America resisted entering World War I. President Woodrow Wilson preached neutrality, reasoning there was no need to get involved in Europe’s conflict. That all changed when German submarines began torpedoing ocean liners, killing thousands of innocent passengers, including hundreds of Americans. Outraged, the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.
While the men were shouldering rifles overseas, the women left behind were doing their share to help the war effort. Their contributions went far beyond merely conserving precious food and materials—although Montgomery County women signed pledge cards to “cut down the use of flour in my household or establishment in every possible way,” according to documents from the county’s historical society. The more adventurous went to work on the county’s farms, organizing with others across the nation as the Women’s Land Army of America, a troop of volunteers known as “farmerettes” that helped bring in harvests that otherwise would have been lost due to the shortage of manpower.
Styled after the Women’s Land Army in Great Britain, the American group formed in 1917 and believed that “instead of just conserving, women should be producing, becoming soldiers of the soil,” as leader Harriot Stanton Blatch noted in a directive to Land Army members. Women in the county answered the call and “turned with enthusiasm” to supporting the war effort, the
Montgomery County Sentinel reported. Teachers, students, homemakers and more joined the local chapters of the Land Army—which had formed a national network of more than 20,000 women by 1919.
The Montgomery chapters, based in Rockville and Ednor, near Sandy Spring, deployed 100 women wherever they were needed—and welcomed. Not every male farmer in the county believed the women could do a man’s job. Professor Hugh Findley of the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in a message to the farmerettes that perhaps “American women are not yet physically fit” to carry on much of the farmwork. Yet, wherever farmers took time to drill them in the proper use of tools, “they have been apt students,” Findley said. The women were trained in farming practices, given a uniform—overalls, a broad-brimmed hat, a work shirt and gloves—and paid $12 a month, comparable to men’s wages.
Immediately, the farmerettes proved themselves up to the task; Findley noted that one county woman picked 60 bushels of apples in one day “without stepping on a ladder.” Other county women were deployed in a special “nutting unit,” collecting peach and plum pits that were then used in gas mask filters, according to historical society documents.
Even after the war’s end, the women continued to serve on the farms. They ably performed all tasks, ranging from garden work and farm labor that included shucking corn and building silos “to mending the state road and assisting at the county fair,” as a local chapter reported to headquarters in a 1919 report.
“Rosie the Riveter” may have been the symbol of female empowerment in World War II, but the farmerettes of World War I plowed the way.
Author and historian Mark Walston (firstname.lastname@example.org) was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.