The Neglect of U.S. Women in World War I

May Hammond, Smith College Relief Unit, assist a wounded British serviceman at Montmirail, France, May 1918

May Hammond, Smith College Relief Unit, assists a wounded British serviceman in Montmirail, France, May 1918. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

This blog is an attempt to address my frustration at the light coverage of U.S. women’s contributions to World War I. We tend to hear more about British women’s service, with the assumption that because the official U.S. entry occurred late in the war, U.S. women’s involvement subsequently must date from that time.

Not true. For example, Anne Morgan’s American Fund for French Wounded dates from 1915, as does Winifred Holt’s work with blind French servicemen. We might hear occasionally of the relief work of an Edith Wharton or see a photo of a woman in naval uniform as a yeoman (F), but these fail to reflect a full picture of their service. The VA estimates that during World War I, more than 23,000 female nurses served in the Army and Navy, approximately 12,000 women were Navy yeoman (F)s, and 307 women were in the Marine Corps. The Red Cross places the number of its total WWI volunteers at 8 million, including nearly 24,000 nurses; its 12,000-member Motor Corps was composed primarily of women. These figures, of course, do not encompass women who were involved in private efforts (such as with church, university, or community groups). In 1925, the Women’s Overseas Service League indicated that 50,000 U.S. women served abroad during the war.

It is easy, however, in looking at the wood to miss the role of individual trees. In compiling my anthology In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I, I discovered a number of first-person narratives by U.S. women who served in various capacities during the war. They refute the persistent stereotype that American women only served as nurses or clerks during the war. I also found nuggets of stories; lines of inquiry that unraveled tantalizingly but stalled without more intensive research; and documentation that revealed impressive achievements during and after the war or poignant facts of lives cut short by disease, misadventure, or despair. Today’s concerns about sufficient care for U.S. military women are not new; I found some press coverage from the 1920s to the 1940s of female WWI veterans lacking services and monetary compensation. I hope this blog will showcase the service of such women and assist those who would like to learn more or teach about American women’s work in the war.