The Women of World War I in Photographs

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.

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Suffragettes enrolling their willingness to aid their country when hostilities broke out between Germany and U.S. 165-WW-600-A1

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.

 

Civilian Organizations

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.

 

Military 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.

 

Suffrage

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.

About Kristin DeAnfrasio

Kristin is an Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch.
This entry was posted in Digitization, Military, Photographs. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Women of World War I in Photographs

  1. Tom says:

    A 2nd cousin of mine ( My mother’s family served as a Yoeman(f), known as Yoemnetts.
    WW I stationed at NAS Wild Wood NJ.She work as Navy cavilan AT NAS Cape May
    ( Today’s USCG Training Ctr – Boot Camp)
    later worked at NAS Lahehurst until Jan 1942
    When she Reinlisted and Commisioned in Nav Res the WAVES (Women Appointed for Volentry Service) After WW II she became the
    Diretor of the WAVES Capt O-6 which she led until she retired. As I understand it at that time only 2 women could hold the Capt.’s rank – the Directors of the WAVES + the Navy Nurse Corps. 1 one of her brothers served on the USS Wasp during WWII and was credted with reorginzing Navy research and appearently naming ThE Office Navel Research.
    Semper Fi. Tom DEVLIN

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  2. I have 2 excellent pictures of my great aunt standing as a young woman in uniform during WW 1. I did not know what she was up to until now, but she was wearing army-type pants and riding boots. Based on your pictures, I think she must have been in the women’s calvary corps. I would be glad to send the pictures for your perusal. Please contact me at dwalstad@bellsouth.net

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  3. Andrea says:

    Thank you for this post!

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  4. Gailee Wells says:

    What an incredible site. I had no idea. I am developing a new theatre production with the hopes that it will inspire Americans to become interested in the history of their family and our country. Too much is being lost. I’m looking for photos of women who were involved with the American Suffrage Movement and women and men who were in WW I. I’d like photos with the names of those in the photos and stories that go with the photos. These will be included in the production; thereby keeping those who gave so much the honor and celebration they deserve. I can be e-mailed at gailee@theatreartswest.org

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  5. This article is very interesting, I like it. I will always come to visit after.I would recommend to friends more.

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