Women in World War I
Below is an Op-Ed piece written by 2 of our World War I Centennial Commissioners.
The naming of a new U.S. Navy destroyer in honor of Chief Nurse Lenah Higbee may be just a blip in the news, but it represents a long-overdue recognition of American women’s participation in World War I.
Across the globe, over thirty countries are commemorating the Great War with educational programs, memorial services, and public events. The United States shed its isolationist stance and joined with the Entente powers in 1917, three years after the war began. Thus, our two-year centennial of World War I will begin later as well, on the 100th anniversary of Congress’ declaration of war in April 2017.
This centennial provides a chance to re-awaken Americans to this largely forgotten war, and its continuing impact on our lives, and on the geopolitics of today’s world. Name a hotspot in the news — shall we start with Syria? Or how about the Ukraine, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa, or the South China Sea? World War I and its aftermath continue to weave bloodstained threads into the global social fabric of the 21st Century.
The Great War links directly to contemporary cultural issues as well. While segregated “colored” regiments like the highly decorated Harlem Rattlers met with a joyous welcome home at the war’s end, the violent reality of life within apartheid United States inspired black veterans to join a young organization called the NAACP. Along the way, their leadership helped spark the Harlem Renaissance.
The seismic impact of World War I also shaped the role of American women, both in the military and in civilian life. We are all familiar with the poster image of World War II’s iconic Rosie the Riveter and her “We Can Do It!” ethos.
As the chairman of the US World War I Centennial Commission, Robert Dalessandro, recently commented, “Rosie the Riveter had a mother, and that mother worked in a factory too!” In fact, by 1918, two million civilian women worked in war-related industries. Women also took on traditionally male roles in farming, participating in the stunning growth of American agricultural production during this era. We associate these changes with World War II, but the Great War led the way in expanding women’s horizons.
American women volunteered overseas in newly professionalized capacities on the war front, starting with the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.
Women worked as Red Cross nurses, as relief workers, as supervisors of large-scale resettlement efforts. They often wore military-type uniforms, displaying a no-nonsense appearance that helped them get the job done, whether it was driving an American Field Service ambulance or organizing a local orphanage.
When the US officially entered the war in 1917, many of these female volunteers signed up in the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. On the USS Mongolia, one of the first troop ships to arrive in France in 1917, misfiring ordinance accidently killed two female nurses as the ship pulled into the French harbor. They would be the first two Americans to die in the line of duty during World War I.
The Navy Nurse Corps began in 1908. It was here that Lenah Higbee made her mark. Under her leadership, the Corps grew from 22 original nurses to over 10,000 in wartime. She received the Naval Cross in 1918, the first woman to receive this honor. Higbee was also the first women in the navy to have a ship named after her.
There are other “firsts” associated with the Great War. Women’s suffrage was a hard-won victory in a battle that had begun over 75 years before the Great War, but women’s wartime service gave it that last, successful push.
The expansion of women’s roles during World War I provides just one example of the war’s impact on American life. The war’s history abounds in diverse themes -of immigration, technology, treachery, heroism, philanthropy, economic strength, artistic inspiration– and each of them lends valuable perspective on the 21st century.
Over the next 3 years, the US World War I Centennial Commission will build awareness about World War I through educational programs, the arts, and the creation of a national memorial park in Washington DC. Please join us in commemorating the upcoming centennial in your community and across the nation.
Libby Haight O’Connell and Monique Brouillet Seefried serve on the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.