The Hello Girls: The film.


There’s a film to accompany Elizabeth Cobbs’s book on the Hello Girls, the women who served as switchboard operators in the US Signal Corps during World War I. For further details or to purchase the DVD, visit the film’s webpage.

America’s WWI female codebreakers: Elizebeth Friedman, Agnes Meyer.


Elizebeth Smith, from the Hillsdale College Wolverine, 1915

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (1892–1980) was born in Huntington, IN, and earned a degree in English literature from Hillsdale College (MI) in 1915. She married cryptology pioneer Herbert Friedman in 1917. At Riverbank Laboratories in Illinois she deciphered traffic between Germany and Mexico as well as messages regarding a Hindu-German conspiracy (which resulted in defendants shot dead in a San Francisco courtroom); she also helped train individuals in cryptology. Friedman later worked for the Signal Corps; for the Treasury Dept and Coast Guard, she was particularly effective in cracking codes used in drug and alcohol smuggling. In World War II she worked on the Japanese “Purple” code and provided evidence of the pro-Japan spy activities of Velvalee Dickinson (aka “the Doll Woman”).

Audio: Listen to a 1974 interview in which Friedman discusses her World War I work, or read the transcript.


Agnes Meyer, from the 1909 Otterbein Sybil.

Nicknamed “Madame X,” Geneseo (IL)-born Agnes Meyer (1889–1971) graduated from Ohio State in 1911 and enlisted in the Navy as a Yeoman (F) in June 1918. Versed in French, German, Japanese, and Latin, she worked in the Postal and Cable Censorship Office. Her job was to examine telegrams and letters for indications of espionage or security breaches. Next, she was assigned to the director of naval communications’ Code and Signal Section, which created codes and ciphers for the Navy. After the war, she continued in this office as a civilian employee, had a stint at the “Black Chamber” in New York, and worked on an early version of a cipher machine.

Meyer married Washington, DC, attorney Michael Driscoll and taught cryptanalysis to Navy personnel. During World War II, she worked on Japanese and German codebreaking. Described as “without peer as a cryptoanalyst” by Rear Admiral Edwin Layton, she remained with the NSA until her retirement in 1959. She died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Update, 5-8-17. New book on Friedman
A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Girl Scout messenger of WWI: Eugenia Clement.


Clement Eugenia Clement, from U-Maryland’s yearbook Reveille (1926)

The 15 July 1918 Brooklyn Daily Eagle discusses Surgeon General William C. Gorgas’s use of 46 Girl Scouts as messengers so that men could be released for service in World War I. Gorgas followed the example of General Enoch Crowder, the army’s provost marshal, who employed Girl Scouts for the same purpose.

Among the girls listed and lauded for their discipline and “practical patriotism” is DC-born Eugenia Clement. Clement, aka Eugenia Clement Brooke (1906–71), was the first woman to take a course in University of Maryland’s College of Engineering and was a member of UM’s winning rifle team. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from UM in 1926 and 1927, had positions at the Naval Ordnance Lab and Goddard Space Flight Center, and worked on the Apollo 11 mission.

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.