Hidden History

How an Army of Suffragettes Helped Save America From Starvation

While legions of men toiled in WWI, 15,000 women set out to solve the food crisis. But that wasn't their only goal.

How an Army of Suffragettes Helped Save America From Starvation

In May 1918, 10 teenage girls sat in Amy C. Ransome’s three-story brownstone near Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., listening to her describe what their summer’s work would be like. Ransome appeared younger than her 45 years; she loved being around young people, which might have kept her looking so fresh. Two of the girls in the room, Susan and Janet, were her daughters, and the others came from similarly upper-middle class families.

All the girls technically should have been in school, but they’d been drawn to a cause larger than themselves. One of the them, Dorothy Gilbertson, had seen a little white sign, like those in many store windows across the city, with black block letters reading: “Recruits wanted, for the Women’s Land Army of America. Chance to do your bit by working on a farm.” The sign whispered to Dorothy, Don’t you realize that the men are at war? How can America have farms without farmers? Remember America’s promise to the allies of how she is going to feed the war.

Poster for recruitment to the Woman’s Land Army of America in World War I. (Photo courtesy the Boston Public Library)

Dorothy had no experience working on a farm, but neither did Susan nor Janet. In fact, none of these girls were farmers. Amy Ransome herself didn’t come from a farming family. She had a Master’s degree and had worked for the United States Geological Survey. Since marrying in 1899, she’d been a housewife. Now the young women were being asked to become farmhands, to live in an old sawmill, wear overalls, and do anything their purveying farm owner needed, from “corn shucking and silo making, to mending of the state road and assisting at the County Fair,” as Ransome later wrote.

This was the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Women’s Land Army of America. With so many male farmers off to battle or engaged in new, better-paying jobs in the the war industry, the group sought to prove that women could do men’s work. But Ransome and her female farmers had a larger goal in mind: winning women the right to vote.

Six months before the meeting at the Ransome residence, thousands of people crowded under the curved roof of Convention Hall, not far from the White House. Government officials and businessmen meandered through the displays at the Retail Grocers’ Association convention, one of the largest food conventions the city had ever seen.

The United States had been at war for six months, and World War I had been slogging along for over three years. The conflict had destroyed Europe’s agriculture, and now the U.S. was not only expected to feed American troops, but French and British troops as well. However, with all those men away from their farms, food production in America was on the decline. At the convention, there was no display on sugar because that was a luxury people were not supposed to indulge in. Instead, displays demonstrated how a family could get the food they needed on a budget, and various men spoke about how housewives needed to use less wheat, meat and fat.

Americans had already seen the effect the war had on food supply and prices. In the winter of 1917, food riots erupted across the country as consumers became upset at rising prices of basic commodities. (Such riots had already made headlines in Europe.) Now, women stormed the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York looking for Governor Charles Whitman, demanding an end to rising food costs. Women protesters there also toppled over push-carts full of produce. In Philadelphia they dumped a tank full of fish and then set the fish on fire with kerosene, while more broke shop windows in Chicago.

At the very back of Convention Hall, Amy Ransome stood behind a table and looked out at a sea of women. She was the president of the Housekeepers’ Alliance – a local women’s group that advocated for best practices in home economics – and the chairman of the Food Production Committee of the District Council of National Defense, an organization that mobilized women in the war effort. She was there to give a cooking demonstration on “emergency bread.” Instead of lard for baking, she showed women how to use vegetable oil, beef fat or other drippings; instead of white flour, she suggested ground oats, cornmeal, rice, barley, and whole wheat flour.

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Throughout the previous fall, Ransome also lectured on food waste, conservation and canning. This was war work, but Ransome also considered it essential to her work as an advocate for women’s right to vote.

“No army can succeed and no nation can endure without food; those who supply it are a war power and a peace power,” Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.), told the group’s members in 1916, about a year before she founded the Women’s Land Army of America. She and other suffrage leaders felt they needed to prove to male legislators that they were worth the vote, and solving the food crisis would help do just that.

In April 1917, the Council of National Defense added a Women’s Committee to mobilize women in coordinating industries and resources for national security and defense. With Chapman Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, Honorary President of N.A.W.S.A., as members, the suffragettes now had their opportunity to make a difference in the food crisis.

National and local newspapers were fascinated by the suffragettes turned farmerettes: “If you see Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, the national suffrage president in a neat uniform of khaki gardening in some vacant lot near her home in New York, don’t think she has deserted suffrage for agriculture,” the Washington Times reported.

In Great Britain, the government-organized Women’s Land Army had already proved women were capable at taking over farm work during the war. In the summer of 1917, Vassar College had trouble finding male laborers for the college farm and decided to train and employ women instead, while a Women’s Agricultural Camp at Mount Kisco, New York, also sought to train women for local farming work.

All three of those efforts served as models for the Women’s Land Army of America (W.L.A.A.), founded by Chapman Catt and others that fall. At first, the plan was just to increase home farming and gardens, but soon they realized farms across the country didn’t have the laborers they needed. In Washington, D.C., Amy Ransome heard this firsthand at a meeting of local farmers organized by the District Council of Defense in March 1918. One farmer in Bethesda, Maryland, said he had 200 bushels of wheat that he couldn’t get thrashed, enough to make about 13,000 loaves of bread. Another farmer said half of his corn couldn’t be harvested, and a third couldn’t plow his field – all because they could not find workers.

Ransome had already begun hatching the plan for a Washington, D.C., chapter of the W.L.A.A. She divulged to the farmers that women would be recruited from George Washington University and the greater community to fill the labor gap. (A notice also ran in the Afro-American newspaper, calling on women to apply to the W.L.A.A., but those who eventually took part were white, and in reality, most of the D.C.-elite women didn’t want their daughters working next to black farm laborers, and were conscious of that when choosing a farm where the W.L.A.A. planned to work.)

The farms where the women were to be deployed were all run by men, who were used to hiring other men to work on the farm. A few of them were not convinced that these white, upper-middle class women could do the manual labor required, but Ransome was bent on proving them wrong.

The trees were just starting to sprout leaves when Susan and Janet Ransome arrived at the National Service School in northwest Washington, D.C., in April of 1918. They had left Central High School almost three months early for farm training and work, abandoning their brownstone home for a cloth tent with wooden floorboards. They had left their corsets, frilly dresses, and floppy white hair bows for khaki skirts and shirts, service hats, and leather work boots.

While the media was oohing over the girls, they also emphasized the value of the work. “No rattle of drums and blare of bands, no material glamor will greet the opening of a new kind of officers training school today,” wrote the Washington Times “The training school will be for officers for America’s second army of defense – the women’s agricultural army.” The Washington Post asserted: “The work is considered a serious matter, one of patriotic duty and national importance.”

A woman and her daughter model the W.L.A.A. uniforms adopted during World War I and, later, World War II. (Photo courtesy the National Archives)

When the Post asked Amy Ransome about the work, she made sure to mention how capable and serious the women were. “It is not generally known what efficient help women are as farmhands when properly trained,” she said. “These women fill the gaps made by calling the men off the farms to the war.”

Each morning, Susan and Janet Ransome dressed in drab green outfits and climbed out of their canvas tents. They listened to Professor Hugh Findlay from the Department of Agriculture explain how to plant, thin, weed, and harvest vegetables; pick and sort fruit; prune trees; drive a tractor; milk cows; feed animals; and even steer a plow. Then, they grabbed hoes and rakes and went out into the field at the school. They might have done light gardening before, but Findlay wanted to see what they were capable of. He had them till soil by hand and even drive tractors and plough the earth on the school’s garden plot.

He was encouraged by his students. “American women are not yet physically fit to carry on much of this work without the proper training, [but] they have been apt students,” Findlay wrote in a memo. He still didn’t think that women should plough or perform “heavy labor” on the farm.

“They are ten lucky girls,” Mrs. Ransome told the Evening Star just days before her daughters and the other girls were about to leave to work on a farm in Maryland. “They are fortunate that they can be of service to their government by becoming soldiers of the soil, and because they are not the frail, delicate, pampered type of young womanhood that is so common in these modern times.”

After completing their six-week farming boot camp, the Ransome sisters were ready for duty and headed 15 miles south to a farm run by 56-year-old Charles Taylor. It must have felt worlds away. Acres and acres of land separated the farmhouses, rather than townhomes stacked one next to the other. But maybe it felt a little romantic, too. Their new home was a sawmill, with green vines creeping up the side and a view of the Potomac River. The farm was bordered by Broad Creek, a place to take a summer swim with oaks and willow trees offering shade from the sun.

The work, however, was not romantic. Susan woke up at 6:30 a.m. and dressed in outfits the newspapers found amusing: blue overalls that billowed at the knee and tightened around her ankles just above her leather boots, her straw hat placed firmly on her head. She knelt down in the fields, picking ripened red strawberries and packing them into crates, using her right hand as easily as her left. Still, she was friendly and good-natured, and loved this new world of farming.

They farmed for four hours before the midday heat, took a four-hour break, then started again at 2:30 p.m. Some of the girls would drive the farm truck to the market to sell the berries, so that Mr. Taylor could stay on the farm and work with heavier machinery. Janet hoed and thinned the corn, planted potatoes and other vegetables, picked and packed fruits, tomatoes, and beans. She even milked Mr. Taylor’s cows. Susan shocked 11 acres of wheat with another farmerette named Caroline, which involved collecting and stacking bristling bundles of the grain stalks so they could dry in the field. At 6:30 p.m., they could rest for the evening.

After a few weeks, the detail at the Taylor farm was over and Susan and Janet went on to Dr. Willis L. Moore’s farm in Rockville, Maryland. Moore had been an early supporter of the W.L.A.A. and was ready to welcome the farmerettes onto his land. In Rockville, Susan did some of the hard work that her teacher Mr. Findlay might not have approved of. In the brutal heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic summer, Susan grabbed the harness of the two draft horses, big and shining in the sun. Her hands were damp with sweat inside her canvas gloves. She drove the horses forward and they pulled the plough as their hooves hit the ground and kicked up dirt.

Farmerettes wearing the regulation bloomers and smocks are ready to march into the Virginia peach orchard, 1917. (Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

She had fully committed herself to the farm work, and Moore was impressed. “She has pitched wheat and oats to the thresher all day long with the efficiency of an ordinary man capable of doing manual labor,” he wrote in a letter. “She has picked and packed peaches and apples with a speed and skill rarely equalled by the male workers.”

In the late fall of 1918, the farmerettes were given one last task: to collect nut shells to be used as carbon filters for gas masks. But just one day after they had collected the shells, on November 11, 1918, the Germans signed an armistice to end the fighting in Europe.

The farmerettes of America had won the war against the food crisis. In the D.C. area, 100 of them had served 28 employers, while about 15,000 women worked in the Women’s Land Army of America across the country, in 21 states, from California to New York. They did not, however, receive equal pay for equal work. Women outside Baltimore had earned $1.20 a day, and on the Taylor farm, Susan and Janet only earned about $0.72 a day – both figures far below the typical men’s pay of $2.00 a day for farmwork.

But the women had impressed the men in power. President Woodrow Wilson wrote to Dr. Shaw: “surely you and the members of the committee must be confident that the women of America responded in this war with service and patriotic enthusiasm which were at once an invaluable aid to the Nation’s cause.”

W.L.A.A. workers harvesting a peach crop near Leesburg, Virginia, in August 1917. (Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

In the summer of 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving white women the right to vote. Suffragette Harriot Stanton Blatch saw the direct correlation between the legislation and the war effort at home. “The vote was the prize won by women for unquestioning service,” she said.

Although Ransome and other women wanted to continue the work of the W.L.A.A., the organization eventually collapsed. The federal government believed men would return to the farms and were unwilling to support the effort. The W.L.A.A. formally disbanded in January 1920, though a similar incarnation was coordinated again during World War II.

Amy Ransome didn’t retire. She started working even harder. When she and her husband moved to California, Amy became Western Regional Chairman for the National Woman’s Party and attended the 1937 League of Nations assembly in Switzerland as the N.W.P.’s representative to discuss women’s suffrage worldwide. She died suddenly after falling down stairs while visiting N.W.P. leader Alice Paul in 1942.

One night over the summer of 1918 while working on the farm in Rockville, Susan Ransome met a young man named Edwin chopping wood. They would stay up late, working and talking, and fell in love. Susan returned to D.C. to finish high school and even went to nursing school, but in 1923, she married the wood-chopper and became Mrs. Susan Fry, despite her mother’s wishes that she go to graduate school instead. The Frys set up a farm not far from Rockville, where they promoted agriculture and the youth-development-through-agriculture program known as 4-H in Maryland for decades to come.