‘It is the nation with the best women that is going to win the war,” surmised German ambassador to the U. S. Johann von Bernstorff at the outset of the Great War in 1914. Bernstorff s prescience in regard to the tremendous potential of womanpower in World War I would be more than ever proved with America’s war entry in early April 1917.
President Woodrow Wilson rallied Americans in stating, “It is not an army we must train for war—it is a nation.”
By January 1918, he formally endorsed woman’s suffrage in the United States upon consulting with activist and reformer,Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in return for its unstinting support of the war effort both Over Here and Over There.
In domestic agriculture, 20,000 “farmerettes” filled men’s traditional places behind the plows so they could fill the ranks of the American Expeditionary Forces to fight on the Western Front in France. Tilling the soil in 42 of the 48 states, they provided food for the family table, for overseas relief, and for the doughboys, who similar to all armies in history, advanced toward victory upon full stomachs.
Brightening America’s farm fields in brimmed hats, heavy gloves, men’s overalls, and blue work shirts, the farmerettes of the Women’s Land Army of America undoubtedly boosted the home morale of passers-by. Also known as “Sisters of the Soil,” they received $15 per month for getting into the “garden trenches” in order to “spade for life and liberty.”
Supplemented by the Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association, three million acres of empty urban lots in 1917 were increased to five million acres in 1918 as victory “war gardens” to “keep the home soil turning.” (The woman’s hoe was symbolized as the “machinegun” of the farm-field.)
In America’s factories, women workers manufactured bombs, artillery shells, grenades, ammunition cartridge belts, bandoleers, pistol holsters, canteen covers, suspenders, tents, and barracks duffel bags, among many other war products.
Women composed 20% of all U.S. factory workers from April 1917-November 1918. They were crane operators and welders in steel plants (the “mothers” of World War II’s “Rosie the Riveters”). Nearly 10% of iron and steel workers were women.
On the railroads, American women cleaned and repaired air brakes on the mighty “iron horses” which transported doughboys and supplies to coastal ports of embarkation to be bound across the “big pond” of the North Atlantic for Over There.
The railroads employed 31,400 women in early 1917. In October 1918, 101,785 were thus employed, of whom 73,620 were clerical rail yard office personnel. African-American factory workers stemmed and twisted tobacco to manufacture cigarettes for the troops. They also labored in the stockyards, preparing beef cuts for curing and canning to provide protein in the doughboys’ canned field rations.
Wartime union organizing drives accounted for 223,000 out of 397,000 women members in the trades industries by 1920. During November 1917, 9,000 women telephone operators joined 3,200 linemen on strike, adding to the union’s clout.
Women streetcar conductors ran urban trolleys. It was “the lightest work I did [for] the best pay,” claimed an anonymous woman streetcar conductor—who had performed clerical, telephone operator, and pharmaceutical warehouse work. “Do you wonder why I appreciate being treated as well as and paid just the same as a man?” she said.
Overall women’s income had jumped to thrice its prewar level.
Public demands brought the bulk of the two million doughboys rapidly home from overseas. Once back Over Here, they largely displaced wartime-era women job workers. Even labor unions cooperated by ousting women employees who had joined the organized workforce on the home front. (An exception was the Detroit United Railway Company, which retained its wartime female streetcar conductors.)
But women weren’t just making strides on the home front.
For the first time in American history, women were allowed to enlist in the U.S. armed forces due to the exigency of world war. “First to Fight,” the U.S. Marine Corps enlisted 305 women Marines, who earned the same monthly pay as men.
Women U.S. Marines drilled on the Ellipse behind the White House, mornings, at 7 a.m., in dark green dresses, instructed by male drill sergeants, imploring them to better keep in step. Having found “a few good women,” respect was maintained. As of the Nov. 11 Armistice in 1918, all women Marines were on inactive duty.
U.S. Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels answered his own question, “is there any regulation which specifies that a Navy yeoman must be a man?” in recruiting 11,274 female yeomen by November 1918. Each received $28.75 per month, the same as male Navy yeomen, less 20 cents per month for any contingent hospitalization.
In the U.S. Army, women nurses were allowed to treat wounded and/or traumatized “rough” doughboys.
Of some 21,000 army nurses, 10,000 served in France. Nurses were eager to “get close to the Great War, to wear a gas mask, to see daybreak through a mist of smoke in a din of conflict; and, to admire the mettle of the American doughboy, his fortitude, sympathy with the buddy whom he saw worse off than himself, his philosophic endurance, and unfailing sense of humor,” having been their motivation to go Over There, said Army Nurse Edith Medhurst.
Although a home-defense women’s cavalry unit existed in Washington, D. C, there were no American “doughgirls” Over There; hence, Army nurses were the closest women to the actual combat. (African-American army nurses were relegated stateside to the “colored” doughboy cantonments, such as Camp Sherman, Ohio.)
Eleven proactive independent U.S. Army contract American women physicians served without high rank, pay, or pension, but were “on the job,” said Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy, who doctored in France between September 1917 and January 1918. Although U.S. Army regulations allowed “persons” to be regular medical officers, to the Army this meant just male army physicians.
Circumventing this biased interpretation, the new American Women’s Hospitals sent 62 volunteer women doctors overseas to France.
The phenomenal “Hello Girls,” meanwhile, were the backbone of U.S. Army battlefield telephone communications in France.
Brainchild of U.S. Army Captain Robert B. Owens, stationed on the Western Front, who suggested-via chain of command— creation of an English-French-conversant woman telephone operators unit, rather along the lines of a British communications system connecting France and Britain. Advertising in domestic newspapers, the Duluth News, for example, announced the need for “150 Hello Girls, physically fit, bilingual young ladies, to be enlisted for the duration of the war.” Applications by 7,600 American women in December 1917 were narrowed to 1,750 by January 1918.
The chief operator, the personable Grace Banker, a two-year telephone instructor with AT&T, was appointed to lead the Hello Girls. When initially, a doughboy at the front telephoned for support, “he was surprised to have an [American] woman operator.”
“The well-modulated courteous accent of a Hello Girl dripping in the left ear has the same effect of the soothing hand of a nurse on a sick soldier,” reported a Los Angeles Times news correspondent. French officers attached to American frontline combat units “gave us [names of] towns quickly, perhaps because they knew the difference a few minutes might make.”
“The safety of a whole division might depend on the switchboard one of the women was operating,” concerning “a troop movement [or] a barrage, preparing to take a new objective over the ‘fighting lines.’” General John “Black Jack” Pershing wrote, “doubt vanished as the increased efficiency of our telephone ‘switchboard soldiers’ became apparent,” and cabled the U.S. War Department to immediately send another 130 American woman army telephone operators to further augment communications.
“A male preserve” at its core, the World War I-era U.S. Army denied their “girls in blue” bonuses, victory medals, honorable discharges, and coffin flags. Yet, its army women telephone operators were a key link to the AEF’s liberation of French soil.
Not to be denied was American women’s hard earned right to vote, promised by Wilson. Wilson’s call for a special session of Congress on May 19,1919, resulted in its endorsement of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, approved in the House, 304-89 [May 21), in the Senate, 56-25 (June 4), and ratified by 36 of the 48 states as of Aug. 18, 1920. Twenty-six million American women thus joined the national ranks of U.S. voters, as woman’s suffrage had successfully gone “over the top” into former “All Man’s Land,” having made a permanent advance for equality.