Women in World War I

Woman in military service uniform.
Grace Banker was one of the so-called "hello girls," telephone operators for the US Army Signal Corps.  Often operating near the front lines, Banker was awarded the Army Distinguished Medal for her service.

Malmstrom Air Force Base

Five million men were mobilized for service in the Great War.

Over nine million women mobilized themselves.

Introduction

Here in the centenary of the First World War the contributions made by American women are largely overlooked, when the reality is that women played a crucial and defining role in America’s victory. Without the efforts of women, tens of thousands of men, needed at the front, would have been tied to jobs in agriculture, industry, and homefront military, and not available for wartime service, and the success of America’s military effort may have been in the balance.

1917 was a watershed year for America. Militarily and economically America was cementing its position as a world power, American industry was prospering in the run-up to the war, and American agriculture was shipping vast amounts of food to our allies in Europe.

Also in 1917 the woman’s suffrage movement was on the verge of a breakthrough in attaining the right of full citizenship, through the vote, of twenty million American Women. Though by no means assured, enfranchisement of women seemed nearer than ever before.

The two primary powers in the suffrage movement were taking very different and distinct approaches to attaining the vote; the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt through whole-hearted support behind the war effort, seeing full participation by women as a patriotic demonstration of citizenship which may tip the balance toward women’s Suffrage. Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), was less concerned with the war effort, her primary focus was suffrage and suffrage alone; If patriotic participation would lead to suffrage, she’d support it, if not, so be it. Her focus, and her priority was getting women the vote by any means necessary including picketing the White House – which was seen by many as treasonous – leading to the imprisonment of 168 NWP members.

With America’s entry into the fight wartime production reached a fever pitch, hundreds of new warships were being built and outfitted, Factories were converting to war work with the manufacture of airplanes, tanks, rifles and machine guns, uniforms, and all other military hardware with which to equip the exponentially expanding armed forces. American agriculture was also in full production, now with a vast Army and Navy to feed. The treat looming over all of this ramped-up and crucial production however was the loss of manpower as men were leaving the factories, farms, and offices for military service.

Then came America’s women, answering the nation’s call.

Lena Higbee in military uniform
Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee was the first chief of the Navy Nurse Corps, and for her wartime efforts she was awarded with the Navy Cross, an award second only to the Medal of Honor.  A U.S. Navy destroyer named in her honor is currently under construction (2018).

U.S. Navy

Women Mobilize for War

Upon America’s entry in the war in April of 1917, former NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw became a driving force in mobilizing American women for the war effort. Shaw founded the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense as a clearing house, and organizing method for the millions of women who wanted to serve, matching women with the specific need.

It must be remembered that in those days the axiom was “A woman’s place is in the home” accordingly organizations like Shaw’s as well as the organizations that would employ women went to great lengths to assure the nation that women would not become “masculinized” by stepping outside of their traditional roles and stepping into jobs traditionally held by men – the men who were now marching off to war.

Newspaper and magazine publishers, especially women’s magazines, went to great lengths stressing the importance of women entering the war effort. Graphic depictions of women serving invariably depicted determined though still utterly attractive and unquestionably “feminine” women taking to the factory, the plow, the munitions plant, and even the military.

“All over America today suffragists are leading a back to the land movement …the have put their hand to the plow and are not turning back,” read a headline in the publication The Woman’s Journal. Tens of thousands of women joined The Women’s Land Army to work the soil, fields, and orchards to free men for military service. Women took to the land gladly and brought in the harvest during the war years to supply food to the nation, the military, and our allies.

Eight million women volunteered as American Red Cross workers in a variety of capacities, from making surgical dressings, masks, and gowns, operating servicemen’s canteens to provide wholesome entertainment for soldiers and sailors, volunteering as nurse’s aides in veterans' hospitals, and providing recreational services to convalescing servicemen. The Red Cross also trained and provided nearly twenty-thousand nursed to the Army, Navy, and US Health Service.

The Red Cross organized the Motor Service comprised almost entirely of women drivers, most of whom owned their own vehicles and many were trained as auto mechanics. They provided transportation to canteens, hospitals, and camps. They were motorcycle messengers. By war’s end over twelve-thousand drivers logged over 3.5 million miles.

The Salvation Army “Lassies” were a welcome sight to allied forces both at home and abroad. Operating close to the battlefront the SA women provided coffee, donuts, letter writing, clothes mending, and a variety of other services to soldiers and sailors at embarkation and debarkation ports, canteens, and were always a welcome sight to our service members.

America’s Librarians joined the war effort with 1,100 library workers at home and abroad supplying books and periodicals to American service members. Our nation’s librarians erected 36 camp libraries and distributed nearly ten million books and magazines and raised over five million dollars from public donations to support their efforts.

Perhaps the most emblematic symbol of the nation’s attitude to women helping out for the emergency was the admission into the ultimate of the domain of men: the military.

Seven thousand women applied as the so-called “Hello Girls” – switchboard operators working for the US Army signal Corps. 223 were sent overseas some very near the front lines. These patriotic women took the same oath of allegiance as soldiers, received the same pay as soldiers, and wore the insignia of the signal corps. Serving with distinction, seven of these women were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. It should be noted that upon their discharge the ‘Hello Girls” did not receive veteran’s status or any of the benefits that go along with that designation. What was seen widely as a betrayal by the War Department wasn’t rectified until 1979 when only a handful were still living.

As more and more warships were being built and sent into war, the Navy needed ever-increasing numbers of sailors to man those ships; enlistments and the draft were not sufficient to keep up with the need.

Lieutenant Commander Joy Bright Hancock
Joy Bright Hancock was among the first women to enlist in the US Navy in WWI. After the war she was a civilian employee of the Navy Department. In 1942 Hancock joined the Navy again, rising to the rank of captain. It was through Hancock's efforts that women were integrated into the regular Navy.

U.S. Navy / National Archives, 1943

Many thousands of sailors were involved in shore-duty positions as clerks, truck-drivers, armorers, instructors, medical technicians, radio operators, and other positions – none of those men were available for the fleet; something had to be done. Enter Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy.

Daniels, desperate for sailors to participate in combat operations, found a loophole in the Naval Act of 1916 that law that determined who could be enlisted into the Navy. It nowhere in the regulations was it stipulated that only men could be enlisted into the Navy, Daniels seized upon this opportunity to start actively recruiting women into the ranks. The response was overwhelming. Patriotic young women, many if not most of them suffragists, flocked to the recruiting offices.

Daniels saw the eventually of American involvement month before Woodrow Wilson determined to send troops overseas. By March of 1917 Daniels was in action recruiting those eager and patriotic women to serve in the rating of Yeoman (F). They served as stenographers, clerks, radio operators, messengers, truck drivers, ordnance workers, mechanics cryptographers and all other non-combat shore duty roles, free thousands of sailors to join the fleet. In all 11,272 Women joined the US Navy for the duration of the war. When they left the service Daniels made sure that all of them received veteran’s status and were first in line for civil service jobs.

The Army and Navy Nurse Corps contributed 22,804 nurses to the war effort, serving at home, abroad, and on hospital and troop ships. Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee, chief of the Navy Nurse Corps, was the first woman to be awarded the Navy Cross, which is second only to the Medal of Honor. Army nurses served at home as well as overseas; in France, Belgium, England, and even Siberia. Of the Army nurses, many were wounded and more than two-hundred died in service; among the ranks of the Navy Nurse Corps thirty-six women lost their lives, the service of these women was not merely an inconvenience, it often involved the supreme sacrifice.

The Battle for Suffrage

The service of American women at war cost them more than just the burden of putting their lives on hold, deferring marriage and children, or pursuing higher education. The sacrifice of these women went far beyond that; in all more than six-hundred of these patriotic women lost their lives in service to their nation. The question was, how would the nation return that debt?

Suffragists were at war, many suffragists were cooperating with Wilson in hopes of securing his support for suffrage while other suffragists were being imprisoned and brutally treated for protesting Wilson’s reluctance to extend women the vote. Both the moderate suffragists and the militant suffragists were exerting pressure upon Wilson, and millions of American women were demonstrating, through service and sacrifice, their claim to full citizenship.

Finally Wilson, at best a reluctant supporter of suffrage, threw his support behind the issue. On September 30, 1918 with war’s end weeks away Wilson addressed Congress:

“We have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege?”

With the support of the president the die was cast. Although the Susan B. Anthony bill – to give women the right to vote - was be debated by Congress for many months, and the issue would be contentiously battled out among the states for ratification. Finally on August 18, 1920, the Susan B. Anthony amendment became the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States. With that, twenty-million women won the right to vote. They were not given the right to vote; they were not given anything. This was a battle involving service, sacrifice, protest, imprisonment, unflinching commitment to the war even including loss of life, and they won. They won victory in war, and a victory that remains with us.

Last updated: October 22, 2018