The Women's Land Army 1939-1950 : a study of policy and practice with particular reference to the Craven district
This study examines the Women's Land Army (WLA) in Britain: a new, mobile, agricultural labour force of women specially recruited to assist in increasing the production of home-grown food during both World Wars, as men were called up to join the fighting forces. Its role was particularly important due to imported food supplies being destroyed through enemy action at sea, which successive governments feared might result in starvation of the nation. A review of literature on the WLA indicates that it has been a relatively little researched area in both women's history and agricultural history and the aim of this study is to begin to redress the balance. The thesis considers the introduction of the WLA (1917-19) as this provided the platform from which its sister organisation was launched in 1939. The context in which the WLA operated (1939-1950) is analysed together with the structure and function of the organisation, its relationships with government ministries and regional agencies and its concomitant redevelopment through to disbanding in 1950. The formulation of national policies at government level to set up the WLA and recruit its membership is examined and assessed, as are policies on the accommodation and welfare of recruits, their training, work and conditions of service and the winding down of the organisation. The implementation of these policies within the complex county administrative structure of the Yorkshire Ridings and Craven district is explored. This was a particularly difficult task for the WLA due to the reluctance of the local agricultural community to employ women on its farms. The WLA had, therefore, to overcome prejudice as well as new and difficult working conditions if it was to be successful. The outcomes of policies are presented through previously undocumented data obtained from undertaking oral history interviews with 32 former WLA recruits on their experiences of working on the land during the Second World War as they endeavoured to put policy decisions into practice. The contribution of the WLA is evaluated and findings from the study show that the organisation achieved its objective of placing a new and mobile female agricultural labour force on the land. Furthermore, women in the WLA, albeit from the landowning classes, participated in the making of national policy in a period when male decision makers dominated rural and urban contexts. In addition, while WLA recruits performed practical agricultural tasks consistent with traditional views on what was appropriate work for women, for example horticulture and the care of livestock, they also challenged the status quo. They undertook jobs such as fieldwork, tractor driving and the operation of mechanical implements formerly considered to be beyond the physical and mental capacities of women. The participation of the WLA in the greater mechanisation of the agricultural industry has hitherto largely been overlooked. The involvement of recruits also resulted in achieving government targets of increasing the acreage of both national and local crop cultivation between 1939 and 1944 in order to feed the country. The contribution made by the WLA convinced an initially sceptical agricultural community of its ability and commitment to the cause resulting in the WLA being operational for a total of 11 years, some five years beyond the cessation of hostilities in 1945.