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The Role of U.S. Women in World War 1

Instructor: Carol Cook

Carol has taught high school Government and middle school U.S. History and Global Studies and has a master's degree in teaching secondary social studies.

During World War I, American women found themselves left behind in a world with few young men. Assuming a strong sense of patriotism and resilience, they took on new roles and fully supported the home front and the war effort.

Women Adapt to Take on Men's Roles

Now that scientists have found that there is water on Mars, imagine that the federal government decides to begin a program to build an extensive Martian community but limits the job to men only. Many of them will never return to Earth. With this sudden loss of fathers, husbands, boyfriends and sons, how would women who remain behind cope?

Something like this happened after America joined the Allied forces during World War I. During the course of the war, over 2 million men were sent across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Women were left behind to manage families, till the farms and work in factories. Luckily for those left behind, the Great War began at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, introducing technological innovations such as air flight, radio broadcasts, telephone communication, and assembly line manufacturing. Women were now in a position to break out of traditional roles, allowing them to support both the home front and troops overseas.

A woman symbolizes patriotism in this WWI poster
Red Cross Poster

Technology Enables Women to Succeed

Technology made it possible for these women to take a greater role in society and manage their lives at home. With increased use of household conveniences such as iceboxes and indoor plumbing, women of the early 1900s could divide their time between home and business. One particularly useful advance was the new home sewing machine, which made it possible for women to quickly and economically sew clothing for themselves and their families. A popular song of the time tells of Susie, who uses her Singer sewing machine to make clothes to send to the troops.

For the first time many American women found themselves leaving their homes every day to work in factories and offices in cities and on farms in the rural countryside. For example, members of the Women's Land Army, known as farmerettes, spent days handling the heavy work required to raise food and livestock after local men joined the military.

Farmerettes pack peaches in Virginia
Farmerettes

Women Leave Home to Join the War Effort

Military and government leaders soon realized they could not function without help away from the battlefield. Those leading the troops found there was a need for women to provide direct service to win the war, and women at home felt a need to do their part.

Soon after arriving in France, Army General Pershing recognized that he could use new telephone technology to communicate from his headquarters to troops on the front lines. By recruiting women as telephone operators to interpret calls behind lines, he could fully utilize men on the field. Called Hello Girls, these women worked under orders even while their buildings were under siege and on fire.

Hello Girls at work in France
Hello Girls

The Army and Navy Nurse Corps were established before the U.S. entered the war, and thousands of women in the Army Nurse Corps served overseas in bitter conditions treating wounds and burns in field hospitals during the war. While some members of the Navy Nurse Corps served with their Army counterparts overseas, most were stationed in the United States. Other women enlisted in the Navy and Marines in a new classification called Yeoman (F). By the end of the war over 11,000 yeomanettes filled roles as diverse as clerks, drafters, cryptographers, mechanics, drivers and interpreters at stateside government facilities, military bases, shipyards and hospitals.

The Red Cross was on the field in Europe, and American women could be found in the war zone providing medical aid, food, supplies and mail as nurses and drivers on the front lines.

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