Homefront Mobilization, Patriotic Sacrifice, and Suffrage: North Carolina Womens Colleges during World War I

Saturday, January 7, 2017
Grand Concourse (Colorado Convention Center)
Keith Gorman, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Kathelene Smith, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
With the declaration of war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson’s Administration realized that it must mobilize the homefront, as well as its military forces, to fight an overseas war in Europe.  Faced with a labor shortage and lingering anti-war sentiment, state and federal agencies turned to women’s groups that commanded effective prewar networks of volunteerism.  Realizing that they must strongly rely on the well-connected leaders of these organizations to mobilize volunteer forces in each state, the government was forced to create a temporary political and social space, ultimately allowing women to leverage potential war work against their future political advancement.

Tapping into the students and alumnae of the nation’s women’s colleges was a natural next step to mobilizing the states.  These colleges were training grounds for leadership and service, producing educated and skilled young women who could be recruited for wartime jobs and services.  The mobilization of women’s colleges reflected the nation’s evolving gender roles, including tasks and responsibilities outside the conventional expectations for women in early 20th century America.  In the case of Southern women’s colleges—administrators, faculty, and students enthusiastically took up the patriotic call, assuming new public roles in support of the war effort. 

The state of North Carolina boasted thirteen private religiously affiliated women’s colleges, as well as one state sponsored normal school.  The central message for these women was patriotism, service, and sacrifice. These college students immediately began to shape their own campus mobilization, making significant contributions to almost every aspect of the war effort, including fundraising as well as food production and conservation.  Personal sacrifices, such as forgoing trips home, new dresses, and treats, were embraced at the state’s women’s colleges.  Pageants and entertainments were staged to raise money for the purchase of Liberty Bonds, Patriotic Leagues and war-related clubs focused the students on campus war work, and there were organized efforts to knit sweaters and socks for the soldiers.  Taking the place of men who had worked on campus, the young women also worked college farms and war gardens, raising and canning fruits and vegetables for use at the schools.

This rise in national responsibility and civic engagement resulted in a greater expectation of gaining personal freedom, as well as the right to vote.   The activism that had so successfully tallied the campuses for the war became focused on Suffrage.  Soon the women who had embraced patriotic service and sacrifice during the war began to shape their own postwar future.

Drawing on the existing archival records of the fourteen North Carolina women’s colleges, this study examines how administrators, faculty, and students took up the patriotic call, and subsequently fought for the political legacy of their wartime service.  This poster will illustrate the many and varied war efforts of North Carolina’s women’s colleges and the students’ increasing push for political and personal independence.

See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions