Power parity in produce: Women’s History Month

Departments - Edible Insights

February 17, 2022

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March being Women’s History Month and all, I of course find myself thinking about where women stand today in the world of agriculture, and society.

In case you didn’t know, the official theme for Women’s History Month in 2022 is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” This theme is meant to be a tribute to caregivers and frontline pandemic workers. But if you think about it, this is the sort of thing women are typically called upon to do in times of national or global duress … and while we’re at it, every minute of every day of our lives in our own homes and families.

While we clearly still have a long way to go to achieve the kind of power balance that will benefit everyone, I try to stay encouraged by looking over my shoulder now and then at all the women who worked and struggled so hard to pave us a better path to parity today.

It’s always illuminating to discover new stories of significance, as most never make it into our traditional educational history books.

On that note, have you ever heard of the Women’s Land Army (WLA)? Me neither! Given my immersion in the worlds of horticulture, agriculture and women’s empowerment, I’m shocked at myself that these incredibly important and impactful movements somehow slipped by me.

I’m sure some of you out there either remember or have studied these organizations — especially any of you who studied landscape or garden history — but for those of you not aware, I thought I’d shine a little light on these tough and resilient women of agriculture.

When World War I escalated as America entered the fray, the surge of men leaving the home front left a huge void in the farming and agricultural sectors. Who was going to tend to the fields and the livestock?

In Britain, the government was having a tough time filling the gaps, so it was left to the women at home to pick up traditionally male farming and agricultural roles. The Women’s Land Army was formed as a civil organization and recruited close to 23,000 women to feed the country. There were three divisions within the organization: agriculture, forage and timber cutting. Many worked as field workers and milkers, carters, ploughwomen and gardeners for local markets from 1917 through 1921. The WLA was restarted in World War II, with over 200,000 women employed between 1939 and 1950.

America quickly copied the organization during World War I with its own government-sanctioned Women’s Land Army of America (WLAA), putting 20,000 women to work in similar fields such as sowing and harvesting. Not only were women doing the heavy lifting, but they were also managing the workforce. During WWI, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, became the WLAA director. Many of the leaders involved with women working in agricultural areas were also suffragists and believed that doing their patriotic duty in the agricultural sectors would also help the suffrage movement.

The WLAA didn’t receive any federal funding during WWI, but was funded through non-profit organizations and colleges such as Vassar, Mount Holyoake, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard Colleges. There were training programs such as Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women at Ambler, The University of Virginia Training School and the Michigan State College of Agriculture, to name a few.

The WLAA also received support from The Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association (WNFGA), the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, the Garden Club of America and the YMCA. At the end of the war, the U.S. Employment Service absorbed the WLAA and then intentionally starved it of funding to phase out the organization.

Just as in Britain, the WLAA was reborn during WWII, this time as a federally funded organization and part of the US Crop Corps and Victory Farm Volunteers from 1943-1947. Australia also joined in with the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) in WWII.

During the war years, the WLAA secured representatives and work for women in 43 states. Most of the women were white (very few women of color were given the opportunity to work in the WLAA). Many were college educated come WWII and were often referred to as “land girls” or “farmerettes.” Necessity aside, not all states (that means men) were receptive to the idea of women doing their patriotic duty by taking over traditionally male roles or physical labor. Such states included Minnesota and Iowa, for example. And of course, these “land girls” were paid significantly less than men for the same work. Nevertheless, the women persisted. Not sure where we’d all be now if they hadn’t.

Obviously, I’m just skimming the surface on the WLAA here. The point I want to make for Women’s History Month is that we need women — more women — in agriculture and produce. Not just temporarily, not just when there is a labor crisis, and not just for show.

While we’ve seen headway in the last few years on shining more light on women in produce — and related agricultural industries — and women are stepping in to lead a record number of farms and agricultural operations, we still have a long way to go to achieve parity of power in produce.

When you look at the power structure of most operations, they are still owned or managed mostly by men. While women these days may own half the farmland, they aren’t making half the profits. I’d love to see the entire agriculture industry work towards a more inclusive structure and power balance — not to mention profit parity.

So, if you haven’t yet, plan to set aside a little time this March — Women’s History Month — to brush up on the achievements and advances of women in your companies and shore up your women’s history knowledge while you’re at it. I’m all for women promoting hope. I’d just like to see more women getting promoted.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural and business consulting, as well as product development and branding for green industry companies. She is also a horticulture instructor, industry writer and book author. lesliehalleck.com