The Women's Land Army
The Unsung Heroines of the 20th Century
‘We’ve come a long way; from Adam’s rib to Women’s Lib.’
This was the 'war-cry’ of women in the 1970s, and refers to the major changes that were coming about, thanks to protests around the world by the Women’s Liberation Movement. The story of “Adam’s Rib” is found in Genesis, which tells how God created the first woman, Eve, by removing a rib from Adam’s body and fashioning it into a woman. Regardless of which deity (if any) that you put your faith in, the idea of women being lesser beings seems to be consistent. For such a long time women were unable to compete at the same level as men, but through relentless campaigning and gradual social change, we arrive where we are today.
Despite the changes in the law, and the acceptance of women into most levels of the work environment, can we say with any certainty, that women have become equal partners in the farm yard or milking parlor? And just how many of the contractors who arrive at the farm in enormous, hi-tech machinery, harvesting a crop overnight, before disappearing into the ether, are women?
I was lucky enough to attend Aberystwyth University (West Wales) to do a degree in Agriculture. I fully expected to turn up to a sausage-fest at induction, but instead I was greeted by a sea of female faces. I can't find the exact figures, but I'm confident in saying the class was a 50/50 split female to male. A few of the attendees were from the Equine Studies degree granted, but even so, I was shocked to see so many girls. Women in agriculture have, like in all other professions, traditionally been under-represented. When most people picture a farmer, they think of a man wearing a wax jacket and wellies, with a border collie at his heels. It is unlikely that the first thought will be a woman in the driving seat of the tractor or battered Land Rover. This is not surprising, as from a young age we are surrounded by children’s television shows and books with a male farmer protagonist. Usually the female protagonist is referred to as the ‘farmer’s wife’ or 'farmer's daughter' and this is seen in life also. A woman who works the land is rarely referred to as a farmer in her own right, but always following the male-dominated narrative. Many of these women have worked tirelessly to keep the farm running, (even if it's by keeping the laborers fed and watered) but are rarely given the recognition that they so deserve. Of course it must be acknowledged that some women really are ‘farmer’s wives’ in so much as they might have no background in agriculture and really have just married a farmer. The issue only arises if they are completing the same tasks as their male counterparts, but receiving none of the recognition or reward.
To see a class full of girls learning how to tend the land was truly awe-inspiring. Having worked as a milk sampler on countless farms across Wales and the West Country, I had only encountered one female farmer. Her name was (and still is I presume) Hayley, and she had inherited the farm two years ago from her grandfather. One morning as we were setting up the parlor for milking, a delivery man approached the gantry, and to Hayley's face asked,"Is the farmer about? I've got a delivery for him." This man would have seen Hayley's name on the invoice, and let's be honest, aside from the kid from Sixth Sense, how many other blokes called Hayley do you know? When she replied that she was the farmer, and that she had been expecting the delivery three days before, and as such had had to pick up an emergency supply from the local retailer, the delivery man told her not to "get her knickers in a twist, love." Had a man been standing in front of him, complaining of poor service, would he have had the gaul to say something so demeaning? I don't think so. I'm getting off topic...
So, The Women's Land Army!
The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was formed by Lord Prothero, the then Minister for Agriculture, in 1917. With Britain on the verge of the Great War, it became clear that the only way the country would survive without all the men was if the women took over as laborers. This action saw women working in munitions factories, as engineers, as bus and train drivers and most relevant to this post, as Land Girls. Up until the start of the Great War, middle class women were seen as glamorous and influential, although they were still not legally allowed to vote. For four years, they toiled on the land to keep the country fed whilst all of the men were away fighting to keep us safe. And then, as soon as the war was over and the men returned, women were kicked unceremoniously back to their previous positions of limited power and almost invisibility. However, in 1918 some women gained the legal right to vote. Many saw this as a direct result of the hard work women had put in during the war, and many who were angered were at least temporarily appeased (this is not to take away any glory from the brave women who fought for the right, either through direct action or peaceful protest).
21 years later, when Britain was once again at war with Germany, women were called back to duty. By 1944, there were over 80,000 women in the WLA, producing over 70 percent of Britain’s food. Special 'land army hostels’ were built in abundance around the country to support and house these women. If the farm had spare rooms, and they often did as many had sons that were conscripted, the girls were expected to stay on site. Many were billeted to the same farm for the duration of the war, but most were shared among local farms. Each hostel had a hostel mother, someone who would look after the girls and make sure that they were respected, and treated fairly by the ignorant farmers who were stuck in their ways. Some of the girls were sent to agricultural colleges to do short courses to help them with their work, before being billeted to help run farms in the absence of the farmers.
A lot of the farmers were suspicious of the girls at first, and constantly underestimated them. After a few weeks most warmed to the idea of having women around on the farm, but a few still resisted and treated them poorly and with no respect. These farmers were reprimanded, by having the women they had come to rely on removed. This left them with no one to work the fields, and their overall yield suffered due to their negative attitude.
When the American soldiers, or ‘G.I’s, were bought over in 1942, they bought with them nylon tights, chocolate and chewing gum, after being told that the British girls were so ‘woefully starved’ of nice things. With all the British men away fighting, it was a welcome change to attend village dances with ‘jitterbugging GIs.’ Several ended up marrying the GIs and moving back to America with them after the war (much to the annoyance of the girlfriends they had left behind before the war).
The majority of the women and girls who joined the WLA were between 17 and 25, as most of those above 25 were married with children before the war, and needed to stay and look after their kids, if they hadn’t already been evacuated. The conscription age for men during WW2 was 18-40 meaning many farm owners were permitted to stay in the UK—this meant the roles the girls were filling belonged to the farm laborers, usually strong young men.
'Cinderellas of the Soil' is a published collection of letters written by women who served in the WLA, put together by Joyce Knighton, a previous land girl. The girls' letters tell of their daily duties and activities, and having read through them, I cannot see any disparages with the tasks of the men. Below I have summarized the activities, in handy bullet points.
- How much of household food is produced on the farm?
Most of the food eaten by the girls was a product of rationing, although extras sent home from the farmer were a welcome change from ‘boiled beetroot sandwiches.’
- Who slaughters the livestock for personal use?
On occasion, if a farmer was friendly they would send the girls back to the hostel with bacon fat, to have for their breakfasts. This would normally be from a newly slaughtered pig, usually slaughtered by the farmer. A lot of the city girls were squeamish to begin with, with many having never stepped foot outside of London.
- Who does the cooking?
The ‘hostel mother’ was responsible for making sure there were three meals prepared for the Land Girls.
‘If I never see another thermos of cauliflower cheese in my life it will be too soon’—A Ivy
- Who decides which crops to grow?
The Land Girls were only farm workers; the decisions were made by the farm owners and managers, much the same as today.
- Who does the sowing, drilling and weeding?
Joyce talks of long days spent in the fields weeding carrot crops. Often it would take a whole day, with five or six girls working each field, to clear the weeds, although Joyce writes that it was far better work than de-stoning the fields in winter. Joyce worked in Skipton in Yorkshire on a farm that had especially clay soil, which easily compacted in the cold weather.
- Who brings in the harvest?
After a short training period, the Land Girls were allowed to operate the heavy machinery used during harvest, and were expected to bring in the harvest as fast as their male counterparts. Many of the letters in the memoir speak of knowing girls who were seriously injured and in some case maimed by the machineryin most cases, hands were caught in the bailing band and the girls were thrown from the often tall machinery.
- Who feeds the grown stock on a daily basis?
The Land girls were taught to do most of the jobs on the farm, including feeding all of the stock. Usually the farmer would be responsible for the handling of the bulls, although after a particularly nasty incident where the farm owner was gored, Joyce was required to take over until he recovered. She says she remembers being terrified, and was singing softly to try and calm herself down. This singing appeared to also calm the bull, and Joyce carried on her tasks unhindered.
- Who feeds the young stock on a daily basis?
Spending time with the young stock was apparently a highlight of most of the girls’ days. One girl writes that, ‘although we are dressed as men, work like men and smell like men, we are still women, and we are still wired to love small, cute things.’
- Who feeds the poultry and collects the eggs?
This was a menial task that the girls were expected to complete each day. Most farms would only have a few chickens, and the eggs would usually be for personal use, and in some cases sold in the local villages. One girls’ letter tells of how she was ‘unlucky enough’ to be placed on a chicken farm in Herefordshire. She remembers that it was the worst smell she’d ever encountered, and it stayed from the minute she walked on to the farm on her first day until ‘at least a week’ after she’d left the WLA. On one occasion, she was tasked with collecting the eggs and carrying them to the truck. A goose had escaped across the yard and ran towards her, causing her to drop ‘over 100 eggs’ onto the floor. The farmer was furious and docked her already measly pay.
Livestock Health Checks
- Who checks the stock for lameness/disease/insects?
The girls experienced in animal husbandry were tasked with the care of the animals, although if there was an issue that couldn’t be solved on the farm, the farmer would call for the village vet.
- Who arranges drenching/vaccinations?
The local vet would likely have been in charge of vaccinations, as they were administered by syringe and the girls were not trained for that.
- Who mucks out/changes the hay in the sheds?
The girls took mucking out in their stride. Often it was a few minutes of the day where they could take their time away from the judging eyes of the farmer.
‘Whenever I was asked to muck out the calves shed I would do so willingly – often I would collapse back into the haystack and the babies would come and lick my face. I later found out this meant they were lacking in salt, but at the time I thought it was very endearing. I was a vegetarian after that – not that we ever had any meat anyway, rationing was a nuisance.’
- Who does it?
Although the hostel mother was responsible for the food, it was the girl’s responsibility to clean their WLA uniforms on Saturday afternoons, or if they became too dirty during the week.
‘After taking a tumble into the pig’s trough I needed to clean my uniform. The prisoners of war from the local camp helped to put up a screen so that I could wash my uniform in the brook and then hang it to dry by the bonfire. They were a lovely bunch, they didn’t speak a lot of English but they were very respectful’—A Prince
Markets/ Business Management
- Who takes the stock to market?
The farmer usually goes to the market, although some of the girls’ letters mention that if there was a particularly large amount of stock going to market one or two of the girls would be taken along to help
- Who chooses replacement stock?
Again, this was usually the decision of the farm owner or manager.
- Who brings in an extra income? What is it?
As afore mentioned, on occasion the girls were allowed to sell the excess vegetables or eggs in the local village, and after splitting the profit with the farmer, were permitted to keep the rest.
- How is the money spent?
A few of the letters mention how expensive travel was at the time, and the government didn’t provide the WLA with any subsidies, so if the girls were lucky enough to earn a few extra pennies, they would be used to pay for travel home, or into town.
‘The local bobby chased us half way down Prospect Street. We thought we were done for but he was actually after half a dozen eggs for his wife!’—A Robertson
To my mind, the issue here is not that the girls weren't allowed to make decisions on the farm, (why would they be, the men they were replacing wouldn't be allowed either, they are labourers) but what came after. For four years the girls filled in—they completed the tasks like for like, aided the farmers where they could and worked themselves to the bone to keep the country fed, but once again, like in 1918, they were expected to return to their homes to provide for their husbands and start families.
Despite all of the hard work carried out on the home front, The Women’s Land Army were never given any gratuity. Gratuity was a payment made to a man at the end of the war, providing they had spent six months or more in active service, be it home or abroad. This would often help them to settle back in to life at home, or to buy civilian clothing or ‘civvies.’ The WLA were not awarded such a luxury, despite many working the entire duration of the war. They were not, until 1991, allowed to partake in Remembrance Day services, and until 2008 had nothing to show for their time in the Land Army, until they were each allowed to apply for a small badge to commemorate their work. A lack of recognition was not the only grievance—many of the women had enjoyed their time in the Land Army, and subsequently applied for farming jobs after the war was over. One letter in Joyce's memoir tells of how she applied to a farm in her hometown and was told ‘Sorry luv(sic), we don’t hire women,’ to which she was very cross. She goes on to say how she ‘chewed his ear off’ about all the hard work and skills she had gained during the war, until he eventually let her have a trial shift. Needless to say she was very competent, and had sufficiently convinced the farmer to hire her by the end of the day. She finishes the letter by admitting she later married the farmer, although he still wouldn’t let her use the heavy machinery.
This article doesn't even scratch the surface of how much women contributed to the war efforts. I could write a whole other essay about the munition factory workers, the ambulance drivers, the nurses that tended the injured soldiers both home and on the front etc. The list is endless. Maybe I'll get to them one day, but for now I want to show my appreciation for the Women's Land Army. If you know of any ladies who served, ask them about their experience! I guarantee they will be thrilled!