Centennial Commission salutes indispensable role of women in WWI
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Washington, D.C. –- As the nation celebrates Women’s History Month in March, The United States World War I Centennial Commission remembers the indispensable role women played during World War I. The entry of the United States into the Great War had a significant impact on women, their standing in society, and their civil rights.
"We have forgotten the active role American women played in World War I , but we all remember Rosie the Riveter in World War II. Well, Rosie the Riveter had a mother, and she worked in a munitions factory too,” said United States World War I Centennial Commissioner and Chief Historian Emeritus at the History Channel, Dr. Libby O’Connell. “The Great War was transformative for women, it served as a catalyst for women’s suffrage, professionalized women in the military and helped women prove they were capable of doing work typically done by men.”
During World War I, the role of women evolved from a supporting role to taking on assignments and responsibilities that helped expand the war effort. For the first time in American history, women of all economic backgrounds were serving in some capacity.
During the Great War, American civilian women donned uniforms and were officially attached to arms of the military and government agencies for the first time. The government established an advisory committee, the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, headed by suffragist Dr. Anna Shaw, to coordinate women’s war efforts. At home, to support the nation and the war efforts, women entered the workforce, performing tasks traditionally done by men who had gone to war.
From the expanded role of women in the workforce to the establishment of the Department of Labor’s Women in Industry Service, women of all economic backgrounds played an important role in World War I making significant contributions to the war effort itself, and creating lasting political and cultural impact as well.
The newfound roles and responsibilities helped elevate women’s standing in society. The war work and participation increased support for women’s suffrage, and, according to historians, contributed to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Women, such as philanthropist Julia Hunt Catlin Taufflieb and social researcher and reformer Mary Abby Van Kleeck, were recognized for their efforts. Taufflieb was the first American woman to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre and Legion d’honneur, for converting the Chateau d’Annel into a 300-bed hospital near the front line. Van Kleeck set the War Labor Policies Board standards for women working in the war industries and was appointed head of the Women in Industry Service agency established within the Department of Labor. This agency later became the United States Women’s Bureau, now part of the United States Department of Labor.
For additional information on “In Sacrifice for Liberty and Peace: Centennial Commemoration of the U.S. Entry into World War I” on April 6 please visit www.ww1cc.org/april6.