In 1901 and 1908 the establishment of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps opened the door for women in the military but ever so slightly. It wasn't until the United States got involved in World War One that some parts of the government got serious about using woman power.
As the Army stumbled around bureaucratic red tape trying to figure out how to enlist women the Navy simply ignored the War Department dissenters and quickly recruited women. Nearly 13,000 women enlisted in the Navy and the Marine Corps on the same status as men and wore a uniform blouse with insignia. The Navy's policy was extended to the Coast Guard, but personnel records from World War I contain scarcely any references to the Coast Guard Yeomanettes. A handful of them apparently were employed at the diminutive Coast Guard headquarters building in Washington. Nineteen-year-old twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve to become the first uniformed women in the Coast Guard. With the war's end the Coast Guard Yeomanettes, along with their Navy and Marine Corps counterparts, were mustered out of the service.
These were the first women in the U.S to be admitted to some military rank and status.
The War Department continued to thwart the Army's
repeated requests for women to serve as clerks
and consequently women other than nurses did not serve
in the Army during World War I.
But perhaps this isn't actually so - for an interesting sidebar
take a look at the Signal Corps Women in WWI The Unsung WomenPhysical and Occupational Therapists were called Reconstruction Aides and saw service also in the armed forces - they served in hospitals in the U.S. and overseas.
Those nurses who did serve were in Belgium, Italy, England and on troop trains and transport ships. Army and Navy Nurse Corps women served valiantly throughout the war, many received decorations for their service.
At least three Army nurses were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nations' second highest military honor. Several received the Distinguished Service Medal, our highest noncombat award, and over twenty were awarded the French Croix de Guerre. Nurses were wounded, and several died overseas and are buried in military cemeteries far from home.
Picture found in an old magazine "Our Nation's Roll of Honor, WWI Servicemen
who died fighting for their country. 1918, Honored Dead." Thanks to Mollie Story.
For a very personal glimpse of one of those brave nurses please visit A Tribute to Helen Fairchild
Although womens groups, the Army, educational organizations and the YWCA all lobbied for a womens corps to equal that of the British WAAC**, their appeals fell into the cracks created by narrow minds. When hostilities ceased on November 11, 1918, the bureaucrats boondoggled, and plans for women in the miltary were scrapped by the recalcitrant War Department.
Yet during that War, the so-called Big One, over thirty thousand women had served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, the Navy as Yeoman (F), the Marines, and the Coast Guard. They served their country before they could vote!!
For some more images of Yeoman (F) in WWI -
(Note - this will open a new browser window, to return simply close it.)
The door was opened further, but it would be twenty three years before women could be even remotely considered as an integral part of the United States military establishment.Yet interestingly enough it was the service of women in the military and the defense works that gave a huge push to the passing of the 19th Amendment.
President Woodrow Wilson was won over to the suffragists' side in part because of the bravery of women serving on the front and their proven abilities as they replaced men in offices and factories. In September 1918 Wilson addressed the Senate, urging that they follow the House in passing the 19th Amendment. His dramatic plea asked that the Senators recognize the contributions made by American women in the war. Wilson proclaimed ...
"...Are we alone to ask and take the utmost that our women can give, service and sacrifice of every kind, and still say we do not see what title that gives them to stand by our sides in the guidance of the affairs of their nations and ours? 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?"
WWI Women Marines
One of the most definitive books on the subject is Lettie Gavin's "American Women in World War I - They Also Served", 1997, University Press of Colorado. Ask your library to find it for you.
**For more excellent information on women in World War One please visit: Women in WWI
and also this site with excerpts from Professor Joshua S. Goldstein's interesting book "War and Gender" .
Next: World War Two Women
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