The Land Girls who boosted Britain’s food supply during the Second World War, and helped to revolutionise farming, have been misleadingly depicted as clumsy urban interlopers even though many came from rural backgrounds.
That’s according to new research from academics at the universities of Liverpool and Manchester who studied representations of the Women’s Land Army from 1939 until its disbandment in 1950. The WLA’s purpose was to help maintain the food supply when imports were disrupted and many farming men were conscripted. It had over 80,000 members at its peak, paid directly by farmers and engaged in roles from dairy work to rat-catching.
The researchers found that wartime and postwar views of Land Girls were heavily influenced by official and media accounts such as the “condescending and warmly affectionate” The Women’s Land Army (1944) by the aristocratic novelist, poet and journalist Vita Sackville-West.
In the book, published under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, she calculated that about a third of WLA recruits came from London and Middlesex or northern industrial towns, implying that many of the remainder were from country districts and small towns. She also acknowledged that many Land Girls were familiar with agricultural work through “seasonal work on farms during their holidays” even if they weren’t from farming families.
Nevertheless, at the start of her account she portrayed the typical new recruit as “a shop-assistant, a manicurist, a hair-dresser, a shorthand-typist, a ballet-dancer, a milliner, a mannequin, a saleswoman, an insurance-clerk” who was used to wearing “silk stockings and high-heeled shoes, pretty frocks and jaunty hats”. Later she reasserted the misleading idea that “in the majority of cases she isn’t a country-bred girl at all, but a relatively spoilt and gently-nurtured girl from the town and even the city”.
According to the researchers, Sackville-West assumed that such women would be apprehensive in the countryside. She described how: “One girl went on strike saying that she was allergic to cows, and would rather go through another blitz than ever sit on a milking-stool again”. On the other hand, she noted approvingly that others, such as “a little Jewess from the East End who remarked that she scarcely knew what a cow looked like and had certainly never been so near one in her life … have seen it through”.
In their paper, published in the journal Gender & History, the researchers said many women had worked on farms before the world wars, although their presence was under-recorded in official data such as censuses — for example, because of their dual roles in domestic and farm work. They said experienced farm workers were among those who joined the WLA with its guaranteed wage and uniform of brown breeches, green jersey and strong shoes.
“One girl went on strike saying that she was allergic to cows”Vita Sackville-West
Mark Riley, a human geographer at the University of Liverpool, one of the authors, said: “Whilst many of the women that were deployed on farms as part of the WLA were from farming families, or had previous rural connections, the well-told story depicted in the media and popular narratives is that Land Girls came from the city and were unfamiliar with the rustic living on farms. The popular picture we have often been left with, therefore, is one of a young, feminine, woman from the city who was previously distanced from farming life.”
As for the reasons behind the misleading depiction, he said: “Agriculture in the Second World War was gendered, with many aspects of farm work positioned as ‘men’s work’. This gendered hierarchy was reinforced through reference — in newspaper reporting and wartime memoirs — of Land Girls as being fearful, lacking experience, and lacking the strength to engage with animals specifically. Women were seen as being more suited to certain activities that required a ‘gentle touch’, such as hand milking, or ‘maternal’ characteristics, such as rearing calves.
Alongside this, there were continual references to Land Girls being a temporary addition to the farmyard whilst men were away at war.”
He added that studying descriptions of Land Girls’ engagement with cattle, specifically, through milking, herding and rearing, was an important aid in understanding wartime gender relations, with Land Girls simultaneously being observed as being too weak or too rough with animals.”
In their paper, Riley and his co-authors, the historians Dr Thomas Webb, Professor Penny Summerfield and Dr Chris Pearson, describe how stereotypes of rough and clumsy Land Girls circulated in popular media. In his satirical column in the Sunday Express, Nathaniel Gubbins invented a conversation between a cow and a Land Girl. When discussing the use of a milking machine and the ways in which it helped speed up milking, the cow states, “Saves me too. Yer knows what to expect with that. Not like some of these ‘ere novices, one day gentle, the other day rough”.
Alluding to stereotypes of the alleged sexual promiscuity of young working-class urban women in wartime, the cow continues, “All depends on whether ‘e turned up the night before I expect”.
Despite such stereotypes, they said that Land Girls were acknowledged as having been, overall, useful workers who made an important contribution. “However, as in the case of the mobilisation of women for industry and the armed forces, the movement of women into ‘male’ roles in dairy farming was seen as meeting the needs of the emergency, with the expectation that they would leave when it was over.”
Riley said the war effort was significant in increasing farm productivity and practices developed and championed during the Second World War revolutionised agriculture. These included the of use selective breeding and artificial insemination, the establishment of the Milk Marketing Board, the commencement of milk productivity records, more sophisticated systems of feeding and nutrition, and the wider use of milking machines.
He said their research illustrated how stories, myths and stereotypes, such as those of the ignorant urban Land Girl, were created and popularised over time. “Looking beyond these, we see how many Land Girls were familiar with aspects of farming, were successful in handling and managing cattle, and did much to develop the ‘modern’ agriculture that we are more familiar with today.”