Cutting a New Pattern, Part 1: Uniformed Women in the Great War

AHA Session 112
Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
(Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center)
Barton C. Hacker, Smithsonian Institution
This session will take place offsite at the SC Johnson Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
The Audience

Session Abstract

Scholars in recent decades have begun to pay a great deal of attention to the mobilization of women in the Great War, but why so many of them, civilian and military alike, wore military-style uniforms is a question that has scarcely been asked, much less answered. This session will bring this question to the fore and show why it matters. Of the many ways the Great War divided the past from the future, few were more significant than the reordered place of women in society. Although women’s new status clearly had prewar roots, it just as clearly derived from their participation in the war. Not only did tens of thousands of women worldwide for the first time become members of the uniformed forces, many tens of thousands more wore military-style uniforms as members of an enormous variety of paramilitary or quasi-military services and civilian relief and welfare organizations. Uniformed female volunteers for wartime service in such large numbers were unprecedented.

Why did so many women wear uniforms and what did it mean? Uniforms had multiple meanings both for the organizations that demanded them and the women who eagerly donned them. Among the most important was that the uniform—whether that of the armed forces, of paramilitary organizations, or of civilian agencies—served to visibly display women’s service and thus to make a forceful symbolic claim to full citizenship. This session addresses the significance of women in large numbers wearing uniforms during the Great War. It moves uniforms to center stage and expands traditional historical techniques with material culture studies.

This proposal comprises six panelists in two sessions. Because there is a strong material culture component to the presentations, it is also proposed to hold these sessions in the SC Johnson Center at the National Museum of American History. The Center is available from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The proposed lineup follows:

Session 1.

Fabricating modern femininities through wartime uniforms: VADs, clippies, munitionettes and servicewomen in First World War Britain

Krisztina Robert (University of Roehampton, UK)


Professionalism, patriotism, and purity of purpose: Symbolism and identity in First World War nurses’ uniforms.

Christine E. Hallett (University of Manchester, UK)


Women in war in Belgium: Uniformed or not?

Ilse Bogaerts (Royal Museum Military History, Brussels)


Italian women in uniform during World War I.

Allison Scardino Belzer (Armstrong State University, Savannah, GA)



Session 2.

Dutch nurses and World War I: From militarisation to pacifism

Leo van Bergen (Netherlands Institute for Military History, Amsterdam)

The ‘greatest mother’ in uniform: How American Red Cross nurses and volunteers shaped America’s Great War.

Marian Moser Jones (University of Maryland, College Park)

Call to colors: United States military women in the Great War.

Margaret Vining (National Museum of American History, Washington, DC)

Preparedness, relief, and welfare: Civilian American women in uniform

Barton C. Hacker (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC)

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