Call to Colors: United States Military Women in the Great War

Friday, January 5, 2018: 4:10 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Margaret Simmons Vining, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
When the United States declared war in 1917, the first two women’s uniformed military services were both more than a decade old: the Army Nurse Corps (1903) and the Navy Nurse Corps (1906). Both expanded significantly during the course of the war. But in the Great War, large numbers of women for the first time joined the armed forces in non-medical capacities. Initially, wartime personnel planners were content with the age-old roles of women in voluntary support roles. But times had changed and women demanded more. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, strongly influenced by his suffragist wife, Addie Worth Bagley Daniels, allowed women to enlist for naval service. Over twenty thousand women filled clerical positions to “free a man to fight.” The Marine Corps followed suit, though in far smaller numbers. Public response to the yeoman (f), as the female sailors were designated, was decidedly mixed, despite the efforts of military public affairs officers to feed the press a continuous supply of human interest stories featuring “the Navy girls.” Also, it was beyond imagination that women could ever gain a permanent place in the armed forces. That contentious encounter would take place in the next world war. Although the US Army refused to enlist women, except as nurses, the War Department nonetheless employed thousands of women as civilian employees or contractors and required them to wear uniforms. The Medical Corps hired surgeons, dietitians, and reconstruction aids; the Signal Corps, telephone operators and inspectors; the Ordnance Department, clerks and inspectors; and the Quartermaster Corps, clerks.