Women During World War I

Women During World War I

The Persuasive Power of the Arts in World War I

Women's WWI Period Clothing

The period from 1890 through 1920 was known as the Progressive Era in America, an age of increased industrialization and production. Social problems such as labor conditions for children and women, and public health and safety, became prominent national issues. To address some of these social issues, women’s clubs and organizations—like the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the national General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC)—were formed. The National Association of Colored Women was organized to respond to racism and other social issues impacting African-American women and their families.

American children, some as young as seven years old, were allowed to work in mines, factories and other businesses to earn money for their families. There were no laws restricting children from working six days a week for 10 hours or more. The working conditions for children were inhumane and dangerous and caused many young workers to suffer illness and injuries.

American women also increasingly vocalized their need for equality in the workforce. In 1903, the National Women’s Trade Union League was founded by Jane Addams and Mary Anderson to help protect female workers. When America entered the Great War, the number of women in the workforce increased. Their employment opportunities expanded beyond traditional women’s professions, such as teaching and domestic work, and women were now employed in clerical positions, sales, and garment and textile factories. During the war, women held jobs that previously were reserved for men, including work in transportation and construction as well as in war production.

The “Boye” Hand-Sewing Needle Store-Display Case, circa early 1900s.

Women in Military Service: Nurses & War Support

Service - Fall In - National League For Woman's Service poster.

Women were eager to show their patriotic support for the war effort. During the Great War, 21,498 U.S. Army nurses and 1,476 U.S. Navy nurses served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. It was the first time Army and Navy military nurses performed active duty abroad. In the United States, African Americans lived and worked in a segregated society and this was reflected in their wartime participation. Founded in 1908, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses supported black nurses in their fight against racial discrimination. As a result of increased pressure to allow African-American women to participate in the Red Cross, 18 black nurses were stationed at Army bases in Illinois and Ohio to care for African-American soldiers and German prisoners of war.

For the first time, women who were not nurses were allowed to enlist in the armed forces, serving stateside and thereby freeing male soldiers to go overseas. The Navy and the Marines accepted 13,000 women into active duty and a much smaller number were accepted into the Coast Guard. These women served primarily in clerical positions, with the same rank, responsibilities and benefits as men, including identical pay of $28.75 per month. After the war, they received honorable discharges and were treated as veterans eligible for veteran’s benefits.

The U.S. Army had more difficulty in accepting women for military service. While it allowed nurses to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps, they received unequal pay and were not allowed to have a military rank. Civilian women worked in the Army as contract clerical employees and volunteers. They also participated under military command with the Allied Expeditionary Force in France—but only as civilians without military status. Six thousand women also served as telephone operators, clerks, typists, stenographers, translators and canteen hostesses .

Red Cross workers provided light refreshments, food, reading materials and other entertainment to soldiers both in the United States and abroad during World War I.

A masquerade party at hospital
A masquerade party at hospital.
Image of non commissioned soldiers
Image of non commissioned soldiers.

The Suffrage Movement

Because women were taking on new roles in society, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1890, began to push for women’s voting rights. In September 1918, President Wilson urged the Senate to pass the 19th Amendment to allow women the right to vote, as the U.S. House of Representatives had already done.

Washington Suffrage parade
726 14TH ST., N.W., Washington, D.C.

Suggested Reading

  • Russell Freedman. The War to End All Wars: World War I, New York: Clarion Books, 2010.
  • Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee. A Few Good Women, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
  • Robert H. Zieger. America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.

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