Smithsonian Postal Museum exhibit: In Her Words: Women's Duty and Service in World War I
By Betsy Sheppard
Staff Writer, United States World War One Centennial Commission
The exhibition In Her Words: Women’s Duty and Service in World War I at the National Postal Museum was developed jointly by the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum and the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation with co-curators Britta K. Granrud, curator of collections, Lynn Heidelbaugh, curator, and Jessie Henn, collections assistant.
The exhibition follows the experience of four women in the war effort through their own letters, journals and records. The exhibition project intended to delve into individuals’ records to gain understanding of women’s experiences from the war. By searching the extensive collection of the Women’s Memorial Foundation, the curators discovered many fascinating letters and stories.
Through the history of the four individuals selected for the exhibition, a range of topics is explored, including why these women choose to serve their country, what it was like to serve in different branches of the armed forces or alongside the military in a civilian organization, what it was like to work stateside or overseas and what opportunities were available to women after the war. The exhibition features the work and lives of two US Army nurses, a US Navy yeoman (F), and a worker with the YMCA. Visitors will find similarities and differences in how these individuals contributed to the war effort.
One of these women, Chief Yeoman Ruth Creveling was on active duty in the Navy during World War I, the first time women could enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps. Increasing personnel numbers was part of the Navy’s preparedness efforts before entering the war and on March 19, 1917, the Navy Department announced women would be recruited for the Navy Reserves. Eighteen-year-old Ruth (Woodworth) Creveling from Washington, DC, was one of the early recruits. She enlisted on March 30, 1917, and her active duty in the Navy commenced straightaway. Eventually, over 11,000 women enlisted as navy yeoman (F)—the “F” denoted “female”—and about 300 women served as Marine reservists.
The enlisted women received pay equal to men. The majority of yeoman (F) performed clerical work, but women also had other assignments, including that of draftsmen, couriers, telephone operators, and truck drivers. Ruth (Woodworth) Creveling worked as a typist and stenographer. She was promoted to chief yeoman, the highest rate for yeoman. In fact, one document in the Women’s Memorial Foundation Collection is an official letter recommending that she should be exempt from the chief yeoman’s qualification test for bookkeeping, which was considered unnecessary in comparison to her other expert skills.
The exhibition includes a post-war letter that Creveling wrote while she was a civilian employee at Naval Air Station San Diego, CA. It was selected because she discusses the economic realities of her wages while demonstrating her talent for composing correspondence for the workplace.
While the experience of serving men and women differed, the curators did not encounter much variation in how women and men corresponded or kept diaries. Both wrote about many of the same themes: hopes, fears, family, friends, and new experiences such as joining the military, acclimating to the culture of the organization, and shipping out for overseas service. The most obvious difference is that women did not serve in combat. That’s not to say that they were out of harm’s way or that they didn’t write about it—nurses served near the front lines at casualty clearing stations and some American women working in offices or canteens described the dangers and impact of shelling in France. How women and men wrote about their individual experiences was influenced by situation and personality.
Overall, both men and women’s letters follow similar accepted norms of etiquette and all American service personnel were aware that their letters were subject to military censorship. One of Greta Wolf’s letters bears a censor’s approval mark from her time stationed as a nurse at the US Army’s Base Hospital No. 54. Despite knowing that a censor would review her letter, Wolf wrote to her family about breaking the regulation against talking with enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. She knew it would benefit her patients’ morale, writing that, “You can’t help it when you see how much good it does them.”
Letters like that of Wolf appear in the collection so that viewers can reflect upon the past and consider what it can teach us about related issues today. In Her Words: Women's Duty and Service in World War I enables visitors to discover the personal histories of four individuals and gain an understanding of how these women expressed themselves as citizens and sought to serve the country. Women’s successful participation in World War I was an important precedent for the ever-expanding roles of American women in the military, and for the military establishment’s acceptance of women’s service in the armed forces. This exhibition can elicit discussion about how women’s roles in the military and civilian work forces continue to raise political, economic, and social questions.
In Her Words: Women’s Duty and Service in World War I is on exhibition until May 8th, 2018 at the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. More information on the exhibit can be found here.
Betsy Sheppard is a Spring 2018 Intern with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.