U.S. Women in War

Women in U.S. Naval Reserve

Like their British counterparts, U.S. women did not have the right to vote when the First World War broke out, but nonetheless they came in large numbers to their country’s aide. While the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were formed prior to the war, it wasn’t until the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917 that the military took to using women more directly in the services.

U.S. nurses served in Belgium, England, Italy and state side. They also worked on troop trains and on ships. In addition to working as nurses, they worked as physical and occupational therapists. Three women received the Distinguished Service Cross, the country’s second highest medal of honor. Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat award, was given to an impressive number of women and more than 20 received the French Croix de Guerre. Just as men serving in similar capacities, women were wounded and died on foreign land. A number of women are buried in military cemeteries in Europe.

Unlike British women, the U.S. War Department refused to allow women to serve in any capacity in the military other than as nurses. Army requests to have women work as clerks were consistently denied.  Nonetheless, the Armed Services ignored the War Department and recruited women in large numbers.  An estimated 30,000 women obtained military rank in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard during the First World War. It is important to note that a number of educational organizations, women’s groups and the YWCA worked hard to get women elevated to the same level they had achieved in Britain. However, as was the case with women who served the British WRAF, American women could no longer serve in the armed forces after the war. It would take over two decades before they were recognized by the U.S. military establishment.

During the entire time that women were involved in helping with the war effort, as laborers and working in various medical capacities, they were also involved on both sides of the Atlantic in working to obtain the right to vote.  In Britain, suffragettes who were in jail when the war broke out were given the option of “freedom” if they agreed to help with the war effort. They refused. In the U.S. as we will see later in this module, many influential women were opposed to the war. Nonetheless, women moved forward on all fronts, in factories, farms and offices, to fill voids left by men who were at war. It was President Wilson who spoke eloquently in 1918 when he addressed the Senate urging passage of the 19th Amendment: “...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?”