Welcome back! Vacations are ending, schools are starting, and next Monday is Labor Day! For some of us, this is the time we get back into our “normal” routines and dig into work. For gardeners and farmers, the summer growing season is winding down and the fall harvest will soon begin.
To help us commemorate Labor Day, Erin Hagar, author of the soon-to-be released picture book Doing Her Bit: A Story About the Woman’s Land Army of America, has joined us to talk about some amazing history connecting labor, women, and World War I.
Thanks for joining us today, Erin! Please tell us about your book.
Doing Her Bit is based on the true story of Helen Stevens, a New York City college girl who spent the summer of 1917 training and working as a member of the Woman’s Land Army of America, colloquially known as “the farmerettes.” These women provided crucial farm labor at a time when there were worldwide food shortages and many men were leaving farms to fight overseas or work in factories.
During her training, Helen learns to plow, plant, work with livestock and tend to general farm upkeep. But she’s frustrated that her capable team can’t get hired. Whether a farmer will hire them, and how they’ll do when given the chance, is the central question of the book. (SPOILER ALERT: They get the chance, and they nail it!)
What drew you to writing about WWI and the Woman’s Land Army?
You could have filled a thimble with what I knew about farming and WWI combined. But when I heard Elaine Weiss talk about her wonderful book Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America In World War I on my local NPR station, I was completely hooked. I had two thoughts: 1) How could I not have heard about these women before? and 2) Kids are going to love this “can-do” story.
Women participated in the war effort in multiple ways, but what made the WLA so amazing?
The size, scope, and the level of organization of the WLA was truly incredible. There were state and national offices, partnerships with colleges and universities, and grassroots efforts to connect with garden clubs and other social outlets. It involved politics and recruitment and fundraising and training and PR and logistics. And it all came together within a year and a half or so. To think about this level of organization in the days before instant communication is mind boggling to me.
How is the WLA connected to labor issues and reform?
The WLA was built on the backbone of the suffrage movement, the labor movement, and other progressive causes. One concrete way this played out was with the farmerettes’ wages. The leaders of the WLA wanted the women to get hired, so it was tempting to consider charging a lower daily rate for their work then men would have charged. But this could have caused men’s wages to decline when the war ended, and they didn’t want that. They decided to have the Farmerettes earn the same daily rate as the male farmhands, usually about two dollars a day. Some of that money went back to the organization (for food and other logistical support), but most of it were wages.
In my story (and this part is fictionalized), the team agrees to work for one day with no pay, to show the farmer what they’re capable of. At the end of the day, the farmer haggles to get another free day. The image shows the two sides staring each other down as the sun sets around them. The text reads, “Helen dug her boots into that hard, packed earth. Men’s work deserved men’s wages.” It’s one of my favorite spreads in the book.
What is your research/writing process?
Well, I devoured Elaine’s amazing book and anything else I could find about the Farmerettes. I learned about the food shortages of the time, the debate about the U.S. entering WWI, volunteer efforts on the home front, and the social justice organizations (like the ones fighting for women’s suffrage) that agreed to temporarily shift their focus to support the war effort.
And I read Helen Stevens’ 1917 account of her summer in the WLA published in the New York Times. It was primarily a PR piece, designed to highlight the Farmerettes’ accomplishments and drum up enthusiasm for the next year’s recruitment efforts. I didn’t think too much about this account at first, though, because in the early drafts I tried to have a generic group of Farmerettes at the heart of the story.
Soon, though, it became clear that one of these women needed to be front and center, and of course it had to be Helen. Her NYT piece had so many rich details that I added to the story: her fear of snakes, the smelly turnip plants, the fickle Model-T that often refused to start. It was such fun to rediscover that piece with new eyes, when I was ready to take the draft in a different direction.
What was your publication journey for Doing Her Bit?
Soon after I learned about the WLA, I started the MFA in Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked on this manuscript with two advisors there. I tried to write about the Woman’s Land Army as a longer nonfiction piece, but it seemed so ripe (pardon the pun) for a picture book that I settled pretty quickly on that.
An early version of the manuscript won a prize at the school, which gave me some confidence and some really helpful feedback from a publishing house. Based on that feedback, I revised and submitted it to Charlesbridge. It is the perfect home for this story, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work with the great team there.
Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and now lives in Baltimore with her husband, two children, and a few too many pets. Erin works in curriculum and instruction at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learn more about Erin and her books at www.erinhagarbooks.com.
Doing Her Bit will be released Sept. 13. A great place to preorder/order a copy of the book is The Ivy Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Erin’s neck of the woods! I did!
Do any of you have family who participated in the Woman’s Land Army?