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Demon, Guardian Angel or Soldier?  Perspectives of West Sussex Land Women of the First World War by Glenda Holder

In our latest great blog, Glenda Holder examines representations of Women land workers in West Sussex during the First World War.

On 25 April 1918 The West Sussex Gazette made the damning assessment that ‘West Sussex is the worst county in England as regards its contribution to women’s work on the land’.[1] This statement became the focus for my MA dissertation where I argued that not only was this a gross misrepresentation of the efforts made by the women of the county, it failed to acknowledge the agency that women were taking over their own lives.

Pre-war women in agriculture: the demon in the landscape

Keen to portray Britain as a civilised nation, the political elite of the late nineteenth century defined the parameters of respectable female behaviour by drawing on literature from the mid-nineteenth century such as the journal All the Year Round, which condemned female land work by announcing that it ‘turned girls into demons’.[2] The nature of the work challenged the middle class ideal of exemplary feminine behaviour due to the women’s exposure to vulgar language and perceived gross sexual immorality which turned them into ‘brutes in soul and manners’.[3]  Artist George Clausen, portrayed the reality of the effect of farm work on women in his painting, Head of a Peasant Woman. Her careworn face and grimed fingernails portrayed the harshness of agricultural work.

Given this moral judgement of their characters, it is no surprise that by the early twentieth century women’s role in farm labour in the southern counties of England had almost completely disappeared.[4]   Yet, these parameters of social behaviour were largely the concern of working-class women.  Some politically conscious upper- and middle-class professional women attempted to turn land work to their advantage by establishing the Women’s Farm and Garden Union (WFGU) in 1899 with the aim of altering public opinion regarding women’s capabilities.[5]  In the long term the objective was to help procure professional women the franchise.[6]

Redefining the Female Worker: from demon to guardian angel

The outbreak of war in 1914 and subsequent male enlistment into the Forces created a shortage of agricultural labour.  Yet, vociferous opposition from West Sussex farmers who perceived women as bringing ‘more plague than profit to the farms’, meant many middle- and working-class women were reluctant to volunteer.[7]  The image of the female land worker therefore had to be reworked, repackaged and re-presented as a respectable and praiseworthy occupation which transcended class boundaries. Protection and guardianship of the land became the emphasis, whilst men were at war. To this end, the Women’s National Land Service Corps (WNLSC) was formed in February 1916, by a group of middle-class women who, along with women from the WFGU, tapped into the government ideology of promoting the value of motherhood.  Gone was the idea that women land workers were demons in the landscape; now the focus was on nurturing the land in the same way a mother would care for her family. However, take up was slow, with only 50 women in West Sussex volunteering.[8]  There was a failure to impose middle- and upper-class values onto working class women, as for them patriotism did not put food on the table, whilst many single women sought a greater degree of independence through factory or shop work.[9]

Total War: women as soldiers on the land

A less passive method of appealing to women was adopted in January 1917, with the government formation of the Women’s Land Army; a central organisation whose propaganda campaign aimed to create a national identity based on sacrifice, self-discipline and duty.[10]    In other words, women were akin to their soldier menfolk serving abroad. The photograph above depicts land girls wearing a more masculine and militarized form of dress; much needed for the physically strenuous and dirty work they were undertaking, whilst portraying the cohesion of the women, working for a common cause.

Leading West Sussex women such as Viscountess Wolseley and Lady March were instrumental in organising meetings and recruitment drives to drum up support amongst local women. While the minutes of the County War Agricultural Committee stated that by May 1917, 1,600 local women were employed on farms in West Sussex, these minutes do not differentiate between the types of women employed.[11]  They may have been local women registered with the WLA, village women who were paid but preferred to be unregistered, or farm women engaged in working on their own farms, and who would not have considered WLA registration.  It was also common practice up until the end of the war for farmer’s wives and daughters to help out on each other’s farms without being officially registered.[12]  Non-registration became a bone of contention with the government, as women unofficially working on the land failed to increase the official statistics on the West Sussex register, and subsequently to elevate the status of the county.  Attempts were made to shame local women by the West Sussex recruitment officer who claimed that the county was so low in numbers it was forced to seek agricultural help from girls in London, Buckinghamshire and Norfolk.[13]  So desperate were the WLA, they were known to attempt to poach local women from their employers, mainly in the drapery or postal trade.[14]

By 1918, the West Sussex picture was problematic with women of different social classes having different agendas. Upper- and middle-class women were proving their worth by running the administration of their local WLA. The registers for local women working on the land pre WLA were scant, whilst unregistered local land women after the formation of the WLA were obscured from the statistics. Overall, the efforts of all these women were undermined, undervalued and unrecognised.  However, the women of West Sussex across the social sphere made a stand by contributing to the war effort on their own terms, where preserving their own moral and economic interests remained paramount.

[1] West Sussex Records Office (WSRO), The West Sussex Gazette, 25 April 1918, p. 2. col. D.

[2] All the Year Round, A Weekly Journal Conducted by Charles Dickens, with which is incorporated Household Words, Dec 1866-June 1867, p. 588 cited in Karen Sayer, Women of the Fields.  Representations of rural women in the nineteenth century, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995), p. 100.

[3] Sayer, Women of the Fields, p. 41.

[4] Caroline Scott, Holding the Home Front.  The Women’s Land Army in the First World War (Barnsley: Pen and Sword History, 2017), pp. 5-6.

[5] The University of Reading, ‘The Museum of English Rural Life’, The Women’s Farm and Garden Association, https://www.reading.ac.uk/merl/collections/ArchivesAtoZ/merl-SRWFGA.aspx (accessed 8 June 2018).

[6] Peter King, Women Rule the Plot (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd, 1999), pp. 10-31.

[7] West Sussex Records Office (WSRO), Mid Sussex Times, 16 March 1915, p. 4. col. g.

[8] WSRO, The Sussex and Surrey Courier, 3 June 1916, p. 5. col. d.

[9] Pamela Horn, Rural Life in England in the First World War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984), p. 114.

[10] Bonnie White, The Women’s Land Army in the First World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 4.

[11] WSRO, West Sussex County Council, WOC/CM80/1/1, War Agricultural Committee Minutes, 4.10.1915-24.6.1918, 21.5.1917.

[12] Imperial War Museum (IWM), Document No. 10500, Private papers of Miss W.M. Bennett.  Diary of a WLA group leader 1918.

[13] WSRO, The West Sussex Gazette, 25 April 1918, p. 2. col. d.

[14] WSRO, The Worthing Gazette, 29 May 1918, p. 3. col. a.