Women and WWI: Organizing, Serving, and Working for a Cause Part 1: Organizing the Homefront

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.”

Photo 1 April 12 pg 5

The next day, the paper published another article was published about the large number of women who had joined the group.

Photo 2 April 13 pg 10

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.

Photo 3 May 5 pg 2

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.”

Photo 4 August 19 front

Photo 5 August 19 front

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.

Photo 6 May 19 pg 8

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.”

Photo 7 July 15 front

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.

Photo 8 August 26 pg 7

Photo 9 September 2 pg 4

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.

Photo 10 October 7 pg 11

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.

Photo 11 November 11 pg 10

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.


Serving the United States and Clark County: The American Red Cross in World War I

By Sherri Goudy

Imagine you’re a solider fighting for your country.  A battle has just ended and you’ve been injured.  Your arm is bleeding.  You’re hungry. It’s raining and your socks are wet.  You don’t have another pair.   As you sit on a tree stump under a makeshift canopy made from your jacket, you see a woman coming towards you dressed in white, with a dark cloak wrapped around her shoulders.  She asks you to show her your injuries and proceeds to bandage your arm.  She has a ration pack and you’re so hungry you immediately tear it open and devour its contents. She also has a package for you with socks and a sweater, soap and toothpaste, and even a pack of cigarettes. Would you assume this woman was a nurse?  Or perhaps even an angel, sent to care and comfort you in the hell of your present location.

During the Civil War one such woman was nicknamed the “Angel of the Battlefield” for this very reason.  Clara Barton was a former school teacher and clerk for the US Patent office when she decided to collect and distribute supplies to soldiers during the Civil War, as well as providing nurses aid on the battlefield.  Her experience led her to advocate for war-injured soldiers through the ratification of the Geneva Convention. She is  most famous for founding the American Red Cross in 1881.  It was one of the first humanitarian organizations in the US, and the only one congressionally mandated to provide aid to victims of disasters and war.  But it wasn’t until World War I when the Red Cross began its transformation from a small organization with limited staff and insufficient funds into a massive, globally influential institution.

With the outbreak of war, the Red Cross expanded in many ways.  Its numbers grew from 107 local chapters with 17,000 members in 1914 to 3,864 local chapters with 31 million members in 1918.  During World War I, the public contributed $400 million in funds and materials to support Red Cross Programs.  And the organization recruited 20,000 registered nurses to serve the military during the war, and additional nurses came forward in 1918 at the outbreak of the influenza epidemic.

In Clark County, women became a part of the Red Cross and its campaign for action from Wilson’s declaration of war.  In early April, the headline read “Springfield Girl is Now Red Cross Nurse.”

Photo 1 April 13 1917 pg 10 nurse

Part of the Red Cross campaign was to collect bandages and surgical dressings for wounded soldiers overseas.  In Springfield, 77 Clark County citizens, mainly women enrolled in a surgical dressing class to bolster supplies for the Red Cross.  The classes were organized by the local chapter of the National League of Women Services.

Photo 2 May 7 1917 pg 3

In order to contribute to the fundraising efforts for the Red Cross, Springfield was divided into 4 districts “to facilitate the work of the campaigners.”  The newspaper provided a map for readers to see where their contributions would be counted.  It was set up like a competition among the quadrants as to who could get the most funds.

Photo 3 June 17 1917 2nd section pg 2

Ads flooded the newspapers, urging citizens of all ages to be a part of the Red Cross and its campaign to send aid overseas.  This particular ad pulls at the heartstrings of children, pleading with them to help the boys and girls overseas who don’t have enough to eat and whose papas are fighting “in an awful war” and that “we are in that war too.”

Photo 4 June 19 1917 pg 3

Full page ads urged women to join the Red Cross as nurses, and citizens to join as members to support the war effort.

Photo 5 Large June 17 1917 pg 11

Photo 6 Large June 18 1917 pg 7

Photo 7 Large June 23 1917 pg 8

The ad campaign was successful and by mid-June, the goal of 30,000 Red Cross members was expected to be exceeded.

Photo 8 June 20 1917 pg 1

The headlines for June 21, 1917 read “Six Donations of $5,000 Each received by Red Cross” and “Thirty Thousand Dollars Netted in Hour Thursday.”  The central district for the Red Cross campaign for memberships provided a photo of the young girls who were soliciting for the Red Cross, wearing their white uniforms and recognizable white cap with the cross on it.

Photo 9 June 21 1917 front

In preparation for the cold months, the Red Cross accepted donations of knitted garments for soldiers.  On August 26, 1917, the Springfield newspaper published an article stating that “it is necessary that the Red Cross have one thousand sets of knitted articles.”

Photo 10 August 26 1917 pg 5

In less than 4 months, Springfield and its surrounding rural towns were exceeding expectations with the number of members and contributions to the Red Cross.

Photo 11 August 26 1917 pg 7 exceed records

In the first months of the war, the Red Cross grew exponentially. The membership expansion, nurses who joined, knitting goods, supplies collected, and every citizen young or old, regardless of background contributed to this growth, and were led by the women of Springfield and women across the country.  For the first time, women had an incredible opportunity to show their patriotism in the public sphere and were recognized for it.

Next time, we will discuss other ways women served their country by joining the military and work force.

Let us know what you think! Leave us a comment about what you’ve read and what you’d like to see us write about next.