How was the Women’s Land Army viewed in 1944?
‘The Women’s Land Army’ by Vita Sackville-West (written under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) was the first self-conscious attempt to highlight the efforts of the organisation in saving the country from starvation, published in 1944. The book includes information on the experiences of Land Girls and Lumber Jills, members of the Women’s Timber Corps (WTC). Published when the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was still active, the book gives an insight into the chronology of the formation of the organisation, the work undertaken by its members and highlights the options available to Land Girls post-war.
Naturally, Sackville-West argues that members of the WLA and WTC should be praised and given appropriate recognition, as they have saved the country from starvation. The book’s main aim is to raise the profile of the WLA, and document their work for a general audience – the argument is simple and largely takes readers through the organisation and experiences of Land Girls and Lumber Jills. Sackville-West’s reputation led Virginia Nicolson to rightly comment that ‘with her love of the land and keen appreciation of young women clad in boots and breeches, [Vita Sackville-West] would appear to have been the perfect choice of author for such a work.’ Sackville-West’s rich description illuminates the daily life of Land Girls and Lumber Jills, and highlights the versatility required; ranging from hedging to harvesting, tractor driving, gardening and rat-catching. For a historian, it is useful to see how women’s land work was conceptualised positively, in an attempt to highlight the complexity of farmwork – especially as the work of the farmers was previously given little attention.
The book is aimed to educate the general public of women’s experiences, from interview to disbandment. The book is a product of the post-war ‘People’s War’, a celebration of everyone coming together from all walks of life behind a common goal. Whilst aimed at raising the profile of the organisation, the book was also aimed current Land Girls, seen particularly in the final chapter ‘The Future of the Land Girl’ which provides advice on the different career paths available to women at the end of the war.
Though naturally positive in tone, the author acknowledges early on that ‘it would be absurd to pretend that everything in the Land Army had an invariably been perfect, and that the conduct of every girl had been model, heroic, and in every way beyond reproach.’ She takes the opportunity to denounce the inappropriate ways the hat was worn by Land Girls, a recurring topic in editions of magazine ‘The Land Girl’ magazine, commenting rather bluntly that Land Girls who do not wear their hats straight on their head; ‘one wonders if she has ever looked at herself in the mirror’. Clearly the book fulfilled a regulatory function of further reinforcing messages for current Land Girls on their appearance in uniforms as members of the organisation.
In line with the heroic presentation of Land Girls, Sackville-West details the realities of their social experiences, thus revealing the hardships which many Land Girls faced. On describing the experiences of Land Girls living in private houses, she comments as follows; ‘she lives among strangers, and the jolly atmosphere of homely love or outside fun is replaced often by loneliness and boredom.’ Land Girls’ experiences were as much dictated by their physical work as by their accommodation – and the author is successful in presenting a fair appraisal of the different situations a Land Girl could find herself in – equally acknowledging the positive, as well as the negative. Indeed, recent productions on the topic of the Women’s Land Army for the stage, most notably Lilies on the Land, also acknowledge how women were subject to much male prejudice and discrimination.
The book also emphasises the urban profile of recruits to the WLA, with a third of volunteers coming from London or industrial cities. Sackville-West gives this as evidence of how ‘there are many townspeople who feel they would prefer the country, in complete contradiction to the popular view that the youth of to-day is wedded to the cities.’ Whilst this thirst for the country might have been an influencing factor for some women to join the WLA, Sackville-West does not acknowledge the reality that indeed some chose the WLA as they were not successful in the other women’s services (for example the Women’s Auxiliary Air Fore), or did not want to join the munitions. Alison Woodeson has shown through oral history testaments that women were as much motivated by personal reasons, such as leaving the family home and gaining independence, as opposed to directly choosing the WLA because of its countryside appeal.
For anyone interested in the Women’s Land Army, this book is the perfect starting point for a better grasp on the organisation, understanding the varying backgrounds a Land Girl came to work in agriculture and forestry, the different types of work they undertook and the post-war career opportunities available to them. In addition to a range of carefully selected first-hand Land Girl recounts, Sackville-West brings together 62 photographs presenting the scope of work undertaken by Land Girls in a variety of different settings. Whilst the argument of the work is celebratory and largely simple in its conception and presentation, it is a book typical of the period, in celebrating ‘People’s War’ and a valuable contribution in raising the profile of women’s contributions and experiences during war.