Trading Pencils for Plows: College Women Save Farms during WWI
As men left for the front during World War I, the U.S. government was rightfully concerned about the drastic reduction in farm labor. Officials recognized that this could have serious consequences for the nation’s food output. So just as the famous Rosie the Riveters would do a few decades later, American women stepped up. They literally rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
AAUW (then called the Association of Collegiate Alumnae) member Virginia Gildersleeve was instrumental in establishing a formal unit to organize women’s wartime agricultural service. In the spring of 1917, while she was dean of Barnard College, Gildersleeve volunteered to serve as chair of the agriculture committee of the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense. It was an interesting choice of work for Gildersleeve, who was born and lived her entire life in Manhattan. In her memoir, Many a Good Crusade, she confessed her farming ignorance: “Now I knew so little about agriculture that I could scarcely tell a turnip from a carrot, but I did know something by that point about organizing women.”
Despite her urban upbringing, Gildersleeve recognized the urgency of getting women to the farms. She knew that college women would be the perfect source to tap as they were young and eager to contribute to the war effort. Gildersleeve established the Women’s Agricultural Camp at Bedford, New York, and recruited 142 Barnard students. Surprisingly for any industry, these “farmerettes” were paid the same wage as male laborers were — 25 cents an hour, or $2 a day. The farmerettes shared a home in Bedford, outside the farm where they worked.
Initially, male farmers were skeptical and not at all welcoming of college women coming to work on their land. Yes, women had always farmed alongside men, but as wives and daughters and family members, not as hired hands. The farmers doubted the ability and especially the physical strength and grit of college women. Could college women really be useful on a farm?
By the end of the summer of 1917, the farmerettes had won over their skeptics. They performed a variety of duties such as planting, hoeing, plowing, and milking with vigor and success. The ACA Journal of September 1917 reported, “The adverse comments and predictions as to the effectiveness of the girls’ work have been utterly disproved, as have the warnings of physical breakdowns.”
Other colleges established similar farming programs for women, including Wellesley, Vassar, Oberlin, and Bryn Mawr. Gildersleeve’s experiment at Bedford became the model for the formal Women’s Land Army of America. College women across the country, many of them AAUW members, continued farming by joining local Land Army units. The Women’s Land Army operated until 1921 and then again from 1943 to 1947 as the country faced a similar crisis in World War II.
AAUW Fellow Ruth Holden put her academic career on hold to serve as a nurse during World War I.
Many college women volunteered to serve as nurses during World War I.
AAUW assisted with the recruitment of college women to work as mathematicians during World War II.