by Sherri Goudy
A century ago, as America pledged allegiance to join the bloody battlefield already in motion, the men of this country prepared for war. They left their homes, farms, jobs, and towns to join the 60 million men already fighting across the sea. Over 5 million American men joined and fought in WWI, and in their absence women had no choice but to fill the gaps. Women went to work on the home front and overseas, and forever changed the labor force in America.
Women at home kept the farms and factories running. New jobs popped up as the formation of munitions factories and other war-based industries arose, and women filled those jobs as well. They maintained their household duties and spent full workdays outside of the home. Women became single heads of households in unprecedented numbers.
In Springfield, women were seeking opportunities to learn about automobiles and the possibility of driving trucks for the war effort. In April 1917, women attended a class at the YMCA about how to “Master Mysteries of the Automobile.” The article states that one participant of the class said, “that all women who can and should be prepared to help in the case of war.”
Articles were published over the next few months asking women to take jobs on the railroad. The article makes sure to mention that women “will be paid the same wages as men.”
In August, a photo of a woman working on the Railroad in Jersey City was published in the Springfield Daily News. Although the tone seems to mock the woman being photographed, it is certainly a common attitude for this time. The caption under the photo reads “This happy and husky woman railroader has just finished giving the engine a thorough inspection when the photo was taken. She looks a bit olly, but she doesn’t mind at all, for she knows she is doing her bit for Uncle Sam. She is one of the many thousands of women who are going to keep American industries going while the men are away to war.”
Regardless of the tone with which women stepping up to the call of duty had to contend with, they embraced their new role and opportunities to prove themselves. Mary Gore, secretary to the Springfield city engineer declared “You cannot stop the women.” Her progressive thoughts are well laid out in this article where she discusses women’s role in handling issues from the unique perspective of being a woman. “Opportunities await the women on every side today… They are being recognized and are being better paid because they have proved that they can do the work just as well as men, and can be depended upon.”
In October, as the men of Springfield who had been drafted were preparing to go to training camps, a plea was published in the Springfield Daily News, for 1 million women to go to work.
While women were filling the holes left in the workforce at home, women also began to serve in the military. As already discussed many women served as volunteers in the Red Cross and as nurses. They also drove ambulance and supply trucks directly on the battlefield. Although the army refused to officially enlist women, the were permitted to volunteer. The Army Signal Corps recruited more than 200 women, most of whom were bilingual to serve as telephone operators. These “hello girls” were trained by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) to operate switchboards and enabled communications within the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and the allied forces. Although they were serving the military, were subject to military discipline, and some were even praised by their male comrades as “Soldiers of the Switchboard,” they were denied military titles, status, and benefits by the United States Army.
There were women, however, who did enlist officially in the military. The Marine Corps and Coast Guard admitted women into their ranks. But by far, the largest number of women who enlisted and received benefits were part of the Navy.
After war was declared in America and military branches needed to increase their ranks, the Navy remained critically shorthanded. The number of ships increased from 200 to 1000, but there were not enough people to man them. Due to vague language in the Naval Act of 1916, the Naval Reserve force was to consist of “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.” This gave the Navy a new resource and 13,000 women joined the ranks, freeing men who once served in clerical and administrative positions to serve aboard ships. The female Naval service members were called Yeomen, and they served by carrying out operations which included radio operators, stenographers, nurses, pharmacists, messengers, chauffeurs, mechanics, truck drivers, cryptographers, fingerprint experts, chemists, telephone operators, and munitions makers.
Across the US, women were asked to join the Navy, and propaganda posters like this one appealed directly to them.
WWI left an incredible legacy for the world, the United States, and its citizens. There was no such thing as “getting back to normal” once the war was over. Life was changed forever, and this is clearly exemplified by the evolution of gender roles that really started to change during this time. Women demonstrated their abilities to lead and handle “man’s work” in the face of total war. They would continue to see ranks and positions open to them in the workforce and military. And in 1920, the 19th Amendment secured their right to a political voice. Although not without tension and conflict, the movement for women’s equality was fostered and began to see success because of WWI.
Next time we will discuss the contributions of African Americans during WWI.
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