Women and World War I

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The status of women had risen so high by 1917 that public opinion for the first time recognized a women's voice in public affairs. Two main themes were central. The suffrage movement was building rapidly, pushing eastward from its base in California and the western states. Carrie Chapman Catt, as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was a key leader, as the suffragists organized in hundreds of cities in every state. The second main theme was pacifism. Jane Addams, the Chicago social worker, was perhaps the foremost spokesperson for opposition to war, as head of the International Congress of Women for Permanent Peace. Pressures toward war proved irresistible. President Woodrow Wilson deliberately appealed to the pacifist vision by promising this would be a war to end all wars. The one woman in Congress, Representative Jeanette Rankin, Democrat of Montana, voted against the war resolution, an action she would repeat after Pearl Harbor.

All the home front war agencies made special efforts to enlist the support of women. This was especially notable in the case of the Food Administration. Under the direction of Herbert Hoover, it made a systematic appeal to housewives to conserve meat and fats by eating more fish and grain, and by minimizing waste around the home. The draft laws proved largely successful because American mothers supported the war effort and made no organized effort to persuade their men to resist the draft. Volunteer work was of central importance to middle class women. Much of the organization was handled by the YWCA, women's clubs, and especially by the Red Cross, a private relief organization whose appeal resonated strongly with women. It exploded from 267 local chapters in early 1917 to 2300 by summer. Eight million women labored, without machinery, to make medical and clothing supplies for soldiers. Others volunteered in canteens, as drivers, and as aides at military camps and assembly points.

The closure of immigration created serious labor shortages in the munitions industries. Millions of women were already working in factories, such as clothing and textiles, that directly supported the war effort. Others took jobs in munitions factories. A relatively small number did temporary service (replacing men who had been drafted) in jobs such as streetcar conductors. The Army Nurse Corps and Nurse Corps Reserve (both all-female organizations) expanded from 400 women before the war to more than 21,000. Several hundred nurses, on loan to the British, went to France in the summer of 1917. The Red Cross facilitated young women enlisting and serving in hospitals both on the home front and in Europe.

Among the three million soldiers sent to France with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) were 16,000 women. They served in a variety of roles, all of which had been dominated or monopolized on the home front by women. These women became nurse's aids, physical therapists, dieticians, relief workers, file clerks and librarians. Ten thousand served the AEF as Army nurses. The Navy, creating a new category of service, Yeoman (F), enlisted over 11,000 women to handle clerical jobs stateside. They enjoyed equal status and equal pay to sailors, but were all deactivated in 1919. The Army, by contrast, refused to countenance any official uniformed role for women beyond that of nurse. General Pershing nevertheless demanded women telephone operators, so a contingent of 223 civilian women served under contract with the Signal Corps in France. Later other civilian contract women worked with the Quartermaster Corps. Civilian agencies such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army brought over some 6,000 additional women, especially to handle welfare and canteen work among American soldiers, and perhaps distract them from red light districts. About 300 women died in service; some when a hospital was shelled, most in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

The unexpectedly enthusiastic outpouring of women volunteers profoundly affected American attitudes toward the role of women. The women were obviously not helpless nor unpatriotic: they were fighting in essential ways for American values. The experience guaranteed overwhelming support for the suffrage movement. The growing strength of women also materially aided the passage of the 18th Amendment to impose prohibition. Male politicians exaggerated the likely impact of woman suffrage, and to get ahead of the crowd, started supporting "women's issues" in the early 1920s rather more readily than women themselves. Pacifism and prohibition thus had strong support in the immediate aftermath of the war, in considerable part as recognition for the involvement of women. The peace issue waxed strong throughout the 1920s. It was no longer possible for militarists to dismiss women as inadequate who hindered the war effort; instead people came to see that the dream of women such as Addams and Emily Balch in heading off future wars was a worthy goal.


Ebbert, Jean, and Hall, Mary-Beth. The First, The Few, The Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.

Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 2002.

Hewitt, Linda J. Women Marines in World War I. Washington, DC: United States Marines Corps, History and Museums Division, 1974.

Schneider, Dorothy, and Schneider, Carl J. Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in WWI. New York: Viking Press, 1991

Steinson, Barbara. American Women's Activism in World War I. New York: Garland, 1982.

Zeiger, Susan. In Uncle Sam's Service: Women Workers with the American Expeditionary Force, 1917-1919. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

D'Ann Campbell

See also:Addams, Jane; Catt, Carrie Chapman; Feminism; Women, Employment of; Women's Suffrage Movement.

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Women and World War I

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Women and World War I