Women have played important roles in all of America’s wars. However, World War I marked the first time women directly participated in the war effort on a wide scale. Their contributions helped win the war, and also helped them make major strides towards equality.
Women in uniform
World War One was the first war in which women formally served in the U.S. military. The largest group was the Army Nurse Corps: over 20,000 served, and 10,000 went overseas. Nurses were often close to the front lines, and experienced artillery and gas attacks. They provided medical care to over 200,000 wounded men. During the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918-19, over 200 nurses died caring for sick service members.
In addition, over 400 women served under the U.S. Army Signal Corps as telephone operators in France. These “Hello Girls” spoke English and French, and played a vital role in connecting Allied communications. Although they served with the Army, they were considered civilians, and did not receive government recognition as military veterans until 60 years after the war.
Due to the Army’s manpower needs, the Navy was short of key personnel. It recruited over 11,000 women as “Yeomanettes”, who served as clerical staff, electricians, drivers, mechanics, and more. The Marine Corps and Coast Guard also recruited women for the first time.
American women had been a part of European relief efforts since the beginning of the war. Once the United States entered the fighting, thousands more joined efforts at home and overseas. Tens of thousands of Red Cross volunteers provided numerous services for troops overseas, and Red Cross nurses worked alongside their Army counterparts. The YMCA helped the Army provide welfare and comfort services. The Salvation Army’s contingent was smaller, but beloved for its “Donut Dollies.” Wealthy women established hospitals and aid programs, and in some cases traveled to Europe to run them personally.
The expansion of the military in 1917-18 pulled 16 percent of the U.S. male workforce into uniform. Women were called upon to fill jobs as factory workers, clerical staff, drivers, technicians, researchers... virtually every position in every field or industry. These women were released from their jobs as men returned home after the war. However, they had proved that females could handle “masculine” work, and set the example for the “Rosie the Riveters” of World War II and future generations of working women.
The contributions of women in WWI allowed the U.S. military to focus all its available men and resources on fighting the war. These women not only led the way for today’s military women, but also enhanced the position and influence of women in American society in general.
In particular, their service provided momentum for the Women’s Suffrage movement, aimed at winning voting rights for women. President Woodrow Wilson resisted the effort for years, but he finally endorsed it in 1918, saying: “we have made partners of the women in this war... Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Wilson’s words reflected a wartime change in attitudes shared by many American men. Two years later, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote.