The role of women in World War II has been immortalized through iconic images like Rosie the Riveter proclaiming “Yes We Can!” and WASPs earning their wings. Stories of women flooding the workforce in the absence of men dominate history books and films. But they were not the first, nor the last, to challenge their traditional roles in answering the call of Uncle Sam. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look at the role of women in World War I and their impact on the Women’s Rights Movement of the early 20th century.
At the outset of World War I in 1914 women were not allowed to serve in the military. They were not even allowed to vote nationwide. Prior to the U.S. entering the war, most women were relegated to domestic life as wives or servants. Some worked in textile manufacturing, retail, government, and education. Many wanted more and saw the war as an opportunity for women to prove their worth. The suffragist movement was in full swing as tensions with Germany escalated following the sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram in 1917. The United States entered the war in 1917, immediately drafting nearly 3 million men into military service and drawing unprecedented numbers of women into the workforce.
Women on the Home Front
As men were drafted into service in record numbers, women were called upon to fill their roles in factories. While their work was especially important in munitions factories, women played a vital role in industrial output building airplanes, cars, and ships.
Women played a vital role in civilian organizations, from the American Red Cross to the Council of National Defense. They also became active in local organizations.
Although women were not allowed to serve in combat, they contributed significantly to the medical effort. They also participated in telegraphy and stenography, camouflage painting, yeomanry, and munitions testing.
World War I had a profound impact on women’s suffrage. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) actively participated in the civilian and military organizations. The National Women’s Party (NWP) orchestrated the first ever White House pickets to demonstrate the disconnect between fighting a war to preserve democracy and denying that right to democracy to American women. By 1918 President Wilson contended, “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought…if it had not been for the services of the women, services rendered in every sphere, not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.”
By 1920 the war was over and the 19th Amendment was passed, giving American women the right to vote. Many women returned to the home, struggling to make sense of their new-found role amidst a growing gender gap due to high casualties and a rising unemployment rate due to the return of troops and the closure of wartime factories. However, many women remained employed, demanding equal pay for equal work and paving the way for their daughters and grand-daughters in World War II and beyond.
NARA is currently completing a large-scale project to digitize photographs and films from World War I, including these photographs from 165-WW, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. Check back soon for updates on this project.
The geography of Europe changed as the map was redrawn after the war. Gone were German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Monarchies fell; the Tsar was murdered, the Kaiser ousted; the Ottoman Empire eliminated.
Few parts of the world were untouched by the Great War. This was no longer a matter of France and Germany shooting at each other. The British Empire pulled in soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and India into the conflict. The Middle East was not spared. Conflict was brought to Arab countries. With the end of the Ottoman Empire, the boundaries of countries in North Africa were redrawn and new ruling families installed by the victors of the Great War. The United States which in 1914 had no intention of participating in the war, was eventually drawn in and emerged in 1918 as an international power.
Local Identifier: 111-SC-31085 Camouflaging a Light Tank under Observation in the Field
The war ground to a halt in November 1918, four years after men marched to meet the enemy in August with the promise and expectation that the war would be over before the fall; then by Christmas; then by next year; then by the following year. The war stopped, but didn’t end in 1918. It started again in 1939 and finally ended in 1945 when the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in World War II.
Local Identifier: 11SC 31082: “The Alert: The 147th Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Forces
I’d like to acknowledge John D. Eisenhower and Byron Farwell for their comprehensive accounts of the battles of WWI and special thanks to Peter Krass for his in-depth examination of the artists and their experiences in WWI in Portrait of War.
The National Archives has custody of the original records of the combat divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces (Record Group 120) and the information contained in them is rich in detail.
More World War I Combat Art can be found online at the Smithsonian website: http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/subjects/military?edan_start=0&edan_fq=topic%3A%22Combat+Art%22
National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.
National Archives. Textual Records, Record Group120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War 1), Entry 224, Correspondence Relating to the Eight Official Artists of the AEF, 1917-19
Eisenhower, John S. D. Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2001.
Farwell, Byron. Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-1918. W. W. Norton & Company. New York. 1999.
Krass, Peter. Portrait of War: The U. S. Army’s Combat Artists and the Doughboys Experience in World War I. John Wiley and Sons. New York. 2006.
By: Kelsey Noel
Several weeks ago, the Still Picture Branch received a particularly fascinating accession when a number of boxes arrived filled with records from the Indian Health Service. On any given day around here it is almost impossible not to encounter something fantastic and fascinating. Yet every now and then, something of particular interest stands out – and this time it was photos of the Indian School of Practical Nursing.
In 1935, the Kiowa Nurse Aide School was started in Lawton, Oklahoma. Although the first several decades of the 20th century saw the idea of nursing programs for Native American women begin to take root, the Kiowa School is seen as the Indian Service’s first substantive, structured approach to develop such a training program. Grown from an earlier (and quite successful) initiative to provide Native American women with a five-week program in nursing and health as applicable to households and communities, the Kiowa School consisted of nine-months of academic courses. Expanded to a twelve-month program in 1951, it became known as the Kiowa School of Practical Nursing that same year. Following the school’s 1955 move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the name was changed once more to the Indian School of Practical Nursing. The school would maintain this moniker until it closed in 1974. The curriculum of the school was quite diverse – subjects included everything from dietetics to psychology. It was so successful that in 1952 a second Indian School for Practical Nursing was established in Alaska, but this school was not nearly as popular and closed after only nine years.
Although the Kiowa School might be considered the most successful of early opportunities for Native Americans to train in the medical field, it was certainly not the only one. There were other nursing schools, such as the Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing which operated from 1930-1951. The Indian Service also developed a scholarship program which enabled Native American high school graduates to study nursing at schools and hospitals which were not specifically dedicated to training Native Americans. Opportunities to study as dental technicians were also available, and by the 1970’s options were seriously diversifying – for example, the IHS School of Certified Laboratory Assistants and School of Radiologic Technology.
The Indian Health Service records received in this particular accession contain very little on other training opportunities, however, and indeed even records relating to the Indian School of Practical Nursing are limited. As is often the case, they provide only a tiny peek into a larger story. To make sense of such small glimpses it is usually necessary to investigate further – and sometimes the records are so fascinating it is just about impossible not to. So, if you are interested in researching this topic further, these records will be available upon request in the Still Pictures Branch very soon as part of The National Archives Record Group 513. Additional records can be found in the National Library of Medicine’s Indian Schools of Practical Nursing Collection.
Resources consulted for this blog include “American Indians At Risk,” (2014); “Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia,” (2014); “Caring and Curing: A History of the Indian Health Service,” (2009); “The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists,” (2012), and “If You Knew the Conditions: A Chronical of the Indian Medical Service and American Indian Health Care, 1908-1955,” (2008).