Women in World War I

Posted on October 11, 2012 by

A blog post by Archivist Jennifer Vess.

As with every conflict in which Americans participated, women played an important role in World War I – at home and abroad.  The work of woman during the war has been a particular interest of mine, and I wrote on the subject prior to coming to the JMM.  At the time I focused on women who served overseas, and it turns out that one of our manuscript collections at the JMM deals primarily with a Maryland woman, Rose Lutzky Beser, who traveled to France to be with the troops.

Approximately twenty-six thousand American women traveled overseas, either as military employees or employees or volunteers of the various welfare organizations that attached themselves to the army.  Most ended up inFrance.  These women were almost exclusively white (over 99%), all spoke English, graduated from high school or college, and mostly practiced Christianity.  These women as a whole were in marked contrast to the more diverse troops whom they served.

The Jewish Welfare Board, one of only six civilian organizations officially attached to the army, was able to see to the needs of the American Jewish soldiers.  Rose worked for the JWB and left behind an extensive collection of photos and archives.

Jewish Welfare Board in Paris. Rose stands third from right. c. 1918. Courtesy of the Beser Family, 1993.173.12

Rose at the window of Rabbi Levy’s home at 38 Rue de Sevigne in Paris where Rose lived 1918-1919. Courtesy of the Beser Family, 1993.173.22. Page from the scrapbook Rose compiled after returning from Paris, 1918-1919. Courtesy of the Beser Family, 1993.173.234.

The different branches of the military also recruited women to take over office jobs in the States so that the soldiers who had filled those posts could be transferred to front (this didn’t always go over so well with the men).  Other women became nurses, serving in hospitals at home and overseas.  The army also created the ‘Hello Girls’ a group of young female telephone operators who managed the communication systems in Europe.  Despite the importance of their work the women in the military were not often recognized for their contributions.  The telephone operators fought for sixty years to be recognized as army veterans.  The military at the time wasn’t even prepared to clothe their new female recruits.  They only had men’s uniforms and women scrounged together outfits that marked them as military, but kept them appropriately attired for the time.

Bertha Berkowich Levy in her US Navy uniform during World War I. Courtesy of Shirley Shor, 2002.64.1.

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 Unfortunately we don’t have much information at the JMM about the work of women during World War I, particularly their contributions on the home front.  They participated in many of the same activities that we are all familiar with from World War II.  From 1917 to 1919 women in the US dealt with rationing, planting vegetable gardens, taking over jobs in factories, volunteering for the Red Cross and other aid organizations, etc. For the most part these activities seem to have gone undocumented.
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