Women, Wheat and War
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
I am fabulously interested in all aspects of food and innovation. It is both stimulating and reassuring to be part of the burgeoning Future of Food narrative in Australia and overseas.
However, it is equally fascinating to know the history of food, and the part it plays in shaping economic and social change.
Yesterday, on ANZAC Day, thousands of people joined to pay tribute to and remember those who have served.
A service cohort we rarely hear about is the Australian Women’s Land Army.
I felt today was a good day to write about some pretty gutsy Austalians.
During WWII, 7 million Australians - plus our troops sent abroad and US troops over here - had to be fed with domestically produced food. We were a few hands short as much of the male labour used on the land had 'signed up' or been conscripted to fight overseas.
So with the harvest of 1941 looking like rotting in the ground and the Japanese advancing in the north, the Menzies government were at a bit of a loss. They ignored women until the Country Women’s Association (CWA), inspired by Britain’s Women’s Land Army, finally got some air time.
“It is expedient at all times to remember that a war can be lost on the food front”.
Wallace Wurth, first national director-general of Manpower. Jan 1942
The Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) was formed in July 1942 to provide labour to the rural industry in Australia and grow food for the nation.
Not everyone was keen.
“The suggestion to form an army of women to do the hard work of farms is ridiculous. Our women are wonderful, but is it fair to ask them to shear or crutch sheep, to plough the land?”
- The Argus, 1941
The “Land Girls” were aged from 18 to 50 and the vast majority came from the city. They were to be paid by the farmers rather than the government, but of course the wages were less than those earned by men.
The AWLA faced many practical challenges, but the most difficult obstacle involved attitudes against women on the land. They worked hard to convince nay-sayers that they would be valuable contributors to food production.
Numerous farmers reported that their female employees worked extremely competently, "far more so than expected".
Top chick and AWLA legend Peggy Williams OAM was 17 in 1942 when she left her family in Homebush, Sydney. She found herself in Leeton, learning to drive a tractor and working a horse-drawn plough.
''The troops had to be fed. There just weren't enough men left. I'd never been to the country before.'
-Peggy Williams OAM
At its peak, more than 6000 women were part of the AWLA. They disbanded at the end of the war in December 1945.
The idea of women working was temporary one, and women were expected to leave their jobs after the war ended. Some women were OK with this and they left their jobs with new skills and more confidence.
But many women had enjoyed and thrived on a taste of financial and personal freedom and many wanted more.
In many ways, the war and the pressures of food provision seeded the next wave of feminism. It empowered women to fight for the right to work in non-traditional jobs for equal pay and for equal rights in the workplace and beyond.
May I suggest that on ANZAC Day, that we in the "feeding people" business, remember and pay tribute to the 'Land Girls' - the farmers for victory.
These spirited women nourished Australia during a time of despair and, unknowingly, cleared the rocks and prepared the paddocks for the women in food and agriculture today.
And that is a war story worth telling.