“‘It Was Our Privilege’ – Women: Home and Abroad” was originally published in Valor magazine February 2017. We publish the article here again to pay homage to the incredible women who took part in supporting the World War I efforts. We thank them for their sacrifice this Memorial Day, 2018, and remember them this entire year, a full century after the end of World War I. Special thanks to Tammy M. Proctor, who wrote this article, and Michelle Bridges, the editor of Valor.
In their 1920 memoir about World War I, Addie Hunton and Kathryn Johnson described their sense of service and responsibility. They wrote, “It was our privilege to go overseas…under the auspices of the YMCA…we can can conscientiously say that we had the greatest opportunity for service that we have ever know…” Hunton and Johnson, African-American women who served in France by operating a canteen, were only two among the thousands of American women who served in the Great War, both at home and abroad. Women worked in war relief, entertainment, heavy industry, medical services and offices. Most of these women who saw themselves as patriots and citizens who were “doing their part” to end the war.
Lending a Hand
When the United States declared war on April 6, 1917, women mobilized alongside men. Women volunteered for service that fit into their roles at home and also for those jobs that broke the mold. Girl Scouts sold Liberty Bonds to raise funds for the war and they planted Victory Gardens. Homemakers sought to learn new recipes so that they could conserve meat and wheat for the war effort. Women volunteered for organizations such as the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers); they built huts for refugees, rolled bandages, served coffee and doughnuts, met trains, and completed a million other tasks that the war required. Thousands of women replaced men in paid jobs in factories, transport and policing. If the First World War was a coming-of-age moment for the United States and its male citizens, it served a similar role for many American women.
One of the most visible ways women participated during the war was as auxiliaries in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). More than 16,000 women donned uniforms in sex-segregated environments in non-combat roles. This was waged work, so it attracted young women interested in serving but without the means to fund voluntary war service. Uniformed women of the AEF were expected to remain “feminine” while driving, cooking, typing, and digging.
Females also travelled to France and Italy with American forces in order to serve in hospitals as doctors, nurses, orderlies, aides and drivers. Maud Finch, of Eureka, Utah, was one woman who worked as an ambulance driver in Europe during the war. Drivers remember getting quite a few stares from French people as they whizzed by in their motor cars. Other medical personnel included trained nurses and doctors, some from Utah. One interesting new job for women emerged during the war: reconstruction aides. The RAs specialized in massage, physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. These women used handicrafts to help men heal, so they taught weaving, woodworking, carving, and sewing to help men relearn their motor skills.
The war also helped legitimize the women’s suffrage legislation making it through the ratification process in 1918, as men vocally supported the important part women had taken in the war. Women’s vote on equal terms with men helped validate their claim to citizenship in the nation. Finally, the war established a precedent–a test, if you will–of women’s capacity to serve overseas. Their success in World War I meant that a new generation of women would be called to work for the wartime nation in even larger numbers during the Second World War.
Tammy M. Proctor, PhD, is a Professor of History and Department Head at Utah State University. She teaches courses in modern world history, war, gender, and empire. Her publications include four single-authored books focusing on women in World War I and a century of Girl Scouting.