In May 1918, 10 teenage girls sat in Amy C. Ransome's three-story brownstone near Meridian Hill Park in Washington, D.C., listening to her describe what their summer's work would be like. Ransome appeared younger than her 45 years; she loved being around young people, which might have kept her looking so fresh. Two of the girls in the room, Susan and Janet, were her daughters, and the others came from similarly upper-middle class families.
All the girls technically should have been in school, but they'd been drawn to a cause larger than themselves. One of the them, Dorothy Gilbertson, had seen a little white sign, like those in many store windows across the city, with black block letters reading: "Recruits wanted, for the Women's Land Army of America. Chance to do your bit by working on a farm." The sign whispered to Dorothy, Don't you realize that the men are at war? How can America have farms without farmers? Remember America's promise to the allies of how she is going to feed the war.
Dorothy had no experience working on a farm, but neither did Susan or Janet. In fact, none of these girls were farmers. Amy Ransome herself didn't come from a farming family. She had a Master's degree and had worked for the United States Geological Survey. Since marrying in 1899, she'd been a housewife. Now the young women were being asked to become farmhands, to live in an old sawmill, wear overalls, and do anything their purveying farm owner needed, from "corn shucking and silo making, to mending of the state road and assisting at the County Fair," as Ransome later wrote.
This was the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Women's Land Army of America. With so many male farmers off to battle or engaged in new, better-paying jobs in the the war industry, the group sought to prove that women could do men's work. But Ransome and her female farmers had a larger goal in mind: winning women the right to vote.
Six months before the meeting at the Ransome residence, thousands of people crowded under the curved roof of Convention Hall, not far from the White House. Government officials and businessmen meandered through the displays at the Retail Grocers' Association convention, one of the largest food conventions the city had ever seen.
The United States had been at war for six months, and World War I had been slogging along for over three years. The conflict had destroyed Europe's agriculture, and now the U.S. was not only expected to feed American troops, but French and British troops as well. However, with all those men away from their farms, food production in America was on the decline. At the convention, there was no display on sugar because that was a luxury people were not supposed to indulge in. Instead, displays demonstrated how a family could get the food they needed on a budget, and various men spoke about how housewives needed to use less wheat, meat, and fat.
Americans had already seen the effect the war had on food supply and prices. In the winter of 1917, food riots erupted across the country as consumers became upset at rising prices of basic commodities. (Such riots had already made headlines in Europe.) Now, women stormed the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York looking for Governor Charles Whitman, demanding an end to rising food costs. Women protesters there also toppled over push-carts full of produce. In Philadelphia they dumped a tank full of fish and then set the fish on fire with kerosene, while more broke shop windows in Chicago.
At the very back of Convention Hall, Amy Ransome stood behind a table and looked out at a sea of women. She was the president of the Housekeepers' Alliance — a local women's group that advocated for best practices in home economics — and the chairman of the Food Production Committee of the District Council of National Defense, an organization that mobilized women in the war effort. She was there to give a cooking demonstration on "emergency bread." Instead of lard for baking, she showed women how to use vegetable oil, beef fat, or other drippings; instead of white flour, she suggested ground oats, cornmeal, rice, barley, and whole wheat flour.
Throughout the previous fall, Ransome also lectured on food waste, conservation, and canning. This was war work, but Ransome also considered it essential to her work as an advocate for women's right to vote.
"No army can succeed and no nation can endure without food; those who supply it are a war power and a peace power," Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.), told the group's members in 1916, about a year before she founded the Women's Land Army of America. She and other suffrage leaders felt they needed to prove to male legislators that they were worth the vote, and solving the food crisis would help do just that.
In April 1917, the Council of National Defense added a Women's Committee to mobilize women in coordinating industries and resources for national security and defense. With Chapman Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, honorary president of N.A.W.S.A., as members, the suffragettes now had their opportunity to make a difference in the food crisis.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.