industry jobs. During World War I the Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA) estimated that about 20,000 women took up farm work. The Bureau of Agricultural Economics reported that more than 6 million men left farm jobs during World War II. By 1942, in the midst of the war, women had gone from 1% of the agricultural workforce to 13%.
Part of this increase was due to farmers’ wives and daughters taking up the slack. But there was also a huge influx of urban and suburban women taking on farm work for the first time. Like Rosie the Riveter, the icon representing women taking on factory and defense industry work in order to support the war effort, “farmerettes” helped meet the need for farm labor during the World Wars.
University of Virginia Training School for the Women's Land Army of America, Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Inspired by the British Women’s Land Army, the United States created a civilian group called the Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA) during World War I and revived the program during World War II, which trained and sent thousands of urban and suburban women to work on farms. The program was flexible-some women used their leave from other urban jobs to work for two weeks on a farm during the summer months. Others commuted daily for midday shifts. Still others traveled and boarded with farm families for the entire season.
Many of these women had no previous farming experience and some farmers were nervous about entrusting them with farm equipment and livestock. However, the labor was much needed, and women proved themselves to be hard and capable workers. One farmer told a New York Times reporter, “I like them better than the men for the simple reason that they’re not gripers. Men are always complaining.”
By 1944 the WLAA reported that it had set up 400,000 women workers on farms across the country. By 1945 that number was 1.5 million. The USDA estimates that many more women were hired directly by farmers. And these numbers don’t include the farmwomen who stepped up to do even more work on their own family farms.
1918 Poster advertising the Women's Land Army of America, Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Marketing of the WLAA program implored women to “Help farmers reach crop goals to produce our country’s food, a basic weapon of war.”
A daughter of a New Hampshire farmer said that she “decided not to join the WACs (Women’s Army Corp) or the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services-Women’s branch of naval reserves), but to do farm work and help in farm production. I believe this is just as important to the men in the armed forces.”
Another woman in the program said, “No matter how heavy the hay we pitched, how our backs ached from weeding, or how stubborn the team we were driving, we always had the secret joy that we were helping the war effort.”
The WLAA acknowledged that women were doing the same labor that male farmworkers usually did and insisted that farmers pay women the same wages as male laborers. Without women’s farm labor, food shortages and rationing would have been much worse during the war years, both at home and on the front. Both rural and urban women stepped up to fill the need. One woman, Mary Ross, remembered her father’s comments about the Women’s Land Army recruits who helped him tend his North Carolina farm during the war: "Men may have fought to defend the land but women toiled it. Women saved our heritage."
After World War II, of course, many women returned to their office jobs, factory work, or domestic life. However, many farm women remained and women continue to be important contributors to the agricultural industry today. Women were, and sometimes still are, the often-unseen faces of agriculture, working alongside of husbands and being less directly recognized as farmers. However, women’s visibility and contributions to farming are on the rise, as well as the number of women officially working in the industry. From 2012 to 2017 there was a 5% increase in the number of female agricultural producers in the United States, with women making up 36% of ag producers in 2017. The numbers of women working as principal farm operators is also growing. And as of 2019 there were more than 1.2 million female producers across America.
The 2020 Innovative Young Farmer of the Year, Michelle Pace Davis.
Last year’s award winners at the museum’s Breakfast with the Commissioner benefit were both women, reflecting the increased presence of women in agriculture and the acknowledgement of women’s success and accomplishments in the field of agriculture. You can learn more about last year’s Excellence in Agriculture winner, Alice Scott, and last year’s Innovative Young Farmer of the Year, Michelle Pace Davis, on their Honors and Memorials pages on our website. There you can also browse and learn more about local women who farmed or otherwise impacted their families, communities, and region.
The 2020 Excellence in Agriculture Award winner, Alice Scott.
Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
Emily Yellin, Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (New York: Free Press, 2004).