A few years ago, I was teaching a class on Women’s History in the US, 1850-Present. As part of that course, I gave a lecture within an on-campus museum gallery on women’s work in the state of Connecticut during World War I. This one lecture gradually brought me into various other projects, including curatorial work for the same museum, writing a journal-length article, and most recently, creating an exhibition for an archive. Looking back, I suppose my joke about “Potatriots” went over rather well.
Women’s involvement with the “agricultural field” and the so-called “homefront” during WWI were minor topics within the greater scheme of my research. But this first talk piqued my interest, and I came to see this period as an important prelude to much of what I was tracking within the disciplines of Agriculture and Home Economics in later years. At any rate, I am now once again working on an exhibition that will highlight the transformations that occurred at the University of Connecticut (then the Connecticut Agricultural College, or CAC) in the years surrounding the Great War.
Preparing text and selecting objects for this retrospective has presented me with an opportunity to look deeper into how women engaged in outreach/Extension work 100 years ago. One subtopic that has interested me is the labor of the “Farmerette,” the label given to women who engaged in agricultural work for the state during WWI. As a quick aside, the notion of “Land Army” would be far more pervasive, and popular during WWII, but there were women in Land Army Units during this war as well.
While in the archives of the University of Connecticut, I was coming up against a challenge, however. Most of these farmers in the Land Army were not doing work that neatly intersected with either the student population on campus or the home demonstration workers doing outreach. In other words, I was finding a rather thin archival trail. Thus, I wondered: was I trying to make too much out of what was really a relatively small program? After all, only 300 women served, and there were in fact many more children (male and female) as well as adult female home economists doing service related to agriculture for the state at the same time. Since there was scant photographic evidence, I took a step back to consider if there anything more to say about these women farmers.
I decided to turn to one woman’s testimony for clues. This particular farmer from New England, Alice Holway, loathed the term farmerette: “It implied frilled overalls and picturesque garden hats.” (You can read more about this here.) This one line has always interested me, in part because it calls attention to the modifier (ette) and the notion that these women must have farmed differently somehow. What the women actually wore while farming and operating heavy machinery is well documented (Farmerette Costume) and Holway’s contemporaries living in rural areas would have quickly dismissed such a vision. Yet that’s largely beside the point; what is of interest is where this idea came from and why it had cultural currency.
So, I turned to local contemporary papers from CT as well as the on-campus paper for CAC to learn more. I discovered that this fixation on clothing was actually rather pervasive. A joke printed in 1919 in the Connecticut Campus, UConn’s paper of the time, offers “Suggestions to Farmerettes:”
Don’t wear silk stockings when you work in the garden this summer; they will not stand up satisfactorily in the long run. Common or garden hose should be selected.
These joke was not a shout in the void; it certainly did not exist in isolation. Significantly, there was also a professional comedy about Farmettes advertised locally, and for some time. A review in Variety from January 1920 describes this vaudeville thus: “The Three Farmerettes, with songs and comedy, working in full stage, were well liked, particularly the comedy girl, whose eccentric costume after the change from the overalls, got a scream.”
Part of what strikes me with all this is the apparent interest in the spectacle of women (who are either in absurd frills or absurd ‘rough’ clothing) doing farm work. I should clarify further: it is the image of women presumed to be too delicate to do farm work suddenly putting on a special uniform that was both intriguing and unsettling. Why else would we see a spike in articles about what these women were really wearing, on the one hand, or advertisements for a parody of farmerettes on the other? What’s more, what made women readers so concerned that one might look like a farmerette? Some young women might have felt conflicted: was this indeed patriotism? If so, why was it so readily demeaned?
Flashing forward just over a decade: what if we view these images alongside Farm Security Administration photographs from rural America? From places where women farming is not seen as charming, or patriotic, but simply part of what a woman needed to do to tend to herself and perhaps a family? Putting a finer point on the matter, Farmerettes depicted in most media of the time (as far as I tell) were white. To choose rough clothing and communal life as a young white woman is patriotism. To live as a poor female farmer who tends the land for her own lot is a reality that many Americans chose to ignore in cultural images of womanhood into the 1920s.