The role of women in World War II has been immortalized through iconic images like Rosie the Riveter proclaiming “Yes We Can!” and WASPs earning their wings. Stories of women flooding the workforce in the absence of men dominate history books and films. But they were not the first, nor the last, to challenge their traditional roles in answering the call of Uncle Sam. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look at the role of women in World War I and their impact on the Women’s Rights Movement of the early 20th century.
At the outset of World War I in 1914 women were not allowed to serve in the military. They were not even allowed to vote nationwide. Prior to the U.S. entering the war, most women were relegated to domestic life as wives or servants. Some worked in textile manufacturing, retail, government, and education. Many wanted more and saw the war as an opportunity for women to prove their worth. The suffragist movement was in full swing as tensions with Germany escalated following the sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania in 1915 and the interception of the Zimmerman Telegram in 1917. The United States entered the war in 1917, immediately drafting nearly 3 million men into military service and drawing unprecedented numbers of women into the workforce.
Women on the Home Front
As men were drafted into service in record numbers, women were called upon to fill their roles in factories. While their work was especially important in munitions factories, women played a vital role in industrial output building airplanes, cars, and ships.
Women played a vital role in civilian organizations, from the American Red Cross to the Council of National Defense. They also became active in local organizations.
Although women were not allowed to serve in combat, they contributed significantly to the medical effort. They also participated in telegraphy and stenography, camouflage painting, yeomanry, and munitions testing.
World War I had a profound impact on women’s suffrage. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) actively participated in the civilian and military organizations. The National Women’s Party (NWP) orchestrated the first ever White House pickets to demonstrate the disconnect between fighting a war to preserve democracy and denying that right to democracy to American women. By 1918 President Wilson contended, “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought…if it had not been for the services of the women, services rendered in every sphere, not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.”
By 1920 the war was over and the 19th Amendment was passed, giving American women the right to vote. Many women returned to the home, struggling to make sense of their new-found role amidst a growing gender gap due to high casualties and a rising unemployment rate due to the return of troops and the closure of wartime factories. However, many women remained employed, demanding equal pay for equal work and paving the way for their daughters and grand-daughters in World War II and beyond.
NARA is currently completing a large-scale project to digitize photographs and films from World War I, including these photographs from 165-WW, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. Check back soon for updates on this project.