Women prove they’ve come a long way, baby

Even though women have, since the beginning of time, labored mightily to help feed, clothe and house their families, as well as bearing the children who went to make up those families, men of the late-19th and early- 20th century developed a mindset that “the fairer sex” was also “the weaker sex.”

These attitudes began to change during the first World War when, due to the shortage of men to do the work because of so many of them being in the armed forces, women began to take over formerly all-male duties.

Women’s work

A writer in the October, 1918 issue of Tractor World magazine put it this way: “Exigencies of war have necessitated women doing work that until now was regarded as being beyond their physical and, perhaps, mental capacities. Conditions have compelled them to engage in labor that would normally be too arduous for them to undertake.”

A writer today would never get away with saying such a thing. The story was headlined Woman Tractor Driver Plows 300 Acres with Lauson Machine and tells of “a Mrs. Mason, a young woman who has operated a Lauson tractor on the farm of L.O. Sims at Story City, Ia.”

Tractor

Introduced in 1915, the 15-25 Lauson tractor like Mason used (funny they didn’t even find out the lady’s first name), was powered by a 4-cylinder Erd 4-by-6 engine and weighed 5000 pounds. She used a four-bottom, 14” plow of unknown make to do the 300 acres.

The writer pointed out one of the fields she plowed “included an old fence row that had never been plowed before.” The fence row was 1.5 miles long, “with slough grass in places 5.5 feet high (and) was extremely hard to work.” However, Mason said she “rather liked the work and she had no trouble handling the tractor. Naturally she wears men’s clothing because it allows freedom of movement.”

In the September, 1918 issue of the same magazine is a similar story titled: Land Army Women Drive Tractors. It seems the U.S. government “War Exposition,” a traveling exhibit meant to inform Americans about the war and to boost support for our participation in it, was scheduled for Grant Park, in downtown Chicago, and some of the land needed graded ahead of the expo.

Assistance

The Illinois division of the Women’s Land Army was training to “fit the women to do practically whatever might be necessary (on a farm)” at Libertyville, about 40 miles north of Chicago, and they were contacted for help.

The author continues: “The Land Army activities are not what might be ordinarily regarded as women’s work, but includes field work that would normally be done by men.

“The women were trained in plowing, harrowing, seeding, cultivating, mowing, harvesting, road building, “and other operations that are done with machine and animal tools.”

They were instructed in dairying, and animal and poultry husbandry as well.

Four young women — Dora Anderson, Marion Heanor, Harriet Lyon and Margaret Saylor — were sent to Grant Park with an International 8-16 tractor and a road grader and “ … they did leveling and road grading in a manner that showed they were amply experienced, and they were as energetic as they were enthusiastic.”

Work wear

The scene is described thus: “The girls were attired in jumpers and overalls and they were extremely businesslike. (In 1918, it was very unusual to see a woman wearing trousers so, of course, it had to be remarked upon by male reporters.)

When they started work there was a great deal of interest, and not a little doubt was expressed by spectators as to the ability of the women to finish the job. But the results quickly convinced the onlookers that women workers were not a joke, and they could do quite as much work, and do it quite as well as men.

The girls displayed admirable judgment, knew what could be done with the tractor and implements, did no unnecessary work, and handled the cumbersome power unit and tools as easily and cleverly as a practiced woman driver would handle an automobile.”

He summed up with: “They were absolutely independent and confident (and) capable, resourceful workers, who were through patriotic motive alone undertaking to take the place of men wherever they could serve.”

Back home

Of course, “the boys came marching home again” in 1919 and demanded their jobs back and their wives and daughters go back to the kitchen and the nursery where they belonged.

By the time World War II rolled around a couple of decades later, many of the same prejudices against women working out of the home were prevalent, and again the ladies had to prove to skeptical men they could do the job, which they did.

Today, “the weaker sex” can and does do virtually anything a man does (in addition to kitchen and nursery duties), although there still are areas of controversy. The women in combat issue is still being hotly debated, and how about the question of Olympic ski jumping? Women ski jumpers were banned from competing until this year, partly because the Olympic committee thought the female body wasn’t strong enough to take the strain of repeated jumps and that a jumper’s ability to have children might be affected.

So the old Virginia Slims ads that said, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” were right — my mother and grandmother would be amazed and I’m sure they’d be shocked as well.

(Just my little Valentine to any of the ladies who may read this column.)

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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