Women in the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The early years of the twentieth century presented a dichotomy in terms of society’s view of the role of women. The traditional or Victorian view held that women’s role centered on motherhood, household, and caregiving—a role well distanced from the economic mainstream. A second, emerging perspective was one of militant but pacifist feminism. This view centered on a violent, flawed world guided by male posturing and blundering, one that could be improved by full incorporation of a feminist perspective.

More educated and more independent than ever before, American women found World War I both a challenge to pacifist beliefs and an opportunity to advance their cause as full equals in society

The early years of the twentieth century presented a dichotomy in terms of society’s view of the role of women. The traditional or Victorian view held that women’s role centered on motherhood, household, and caregiving—a role well distanced from the economic mainstream. A second, emerging perspective was one of militant but pacifist feminism. This view centered on a violent, flawed world guided by male posturing and blundering, one that could be improved by full incorporation of a feminist perspective.

A synthesis between the two viewpoints was eventually forged by female activists, correlating the more gentle, feminine nature with pacifist, antiwar tendencies. Military pacifism grew as an important plank supporting the woman suffrage movement, in Europe as well as America. Implicitly, it held that allowing women the vote would reduce the possibilities for war. Pacifist women became strident in their espousal of antiwar views. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of British suffragists, drew a distinction between destruction of property (for which she was jailed) and destruction of human life, which could never be condoned.

Women factory workers inspecting parts for handguns in 1917. (National Archives)

The onset of World War I, however, created a dilemma for pacifist feminists. Should women continue in blind opposition to the reality of another war, or should they use the war to forward women’s causes by enlisting underutilized feminine resources in the process of war? They did both.

The Pacifist Movement

The declaration of war in 1914 inspired greater fervency within the global peace movement, in which women held leadership positions. In part because of the close association between woman suffrage and peace, in part because many women regarded civilization as having progressed beyond war as a means of settling disputes, and in part because women were widely held as morally superior to men, women banded together to find ways of ending the war. In the United States, many women’s organizations, from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) to the Daughters of the American Revolution, went on record as seeking an early resolution to the conflict. To coordinate national efforts toward peace, Carrie Chapman Catt founded the Women’s Peace Party (WPP). In turn, the WPP made plans for an international peace conference. In 1915, the International Congress of Women, presided over by Jane Addams, social reformer, pacifist, and ultimate cowinner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, met at The Hague to discuss conditions for a permanent state of peace. The neutrality of the meeting was underlined by the full participation of a German women’s contingent. Heckled by the press but unawed by the seemingly impossible task facing them, the congress attendees established a set of principles as cornerstones of a lasting peace. President Woodrow Wilson is said to have borrowed the WPP conference principles in establishing his Fourteen Points as the foundation for a League of Nations.

Women in Uniform

Drawing on the immense contributions of nurses to the recovery and welfare of military patients during both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, Congress authorized an Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. Both nurse corps, however, existed outside the regular military establishment. Nurses did not receive military rank, pay, or retirement benefits. Yet, the permanency of the congressionally mandated nurse corps illustrated their integrity to the military mission. By the end of World War I, the Army Nurse Corps had expanded to twenty thousand and the Navy Nurse Corps to more than one thousand women.

Women were permitted to serve in the U.S. Marines during World War I, but they were all discharged soon after the war ended. (National Archives)

In 1917, while mobilizing U.S. forces for entry into the war, both Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels found the Army and Navy short on skilled administrative clerks. Their solutions to the problem, however, were markedly different. Finding no legal requirement that a Navy clerk (yeoman) be a man, Daniels ordered that sufficient clerically skilled women be enlisted as yeomen in the naval reserve, with the same pay and rank as men. Thus, 12,500 female yeomen were enlisted and ultimately came to function as draftsmen, fingerprint experts, intelligence experts, and clerks. Despite the stated demand for the skills of enlisted women by many Army officers, including General John J. Pershing, Baker was uncomfortable with any formal military status for women and hired female clerical workers on a civilian contractual basis.

By war’s end, more than 34,000 uniformed women had served in the Army and Navy nurse corps, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. With the exception of the two nurse corps, however, all the female military personnel were discharged.

The Civilian War Effort

More than 25,000 American women served overseas during World War I under a host of civilian war relief organizations. All told, fifty-two American organizations and forty-five foreign organizations made up the war relief effort in Europe. The women who volunteered were in their thirties or older, with above-average levels of education and socioeconomic status. The “new” American woman was perceived by foreigners as skilled, independent, and, most of all, determined.

The plethora of organizations made for some duplication of effort and complexities in distribution. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, commented about the difficulties of coordinating military and civilian efforts among the multitude of agencies. Nevertheless, the immense civilian (and largely female) war relief effort was vital from both a humanitarian and a military perspective. While many of the U.S. organizations operated under the umbrella (and impressive financial resources) of the American Red Cross, others functioned independently. American civilian women wishing to serve abroad could select among a host of quasi-government agencies, church organizations such as the Quakers, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the YWCA, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. They might opt to serve in private charities established by the rich and famous, such as Edith Wharton. They might enlist in foreign relief and medical agencies (as ambulance drivers, among other hazardous occupations) or the relief agencies sponsored by women’s universities in the United States, such as Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, and Pembroke colleges. In all, more than three hundred American women in service would perish by the end of World War I.

The Canadian Experience

The Canadians anticipated putting 500,000 men in uniform (from a national population of eight million). Therefore, women were substituted for men in “men’s jobs” to a greater degree than in the United States. For example, the chief armament supplier, the Imperial Munitions Board, eventually employed 250,000 Canadians, of whom 40,000 were women. As in the United States, a strong feminist movement reinforced the substitution effect in changing the way society regarded women’s roles.

Impact

In the aftermath of World War I, women’s role in society had irrevocably changed. The war would act as a propellant of women’s interests such as suffrage and greater equality in the workplace. The war allowed women a unique opportunity for responsible, fulfilling action independent of men. Moreover, it proved to society that women were completely capable in “men’s occupations” such as factories, shipyards, and aircraft construction. The Victorian perception of women as retiring, frail ancillaries to men was eclipsed.

Categories: History Content