Preparedness, Relief, and Welfare: Civilian American Women in Uniform

Friday, January 5, 2018: 4:30 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Barton C. Hacker, Smithsonian Institution
Tens of thousands of American women wore military-style uniforms in the Great War, many well before the United States entered the war. Soon after the outbreak of war, American women living abroad began organizing such groups as the Duryea War Relief and, most notably, the American Fund for French Wounded and its successor, the American Committee for Devastated France. Both the latter two organizations had motor units with uniformed women drivers, as did the American Women’s Hospital and the American Red Cross. Women also organized the independent Le Bien-être du Blessé Women’s Motor Unit. Women working overseas commonly adopted uniforms. At home, women also wore military-style uniforms as volunteers in paramilitary units associated with the nationwide preparedness movement, and in a wide variety of civilian war relief and welfare organizations. Women were largely self-mobilized before the United States formally entered the war, but local, state, and federal agencies played growing roles in mobilizing women from 1917 onwards. Uniformed women worked in such government-sponsored organizations as the National League for Women’s Service, the Commission on Training Camp Activities, the Women’s Land Army, and numerous state and local organizations overseen by the Council of National Defense Women’s Committee. America’s entry into the war also multiplied the number of non-governmental organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Jewish Welfare Board, and America’s Over-There Theatre League, in all of which uniformed women served both at home and abroad. And still more American women, like many European women, donned uniforms of other kinds as homemakers, factory workers, clerks and secretaries, trolley and bus conductors, drivers, police officers, government workers, and a host of other home front jobs. Uniforms allowed them to display their patriotism and to stake at least a symbolic claim to full citizenship.
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