Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 83-85
National Council for the Social Studies

American Women inWorld War I

Carl J. Schneider and Dorothy Schneider
When the guns of August sounded the beginning of World War I in 1914, a good many Americans could not believe their ears. To their way of thinking, humanity had outgrown war. Even though some other Americans, women as well as men, still thought of war as vital to the health of nations, in 1914 most considered this particular war Europe's business, in which the United States should take no part. But the British and French propagandized skillfully and effectively. Germans stupidly based their diplomacy on the erroneous belief that Americans of German descent would always support Germany, whatever outrages Germany committed, and arrogantly underestimated America's capacity to wage war. And the American president professed peace but refused to intervene among the European powers. By 1917, all of these forces nudged the United States into a deadlocked war.
American women experienced this "Great War" differently than any previous war. For the first time, the Army and Navy nurse corps were activated. It was the first American war in which no woman enlisted as a foot soldier disguised as a man, for it introduced thorough physical examinations. Yet it was the first war in which women officially and openly served in the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Army Signal Corps. For the first time in the history of the world, 25,000 women, 15,000 of them civilians, crossed a hostile ocean to succor war's victims-many of them long before the United States entered the war. Women struck out on their own like entrepreneurs, finding their own ways to help people and seeking the money and capital to accomplish their goals.

In a period of overt racism, African-American women who tried to participate in these efforts met almost immovable obstacles. After a long struggle, a few black nurses were admitted into the nurse corps, but not until after the war. The military accepted no other black women. Although 200,000 black soldiers served overseas, no more than half a dozen black women managed to get there, for with the sole exception of the YMCA all the volunteer organizations excluded them from service abroad. Black women worked nobly in this country in the workplace and as volunteers, but almost always in their own groups, set apart from whites.

Before America's Entry, 1914-1917
As soon as the shooting started in Europe, American women organized to help its victims, military and civilian. They used their existing women's clubs and lodges and church ladies' aid societies, and they started new groups focused on specific needs. As a need arose, an American women's group sprang up to meet it. The Children of the Frontier collected and shipped money and mounds of clothing to its American-French counterpart overseas to rescue, support, and train refugee and repatriated children. The American Relief Clearing House (ARCH), Le Bienetre du Blesse, and the American Fund for French Wounded furnished and distributed hospital supplies, the French transportation system having broken down. ARCH not only operated the American Ambulance Service but also afforded "5,000 relief organizations, societies, schools, churches, and individuals at the head of small circles . . . its free facilities for transferring material to France." Le Bienetre du Blesse provided special diets for convalescent French soldiers unable to stomach army food. American women established workshops and furnished materials for French seamstresses thrown out of work.

But sending money and goods did not suffice. Beginning in 1914, American women themselves went overseas. Some went for adventure, for the fun of the thing. Some simply refused to be left out of the action, insisting on participating in a great moment in history. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to serve the thousands victimized by the war.

With the United States still officially neutral, from 1914 to 1917 American nurses served in England, France, Serbia, Russia, and even Germany, a handful under the aegis of the American Red Cross, some in foreign military services, some in hospitals supported and staffed by American women. Other American women drove ambulances, ran dormitories or rest houses for European women munitions makers, cared for orphans, fed soldiers on the march, found homes and furniture and tools and seeds for displaced people. Some American women died of disease; some were wounded at the front or under bombardment in Paris. First from the east coast, and then from all over the United States, American women sought sponsors or used their life savings to volunteer in Europe.

Meanwhile, women who opposed the war acted with equal verve and enterprise to end it. Members of the Woman's Peace Party in 1915 accepted the invitation of European women to an International Congress of Women at The Hague that included representatives of the warring Allied and Central powers. That remarkably harmonious congress then sent two delegations of its women to present to the heads of state of the belligerents a plan of continuous negotiation conceived by an American woman. The women reported its favorable reception to an indifferent Woodrow Wilson-and the deadlocked war ground on.

After America's Entry
But when in 1917 the United States finally slipped and slid into World War I, American women overwhelmingly supported it-even Jane Addams, who thrust aside her longstanding opposition in order to participate in food conservation drives. Only a courageous radical fringe, led by attorney Christel Eastman, kept up the peace effort.

Many women not only fervently wanted to help in the war effort but knew how, through their years of relief work from 1914 to 1917. They were joined by other activist women who now added war work to their reform work and/or suffrage work and by multitudes of other women willing to do whatever was needed now that the United States was at war. But the establishment clashed with women leaders about just what that was.

Men in government thought they knew exactly what women should do: knit, save food, smile, send their menfolk to war, pass out white feathers to young men not in uniform, cut back on expenses-but not too much (or what would happen to the economy?). Women wanted a more active role and more say-so. The government threw them a bone by establishing a woman's committee of the Council of National Defense, itself only an advisory body, with the redoubtable suffragist Anna Howard Shaw as committee head. She did her excellent best, but without power she could not prevent inefficiency, duplication, and wasted effort.

In this situation women continued to launch out in all directions, in efforts ranging from the essential to the ludicrous (like making plans to evacuate virgins in case the Germans invaded America). Despite absurdities and confusion they accomplished miracles in assuaging the suffering in Europe and making life happier and easier for soldiers and warworkers in the United States and overseas.

Besides these volunteers, women rushed into the workplace to manufacture war materiel and to carry on in jobs vacated by men heading for the trenches. Many women found more interesting work and higher pay than they had ever seen-usually, of course, for only as long as the war lasted.

But what about women actually in the military? Counting is difficult and in some ways meaningless. In thousands of cases, being in or out of the military was a distinction almost without a difference.

Civilian American Red Cross nurses worked side by side with Army Nurse Corps members, doing the same work. They themselves often did not understand the difference in their status. Few Red Cross nurses realized that by not joining the Army Nurse Corps they were rendering themselves ineligible for benefits should they become disabled, and few Army nurses realized that they were committing themselves indefinitely, rather than for the two-year term common in the Red Cross. And, despite their own strenuous efforts for regularization, Army and Navy nurses held only a paramilitary status, since the military refused them the rank and benefits that their responsibilities justified. No wonder chief nurse Carrie Hall wrote: "I feel much like the fly that has accepted the spider's invitation and finds he can't escape."

Women physicians labored under similar difficulties. For the most part the American military refused to accept them, except eventually as civilian contract physicians, without rank. Those overseas reported their own embarrassment vis-à-vis their peers with rank in the British army and the bewilderment of Serbian doctors who inquired why the United States government entrusted women doctors with responsibility and sent them into danger but refused them rank. American medical women responded by organizing, funding, and staffing their own hospitals, some of which served with the French military. They also served impromptu and ad hoc. Third-year medical student Jean Pattison, spending her vacation with an American Women's Hospital, was pressed into service first for the French Army and then in an American military field hospital at Chateau-Thierry. Dr. Rosalie Slaughter Morton, having persuaded the Red Cross to entrust her with taking medical supplies to the Serbian army, seized the chance to volunteer at a French tent hospital for Serbian patients.

The Army Signal Corps' more than 200 telephone operators thought they were in the Army. At the insistence of General John J. Pershing, these American women were recruited to enable communications within the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and with the allied armies. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company sought out American women who spoke French and trained them to operate switchboards. They were then sworn in and issued uniforms. They were subject to military discipline, and some of them served under fire. But no one else had really given a thought to their military status. The military brass greeted their arrival with cries of relief, sent them gifts, praised their patience and efficiency, treated them like the glamour girls of the AEF, called them "Soldiers of the Switchboard," decorated them, and at war's end forgot about them. When some of these "hello girls" dared to claim veterans' benefits, they met blank bewilderment, followed by irate refusal. Some of the women persisted, for almost sixty years. In 1977, when the youngest of them was nearing eighty, they won recognition as veterans.

The occupational therapists and physical therapists never did. They may well have had an equally valid claim, but none among them chose to pursue it. Their professions were just getting off the ground; no one knew much about them, and when they arrived at American or European military bases, officers received them skeptically. They proved themselves by putting their shoulders to whatever wheels needed turning. Physical therapists acted as nurses and secretaries during the medical emergencies that followed every "push" when soldiers tried to cross No Man's Land to the enemy trenches. At least one group of occupational therapists (OTs), handywomen that they were, won their commanding officer's heart and support by plumbing, making drain pipes from tin cans and lining tubs built by patients for dishwashing. Their carpentry won over the doctors, when the OTs trained patients to fashion desks, bedside tables, chairs, and stools.

No question, of course, about the Yeomen (Female) and the Woman Marines. From the outset they were officially military members. In 1916 Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, contemplating the probable lack of sufficient clerical staff if and when the United States entered the war, asked whether any law prescribed that a yeoman be a man? No, but only because the question of an alternative had been unthinkable. But by that time in civilian life, yeoman's work, clerical work, was identified as woman's work. Daniels's question led to the enlistment of 13,000 women in the Navy and 300 in the Marine Corps. Almost all of them worked in the United States, most in Washington, D.C. Most did clerical work, but some labored in munitions factories and some as radio electricians. Assigned to special duty, Yeomen (F) sold liberty bonds in theater aisles. The whole operation was off the cuff.

Lighthearted youngsters, most of these Navy and Marine women had fun, according to Marie Broglie, who joined up at eighteen. Yes, she took a physical exam-but not much of one, with a sheet between her body and the examining doctor. Once accepted, she loved her work and the friends she made. She and her friends dated officers: no questions raised about fraternization and rank distinctions. Washington-born and -bred, she lived at home, and her mother let her bring other girls who lived at the barracks home on weekends.1 Saturdays they drilled, and lots of spectators turned out to watch. Joy Bright Hancock, later a Navy captain, recalled that the Navy began to distinguish its women as Yeomen (Female) only after some of them had been mistakenly called up for duty on shipboard. With the end of the war, the Navy and Marine women departed in peace and without question.

In short, actual membership in the military did not define a woman's usefulness in World War I, her duties, her heroism, the dangers she confronted, or the hardships she endured. Female Salvation Army and YMCA workers, like nurses, encountered hardship and danger: some of them were wounded; some died. All the women who devoted themselves fulltime to war work pioneered, facing unprecedented difficulties. Many found their own means of service.

Although the United States military refused to accredit women journalists, reporter Mary Roberts Rinehart scored a beat with reports from the Belgian front in 1914. Paleobotanist Ruth Holden worked in a maternity hospital for refugee women in Russia as general factotum, negotiating with Russian authorities, chivying workmen, interpreting, traveling around Russia to procure equipment and supplies; she died there. Expatriates Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas delivered hospital supplies in France-Stein driving, though she never learned to back up. Pilot Ruth Law flew over the western front. Elsie Janis entertained the troops. Novelist Edith Wharton developed and ran refugee services and orphan asylums. Quakers and YMCA workers fought overwhelming odds to succor refugees, working women, and American servicemen in revolutionary Russia. Wealthy young women sailed the submarine-infested Atlantic to drive ambulances during air raids and persuade their fathers to contribute an ambulance or two. Other women mortgaged their houses to finance a trip overseas, ready to offer their services scrubbing floors.

War's end saw disillusion, among women as well as among servicemen. The romance of war that had seduced the American population into the senseless struggle of World War I still blinded their parents; the loyal and sensitive young had no wish to disillusion their elders. But, reported YMCA worker Mary Lee, small boats constantly skirted the ships that were to take servicemen and women workers back to the United States, to prevent their suicide.

1 Marie Broglie. Personal interview with authors, March 16, 1985.

Owings, Chloe. ARCH report of October 21, 1916, quoted in Chloe Owings's unpublished autobiography, "Living through Covered Wagon to Space Ship Age or Life Is a Cooperative," 97, Chloe Owings Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.Schneider, Dorothy, and Carl J. Schneider. Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking, 1991.-----. American Women in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920. New York: Facts on File, 1993.Carl J. Schneider, Ph.D., and Dorothy Schneider, Ph.D., after careers in higher education as professors and administrators, now write about the condition and history of women. They based their first joint book, Sound Off! American Military Women Speak Out, on interviews with 300 servicewomen, revising it in 1992 to include participants in Desert Storm. For Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I, they uncovered many first-person accounts by these women.