American Women in World War I
By Carl J. Schneider and Dorothy Schneider
via the National Council for the Social Studies' socialstudies.org web site
When the guns of August sounded the beginning of World War I in 1914, a good many Americans could not believe their ears. To their way of thinking, humanity had outgrown war. Even though some other Americans, women as well as men, still thought of war as vital to the health of nations, in 1914 most considered this particular war Europe's business, in which the United States should take no part. But the British and French propagandized skillfully and effectively. Germans stupidly based their diplomacy on the erroneous belief that Americans of German descent would always support Germany, whatever outrages Germany committed, and arrogantly underestimated America's capacity to wage war. And the American president professed peace but refused to intervene among the European powers. By 1917, all of these forces nudged the United States into a deadlocked war.
American women experienced this "Great War" differently than any previous war. For the first time, the Army and Navy nurse corps were activated. It was the first American war in which no woman enlisted as a foot soldier disguised as a man, for it introduced thorough physical examinations. Yet it was the first war in which women officially and openly served in the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Army Signal Corps. For the first time in the history of the world, 25,000 women, 15,000 of them civilians, crossed a hostile ocean to succor war's victims-many of them long before the United States entered the war. Women struck out on their own like entrepreneurs, finding their own ways to help people and seeking the money and capital to accomplish their goals.
In a period of overt racism, African-American women who tried to participate in these efforts met almost immovable obstacles. After a long struggle, a few black nurses were admitted into the nurse corps, but not until after the war. The military accepted no other black women. Although 200,000 black soldiers served overseas, no more than half a dozen black women managed to get there, for with the sole exception of the YMCA all the volunteer organizations excluded them from service abroad. Black women worked nobly in this country in the workplace and as volunteers, but almost always in their own groups, set apart from whites.
Before America's Entry, 1914-1917
As soon as the shooting started in Europe, American women organized to help its victims, military and civilian. They used their existing women's clubs and lodges and church ladies' aid societies, and they started new groups focused on specific needs. As a need arose, an American women's group sprang up to meet it. The Children of the Frontier collected and shipped money and mounds of clothing to its American-French counterpart overseas to rescue, support, and train refugee and repatriated children. The American Relief Clearing House (ARCH), Le Bienetre du Blesse, and the American Fund for French Wounded furnished and distributed hospital supplies, the French transportation system having broken down. ARCH not only operated the American Ambulance Service but also afforded "5,000 relief organizations, societies, schools, churches, and individuals at the head of small circles . . . its free facilities for transferring material to France." Le Bienetre du Blesse provided special diets for convalescent French soldiers unable to stomach army food. American women established workshops and furnished materials for French seamstresses thrown out of work.
But sending money and goods did not suffice. Beginning in 1914, American women themselves went overseas. Some went for adventure, for the fun of the thing. Some simply refused to be left out of the action, insisting on participating in a great moment in history. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to serve the thousands victimized by the war.
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