By Sherri Goudy
World War I coincided with a phenomenon that was already in full force in the United States – the Women’s Club Movement. Women had been organizing since before the turn of the century to discuss books, music, and other cultural things. They were also joining forces to address issues they wanted to reform such as equal suffrage, labor problems, urbanization issues, immigration, migration, and corruption in the government. The Progressive Era and WWI became a huge catalyst in changing women’s role in American Society.
At the onset of war, women immediately mobilized to provide aid and support. As we discussed in the last blog, the Red Cross grew exponentially during the first World War. But women contributed to the war effort beyond their contributions to the Red Cross and nursing.
In Springfield, the newly formed Local Chapter of the League for Women’s Service elected officers and committee chairs to begin a publicity campaign. The local paper wrote of their motivation for such action: “Love of country and a desire to render what assistance they can, if called upon in the present war crisis.”
The next day, the paper published another article was published about the large number of women who had joined the group.
Within a month, the Committee on Women’s Defense Work was formed by the Council of National Defense. The committee consisted of women who represented various organizations across the country including the President of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the President of the National American Women’s Suffrage organization. These women would determine what role women and the home front would play during the war, particularly efforts for the mobilization of industries and resources.
The Women’s Defense League asked women to conserve resources for the war effort. However, women were warned “don’t go to uncomfortable extremes in your zeal for the cause.” This interesting article from the Springfield News Sun tells women “don’t wear dowdy clothes just because the nation is at war… nobody wants mi-lady to forgo her fall or winter outfit, or to go about in the left-overs of the style of 1916 or earlier.” It seems that even in war, and with supplies in short supply, the womenfolk should not deny themselves a little vanity and they certainly should “keep cheerful, for one can economize, retrench and do any of the hundred and one duties that war time exact, to so much better advantage with a smiling face.”
Locally, women were organizing to support the war effort in various ways. They organized to raise war funds to aid the families who might be sent away to the war.
The Women’s Clubs in Springfield who often dedicated their time to self-education in cultural subjects, decided to give up their literary studies for war relief work. They wanted each of their members to assist them in this goal, without alienating anyone. The local paper published this statement “The idea is to hold the entire membership intact and to have membership in the club obligation to lend a hand with whatever branch of national aid is taken up.”
By the end of the summer, the local women’s organizations were making surgical dressings, sewing clothing and other items needed in war torn France, and providing supplies directly to the Red Cross.
Whether women were formally organizing or simply supporting the war from home, the Homefront was crucial for the success of the war effort, especially where food conservation was concerned. Women were asked to think of soldiers while canning goods and doing their grocery shopping. The local paper dedicated one section of the news to “Winning the War at Home” through food conservation. On October 7, 1917 the front page of this section published the “Honor Badge of the Housewife” which was a window display card for women to display in their home to show they were a member of the United States Food Administration and had signed a pledge card to conserve food for the war effort.
In mid-November, women on the Homefront also began to wear a small service flag to show their support for the men in the army and who were at camps preparing for service overseas. Many Red Cross workers also wore the service flags in support for the men serving on the front.
So many local and national organizations which had formed because of growing concern for Progressive Ideas contributed greatly to the war effort. Black women also formed groups specifically to support black soldiers, and they did so separately due to segregation. However, not all groups supported the war. Some suffrage activists, who would finally be successful in their fight for equal voting rights for women in 1920, vehemently opposed the war. Regardless of motivation or position, all women regardless of class or conviction were networking to get things done in America.
During WWI, while women mobilized on the Homefront to support the war, others went overseas. They staffed medical units and served in the military. Of the women who stayed in the US, many engaged in wage work in industry and agriculture. Please join me next week for more about women’s role in work and service.