At the outset of World War I, women in the United States did not have the right to vote in national elections and could not serve in the military. In keeping with the spirit of the Progressive Era, many women came to view active participation in the war effort as an opportunity to gain more rights and independence.Share
Even before the U.S. officially entered the war, women volunteered in overseas relief organizations like the American Red Cross and, in the case of wealthy women like Anne Morgan, helped establish hospitals in France. Women continued volunteering as Red Cross nurses after 1917 while also joining units of the Salvation Army, the YMCA/YWCA and other organizations to serve overseas. Stateside, with millions of men joining the military, previously inaccessible work positions became open to women. They took jobs as factory workers, switchboard operators, technicians and countless others in almost every field and industry. Women who continued to occupy the traditional roles of wife and mother also contributed to the cause by participating in food conservation, Liberty Bond drives and general community efforts to keep up positive morale and patriotism.
Importantly, World War I marked the first time American women formally served in the armed forces. Over 20,000 women served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and those that went overseas were often stationed close to the front lines, experiencing artillery barrages and gas attacks. Women also joined the U.S. Navy as yeomanettes or “Yeoman F,” working as truck drivers, mechanics, translators and radio operators while receiving the same pay as their male peers. Women in the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, established by General John Pershing, improved communications on the Western Front. Like other women serving as nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers, the operators worked close to the front lines but as civilians and did not receive formal recognition of their wartime service until decades later.
The contributions of women in World War I allowed the U.S. military to focus 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. Their service provided momentum for the women’s suffrage movement, which had sought to obtain the right to vote for women since the 19th century. Although Woodrow Wilson and Congress were resistant before and during the early years of the war, they came to recognize that women’s widespread participation and sacrifice during the war justified constitutional change and in 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.
SUBJECTS: U.S. History, World History
GRADE LEVELS: 5-8, 9-12