Lars Peterson

May 7, 2003

Gender, Race, and the Labor Crisis

With the advent of World War Two, both the manpower and the economy of the United States were mobilized to produce a victory. But the coming of war displaced populations and resulted in a crisis over the need for more labor. Drafts mobilized many young men and defense factories opened their doors to employ significant numbers. Meanwhile, an exodus of farm laborers to the war front and the war production front created large labor shortages in the agricultural sector. Taken at face value, the work-for-the-war-effort frenzy could be construed as an egalitarian movement with the erosion of gender roles, and the more equitable treatment of minorities. Sadly, further examination reveals that the breach in gender and racial hierarchies were seen as temporary and resulting only from the special circumstances the war created. While women were asked to fill positions heretofore held by men, the importation of a foreign, all-male work force made it clear that the days for women’s work outside the home were numbered. Furthermore, the special treatment given this Mexican work force was based, not on any notions of racial equality, but rather on the wary demeanor of the Mexican State towards the U.S. due to past wrongs.

The investigations of Senate hearings indicate a large labor shortage beginning in 1942 and persisting in 1943. In late 1942, the California Farmers’ Union stated that there were three bottlenecks in farm production, namely: labor, transportation, and ceiling prices.1 Farmers complained about large numbers of their laborers abandoning the countryside for defense factories where they paid much more and fewer hours in a work day. The draft also displaced a significant amount of farm labor. Key agricultural personnel such as foremen, blacksmiths, and mechanics heard the call to arms or the call of better pay and abandoned their farm posts.2 Reportedly, every time a key man was pulled from the fields, it “takes about two or three people to take his place.”3 In response, farmers requested that key skilled laborers such as irrigators, pesticide sprayers, milkers, etc., be exempt from the draft.4 Japanese-Americans interned in cantonments for the duration of the war also contributed to the farm labor vacuum.5 The labor problem only increased in 1943 as statistics indicated that there were 200,000 fewer farm laborers than the previous year.6 Sadly, in 1942, California alone lost $2.5 million in agricultural products due to the labor shortages.7

At the same time that the labor crisis was beginning, the government enacted price ceilings on many agricultural goods which worsened the labor problem. Farmers, unable to raise the price of farm products, found themselves less able to pay the wage increase as the cost of labor rose due to the shortage. The result was an even greater farm labor shortage.8 Some farmers reported a 200% wage increase from 1941 to 1942.9 At a time when the government was asking greater production from farmers for the war effort, dairies were being closed due to lack of workers,10 and farmland in previous years cultivated, sat without seed.11 Meanwhile the public failed to recognize this crisis and one irresponsible newspaper reported a prosperous time for farmers who were reportedly earning two to one on their investments.12 But the farm labor shortage was part of the broader labor crisis then facing the nation as one sign hung in a restaurant window indicates. It read, “Please be courteous to my employees. They are harder to get than customers.”13

In the midst of this labor crisis many ideas developed regarding how to ameliorate the situation. Prisons were considered as a possible labor source, as were prisoners of war from newly liberated North Africa. Some 25,000 Japanese from the relocation camps volunteered to work on farms away from “proscribed areas.” Sixty-five hundred conscientious objectors lent their energy to farm production.14 Farmers even requested that vacationers and retired folk be encouraged to work in the fields.15 More significantly, gender boundaries eroded in the frenzy for labor, and women were sought after as a source of labor. Women, accompanied by children of both genders, left their homes and schools for the fields, some to earn much-needed money, others with the sake of the war-effort in mind.

Numerous programs were invented and initiated to utilize untapped sources of labor. Indeed it was reported in a Senate hearing that in 1942, “women and children helped save many of our crops.” The female sex had cause to be proud as it was further stated that “women and girls were more serious about [farm work] and did a better job” than boys who only worked well under close supervision.16 The state of New York passed a law that permitted high-school children to take a thirty-day leave of absence to work in the fields. The state was also successful in organizing approximately 40,000 boys and girls in 1942 to help with farm work.17 Governors of states were even asked to close down schools whenever labor was needed for planting, cultivating, or harvesting.18

In 1943 the Junior Army of the United States was created to help with the harvest. Boys and girls between fourteen and eighteen years of age were enlisted, given rank, and sent to work in the fields. After a period of three months of service the “junior soldier” received a certificate and an honorable discharge. Interestingly enough, no sex discrimination was mentioned in the army’s statement of purpose regarding the type of work, requirements for rank, or anything else.19 Even in the formative years of adolescence (an opportune time to teach notions of gender roles), desperation for farm labor deferred gender constructions that might have otherwise been imposed on a co-ed organization. Another indication that gender roles were eroding amongst youth is that this organization was called an army and rank was given both genders. This effect was to inspire cross-gender militancy, an attitude usually instilled into males.

One exception to the genderless land armies, however, was a parallel labor movement for youths called the Victory Farm Volunteers. The VFV included a large contingent of 500,000 high-school boys and girls organized across the country.20 The organization was very similar to the Junior Army but its statement of purpose did establish a gender boundary: “girls [were] to work in farm homes to release experienced labor for the fields.”21 Nevertheless, large numbers of girls were organized in war effort movements where this before had been seen as a male-only duty.

The organization of both armies is significant, not only because in and of themselves they disclose a move to erode or remove gender roles, but due to their timing. Both groups had been created and were encouraged at a time when the Bracero Program, which brought immigrant labor to work the fields, had already begun. The importation of guest workers obviously did not quench the labor thirst.

Various programs developed to utilize women in farm labor. In one instance, the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS) recruited school girls from Los Angeles City College for the tomato harvest. These girls worked all day and studied for two hours in the evening. Forty girls participated in the program and it was a great success. Another labor camp organized by the AWVS consisted of women enlisted to help with the grape harvest. The women ranged from housewives to “business women” varying in years from above school age to aged. The women were paid 60 cents per hour, and owning to the fact that some were business women and some joined the program for patriotic reasons, many of these women were more than likely white, U.S. citizens. None were turned away and nearly four hundred women went through the program. Some of the best pickers were said to be between forty and sixty years of age. It was said that, “these women, many of them housewives, were accustomed to household routine, and seemed able to stand the grind of a 10-hour day.” Furthermore, “these unskilled women were as good at grape picking as the experienced Japanese labor” that they had replaced.22 These statements given by the AWVS clearly defied any traditionalist argument that women were far too delicate for farm work. Clearly housekeeping was a greater strain if these women were able to outdo experienced, male labor. The women were invited again for the following season.

In order to stimulate the troubled dairy industry, it was proposed that a 10,000-cow dairy be installed with machinery friendly to inexperienced workers, and it was suggested that at least some of those milkers be women.23 The proposition indicates not only a society willing to accept women workers, but ready to tailor machinery to compensate for women’s inexperience.

By late 1942, women had become an indispensable labor source to the packing-houses, providing 20-50% of workers. The Army Supply Depot, on the other hand, employed about 40% women.24 So great was the dependence on women laborers that it was feared that these well-trained women would also leave the packing houses for the war industry.25

The arrival of the all-male, Mexican immigrant workers could have spelled the end to this temporary breach in gender roles, and women and girls could have been returned to the home or sent to war industry work. In fact the opposite was true, and even while visiting laborers were crossing the border, farmers in the Senate hearing were claiming that “more farm work must be done by women and youth.”26 It was further estimated that even with the increase in help, 90% of future labor demands would still have to be met by women and children.27 The dire need for farm laborers demanded that gender roles be set aside for the sake of victory in the war.

Notwithstanding the need for women and girls, the Bracero Program was clearly symbolic—indicating that women working out of the home was limited to the duration of the war. Following the AWVS report during the Senate hearing, Senator Downing praised the organization’s work, calling it “an excellent experiment . . . that might be used in an emergency.”28 Though the organization was highly encouraged to continue organizing women for farm labor, the senator’s comments portend that the newfound egalitarianism would not survive following the war. Women were only to work if dire need arose as it happened to do so at this time.

The comments of AWVS representative, identified in the hearing as Mrs. Bob Hope, reveal the deference of the women’s organization to the State and to society’s wishes. When asked if the organization would continue with the program, Mrs. Hope replied that they had not been very encouraged to do so. She reported that more women would have joined the program if they had “felt they were needed and had heard it was as patriotic to go out and harvest the crops as it was to go into the defense plant.”29 The latter statement indicates that while Rosie the Riveter campaigns had granted women the State’s and society’s “permission” to enter defense work, little propaganda had encouraged women to work the fields. Clearly, the women’s organization was dependent on both public opinion and male leadership.

In order to stabilize the labor crisis, 50,000 Mexican laborers were imported as guest workers. This foreign labor army was shaped and structured so as to reveal prevailing traditionalist attitudes about gender roles and the place of children. First, and foremost, the visiting laborers were all men. While they were permitted to bring their wife and children, in no way were they included in the Bracero Program. Another requirement was that all Bracero laborers were to be eighteen or over.30 While these stipulations wasted much needed labor that women and children could have performed as their U.S. counterparts were engaged in, the program reflected the traditional view of a well-ordered society. The father worked, earning the family’s bread by the sweat of his brow. His wife, on the other hand remained at home as the housekeeper, and the children consigned their activities to play, both mother and child economically dependent on the “head of the home.” The Braceros and their families were brought in, not only to help with farm labor, but to bring in a symbolic halt to the breach in family norms and gender roles. It was a microcosm and model for how the post-war society would be ordered. It is therefore no surprise that the Bracero Program continued after the war.

No matter how wonderful the idea of bringing Mexican laborers may have sounded to farmers and Congress, there were material concerns to address. The entire tenor of the November 1943 Senate hearing was one of caution towards the sensitivities of the Mexican government. The U.S. Employment Service reported that the reason why many Mexicans were wary of returning to the U.S. was due to “the ill-treatment received at the hands of the farmer in the past relative to wages, housing and so forth.”31 The border being closed at that time and the terrible treatment of some Mexicans in the United States had fueled resentment in Mexico.32 Border Mexicans were even more disgruntled to find that while they were not being allowed to enter at the gates, their fellows were being imported from the interior of the country.33 It was repeated more than once that the Mexican government needed to understand that the greatest contribution they could make to the war effort was to provide labor for U.S. farms.34 In light of these assertions, the United States could hardly afford to antagonize their much-needed neighbor. In is owed to these unique and precarious circumstances that the U.S. government saw itself forced to give so many concessions to its guest laborers.

In spite of the call by farmers that the importation of immigrant laborers be “free from impractical restrictions imposed by the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies,”35 the Mexican workers were legally given some good treatment. Farmers, by law, were required to pay Mexican laborers thirty cents an hour, but in practice farmers were said to be paying them forty and fifty cents an hour.36 Even when they were to be paid piece-work rates (such as by the pound with cotton, or the box with lemons), at the end of the day Mexicans could receive no less than thirty cents an hour.37 The significance of this concession is highlighted when it is considered that at this time there was no minimum wage for farm workers. The minimum wage set for industry at the time was the exact amount given to Mexicans—thirty cents an hour.38 Workers were guaranteed work 75% of the time, and the work-day was set at no less than eight hours and no more than twelve hours per day.39 A motion was even raised that the bureaucracy over the program be composed of Mexicans as they knew their language and their people.40 It was even suggested that the agreement with Mexico include a clause that workers in the program were not to be discriminated against due to race, creed, or color. This was no doubt another motion to placate the Mexican government.41

Initial reaction to the proposals in the December 1942 hearing that immigrant workers be imported were varied. With no surprise, some labor unions opposed the visiting labor program.42 The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), on the other hand encouraged immigrant labor. They proposed that Mexican workers be brought over under the following conditions: prevailing wages, sure employment, adequate housing, civil protection, and the option of becoming a citizen or returning to Mexico at the end of the war. They offered that the reason why people were leaving agriculture was that there was no minimum wage at this time for farm labor, no social security, and public relief was not used to supplement wage rates. Furthermore, farm workers had to endure poor housing and bad medical attention.43 Indeed, the lot of Mexican farm laborers did improve during the war and it is pure irony that the United States government was willing to correct some of these deficiencies for the visiting laborers when it had refused to do so for its own citizens.

Many other initial opinions were given including that the Mexican laborers needed to be treated fairly. One farmer, a Mr. Thornton, was particularly vocal about the subject. He insisted that “you have got to treat these people like they were somebody . . . regardless of nationality.” Many farmers, he reported, would pay them too little, employ them only six or seven months of the year, and provide housing that he would not have allowed his dog to sleep in.44 Apparently such notions of good treatment for Mexicans were still quite revolutionary as the farmer was told by a senator that he ought to be a missionary to other farmers.45

In spite of the great need for labor, and setting aside the kindness of some individuals, many regarded the Mexican guests with great stigma. The Mexican laborer was seen as a good worker only when liquor was out of his system. It was stated that if the liquor problem was not addressed by the government, any Mexicans brought over would be practically useless. A seemingly arbitrary figure was presented that if the local government would intervene and halt the liquor problem, labor hours in the Los Angeles area would increase by 20%. The farmer giving this improbable figure reported that out of his camp of six hundred Mexicans, ten to twenty could be found inebriated and unable to work every day. 46 If this farmer’s camp is a model for the drinking problem in the Los Angeles area, then coercing Mexicans to cease from drinking would have only increased labor hours by 1.6% to 3.3%, a far cry from the purported 20%. Obviously the accusation that Mexicans were drunks stemmed from stigma, and not from fact. Clearly the perception of Mexicans as flawed in character was prevalent, as no one during the hearing countered Mr. Thornton’s remarks.

There was also fear of another “relief problem” if the borders were not open. It was reported that in the late 1920s the borders were closed and Mexican laborers were unable to cross to their homeland and yet be able to return. Many unemployed Mexicans chose to remain in the United States rather than risk not being let back in when more jobs were available, and this created a need for relief.47 But this points to a problem within the U.S. border system and not an inherent desire of Mexicans to be “leeches of society.” In this case, the Mexicans were simply trying to retain access to their old jobs. In spite of some humanitarian ideas, farmers in general were not willing to set aside their racial prejudices.

In addition to stigmatizing the Mexican laborers, some viewed the solutions to the labor crisis with suspicion. Some had the underlying worry that the current system of race differentiation would be upset. One farmer worried that some might take advantage of the war conditions and begin a “social revolution.”48 The same farmer that was lauded for his humanity was asked if he believed that “it is a healthy social policy to have one race to be the owners and the other race to do the dirty work.” The farmer responded in the affirmative so long as the owner saw his workers as human beings. When confronted with a contradiction that a “caste system” could never include equality, he responded again that farm hands needed to be treated well or they would rebel, regardless of their nationality. There was an underlying worry among farmers that his next comment points to, namely, that farm labor was loosing its status as an ideal kind of work. The farmer stated that he believed farm work to be an honor instead of a degrading occupation.49 At least in Mr. Thorton’s mind, race differentiation was an acceptable structure so long as it was infused with humane treatment, and it is safe to assume that this was not an uncommon view.

Even the Farm Security Administration (FSA) recognized this attitude and censured farmers, saying “Sure the industrialized farmers of California wanted Mexicans. They could be used to keep down farm wages and perpetuate peon slavery on our California farms.” The farmer relating this retorted that farmers had no such idea in mind and that farmers were the most patriotic class.50 If the last point was made to affirm innocence of farmers, it lacked substance.

In fact there is good evidence to support the FSA’s accusation. One bean puller reported that before the labor crisis he had been paying 30 cents per hour, but since had been forced to pay 60 cents to adult workers and 40 cents to an eleven-year-old who worked very inefficiently due to his age.51 As has been stated, grape picking women under the AWVS were making 60 cents per hour. Mexican men, therefore, were guaranteed the pre-labor crisis prevailing wage for the bean farmer’s workers, and the minimum wage equivalent for industry at the time. As it was reported that in practice Mexican workers in some cases were paid between 40-50 cents per hours, at worst they were being paid the wage of an inefficient bean-pulling, eleven-year-old, and at best were receiving 10 cents less than the at least partially white, U.S. citizen, women grape picking team, and adult male bean-pullers. Additionally, as the labor crisis included a mass exodus from the fields to the war industry, it follows that the defense factories were paying much more than the artificially high wages farmers had to pay. The wishes of many farmers were granted, namely, a large labor force that could be paid well below the wages circumstances would have otherwise required.

In the area of the division of labor, Mexicans seemed to have been destined by some to be second-class laborers. After discussing the labor vacuum created by interning Japanese workers, it was suggested by the Challenge Cream and Butter Association that Mexicans come and take the unskilled jobs Japanese laborers had held, while others (probably mostly white) performed the skilled labor. No one dismissed the suggestion during the hearing. 52 If CIO’s suggestions were followed and Mexican laborers were permitted to become citizens, it would have perpetuated an unskilled working class based on race in this country. At least while working as guest laborers many intended to keep the Bracero’s unskilled and therefore underprivileged.

The beginning of World War Two marked the initiation of a labor crisis as the country geared for war waging and war production. Due to the desperation inherent in the crisis for more farm hands, the boundary that kept women from active participation in the fields weathered and decayed. Women and girls became active members of volunteer organizations which saved many crops. These deviations from family behavior, however, came only as a result of the overwhelming need for labor. Symbolic of this fact, the Bracero Program was begun, structured to conform to the traditional model of the nuclear family. Racial hierarchies also saw no relief during the war. Despite better-than-average treatment, concerned farmers had no need to fear a social revolution of any kind. Structures of pay disparity and divisions of labor between skilled and unskilled, along with all the prejudice carried by the dominant race/class, social inequalities need look to another day for their redress. While some norms for women and Mexicans were interrupted by the war, there was no motion to make concrete or long-lasting changes. The breach of norms did not stem from a desire for social equality, but from a need to win the war.


Hashimoto, Masanori. Minimum Wages and On-the-Job Training. Washington D.C.,

and London: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981.

U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions

in the West. Investigation of Western Farm Labor Conditions. S. Res. 299. 77th Congress, First Session. Washington D.C., 1942.

U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations. Farm

Labor Program, 1943. H.J. Res. 96. 78th Congress, First Session. Washington D.C., 1943.

1 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 437-438.

2 Ibid. p. 364-365.

3 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 36.

4 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 382.

5 Ibid. p. 363.

6 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 35.

7 Ibid. p. 154.

8 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 366-367.

9 Ibid. p. 380.

10 Ibid. p. 385-386.

11 Ibid. p. 362.

12 Ibid. p. 385.

13 Ibid. p. 414.

14 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 46.

15 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 437-438.

16 Ibid. p. 454.

17 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 94-95.

18 Ibid. p. 27.

19 Ibid. p. 25-26.

20 Ibid. p. 29.

21 Ibid. p. 33.

22 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 405-406.

23 Ibid. p. 385.

24 Ibid. p. 387.

25 Ibid. p. 454.

26 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 96.

27 Ibid. p. 262.

28 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 405-406.

29 Ibid. p. 405-406.

30 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 211-212.

31 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 476.

32 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 106.

33 Ibid. p. 114.

34 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 480.

35 Ibid. p. 497.

36 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 116.

37 Ibid. p. 212.

38 Masanori Hashimoto, Minimum Wages and On-the-Job Training (Washington D.C., and London: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1981), 2.

39 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (B). p. 214.

40 Ibid. p. 198.

41 Ibid. p. 252.

42 Ibid. p. 389.

43 Ibid. p. 390-391.

44 Ibid. p. 411-413

45 Ibid. p. 414.

46 Ibid. p. 409-410.

47 Ibid. p. 419.

48 Ibid. p.420.

49 Ibid. p. 413-414.

50 U.S. Senate. Hearings. (A). p. 438.

51 Ibid. p. 362.

52 Ibid. p. 436.