WWII Workers in Oregon: changing faces and changing roles?

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As you may remember from the post yesterday, the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was part of a national effort during WWII to supply desperately needed laborers to U.S. farms. During the war, farmers throughout the Pacific Northwest and the nation experienced a serious labor shortage. Farmers increased production to meet the demands of European allies and American troops. At the same time, many people who had been farm laborers were offered higher paying jobs in the national defense industry — building ships and airplanes for the war effort — or joined the military service.

Locally, the Oregon State College Extension Service established the Emergency Farm Labor Service to place women, children, and Mexican nationals on Oregon farms to thin and harvest crops. The state also paid Japanese American internees and German prisoners-of-war to work as farm laborers.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica article on the WLA:

“Radio stations and newspapers made urgent pleas for volunteers to help with the harvest. Women with little or no agricultural experience answered the call and, on an informal basis, saved countless crops from rotting in the fields. It soon became clear, however, that the situation required a more organized approach if the nation was to mobilize a reliable force of farmworkers. By 1943 the U.S. Congress had allocated funds for the Emergency Farm Labor Service, which included the recruitment, training, and placement of a female corps of farm laborers to be known as the Women’s Land Army, a subdivision of the United States Crop Corps. Recruits were not expected to have farming experience, but the WLA specified that applicants be physically fit and possess manual dexterity, patience, curiosity, and patriotism.

The WLA recruited more than a million female workers, drawn from the ranks of high-school and college students, beauticians, accountants, bank tellers, teachers , musicians, and many other occupations. The women worked long hours driving tractors, tending crops, and even shearing sheep. Most laborers received an unskilled worker’s wage—25 to 40 cents per hour—out of which they were to pay for their denim overall uniforms and their meals and lodging in temporary camps, summer cabins, and private homes. Most workers did not join the WLA to make money but wanted to contribute to the war effort. By the end of 1944, the WLA had more than proved itself as an indispensable brigade of hard workers, and farmers were eager to enlist their services in the upcoming season. Women continued to volunteer their services in the immediate postwar period (in Oregon through 1947).”

In 1943, more than 15,000 women worked as seasonal laborers on Oregon’s farms. Many Oregon women also found work in the shipbuilding companies in Portland and Vancouver, Washington.

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