Ever Changing Roles: Women in World War I

By Sherri Goudy

“The Great War,” “The War to End All Wars,” “The World’s Worst Wound,” “The Bloodiest Conflict;” the terms and titles that historians and writers have given to describe World War I are vast and graphic.  It is depicted as brutal with the new forms of weapons technology used, and the effects of large numbers of men mobilized to fight on the battlefield left horrific scenes behind.  Many modern authors, exposed the severe and vast way in which this gruesome war impacted the public and changed lives forever. Beyond the patriotic, heroic, and noble actions that newspapers were writing about, were real life and long-lasting effects that the war was taking on soldiers, families, and the communities.  The effect of WWI changed life for women, and it changed the women themselves.

While men were going off to war, women were left to fill the gaps in family, society, and community life.  They became the sole provider of the home, joined the military, and formed social organizations to provide aid and resources for the troops.   They began participating in economic, cultural, and political life in ways they had not before.

As was going on throughout the country, the women of Springfield and Clark County immediately sprang to action at the onset of the war.  Over the next few weeks we will discuss the ways in which the women in this area helped to support the war effort.

The local branch of the National League of Women’s Service was formed in Springfield in early April 1917.

Photo 1 Women organize

It is evident that women had been organizing on a local level for some time, and that by joining the national organization, they would increase their success. “So perfect has been the organizing of the service work in Springfield for some weeks past, that the activity of the permanent organization effected Wednesday afternoon will go forward with speed and dispatch.”

Women were also prepared to “do their bit” by enlisting as nurses and ambulance drivers, as well as by replacing men sent to war in the factories and on farms.  They joined the Red Cross and urged everyone in the community to support their efforts.  They were ready to do whatever was needed. As this article posted in the Springfield paper stated, women were willing to “serve on street railways and railroads, to drive trucks or do clerical work, to prepare bandages and surgical kits, to do guard and patrol duty, to care for the nation’s food supply or to fill the places of professional men, such as doctors, dentists and chemists, who might be called to war.”

Photo 2 US women report for war

Women were not only contributing to the war effort by organizing, working and serving, but also by conserving food and home gardening.  Resources and supplies were scarce both at home and abroad and people across the nation were asked to “remember soldiers” when going about their daily lives.

Photo 3 July 22 1917 Housewivs canning remember the soldiers

In every action, from taking care of the family, working, enlisting, or continuing her daily duties of purchasing food, canning, cooking, and gardening a woman could help support the war effort. And she did this willingly.  She took the place of the men in her town and home.  And this changed her forever.

Join me in my next blog as we discuss the Red Cross and other ways in which women of WWI served their country.