Women in World War I

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German female war workers in 1917

Women in World War I were mobilized in unprecedented numbers on all sides. The vast majority of these women were drafted into the civilian work force to replace conscripted men or to work in greatly expanded munitions factories. Thousands served in the military in support roles, and in some countries many saw combat as well.

In a number of countries involved in the war, women became heroes for resistance work and espionage, work related to the medical profession, journalism and combat. Many of them were recognized with medals awarded by their own and other countries.[1]

Of the thousands of women who fought for their countries, many had to disguise their gender. When discovered, they were generally dismissed from service, as was the case in Britain and France. In other countries like Germany, Serbia, and Russia they were allowed to serve openly.[2]

Women working in a gas mask factory in Geneva, Switzerland

Reasons for participation[edit]

The motives of the women who actively joined the war effort were varied. Some were trying to prove their worth as supporters of loved ones in the military, while others were attracted by the idea of being useful in positions other than those considered "women's work."[3]

Many women believed that their contribution to the war effort would help their attempts to gain the right to vote.[3] And, in fact, the global women's suffrage movement continued to make gains during the course of the war, with Denmark and Iceland granting full suffrage to women in 1915; voting rights were also expanded the following year in Norway and Canada. In February 1918, the United Kingdom passed a major suffrage law that was considered directly related to the importance of women's participation in the war effort.[4] After years of opposition, United States President Woodrow Wilson changed his position in 1918 to advocate women's suffrage in recognition of their services.[5][6]

Anti-war sentiment[edit]

Other women protested against the war and tried to persuade world leaders to end it. For example, in 1915, the International Congress of Women held a meeting commonly called the Women's Peace Congress or Women at the Hague, which was attended by more than 1,000 women in the Netherlands.[7]

Journalists and other writers[edit]

While many women who participated in the war kept diaries or notes they later published as memoirs, some female journalists went to the front lines and beyond to get stories about what was actually happening during the war. Like their male counterparts, they were subjected to close supervision and censorship, but they had even more difficulty gaining access to information they wanted for their stories.[8]

  • Mildred Aldrich was an American journalist, editor, writer and translator. In 1914, shortly before the start of World War I, she retired to a house in the French countryside overlooking the Marne River valley.[9] She published a novel and four accounts of her life based on collections of her letters written during the war years.[10][9] In 1922, she was awarded the French Legion of Honour in recognition of her assistance to soldiers and refugees and the influence her books apparently had in persuading the United States government to declare war on Germany.[9][11]
  • Portrait of Ellen LaMotte
    Madeleine Zabriskie Doty was an American attorney and journalist. In 1915, as a correspondent for the New York Evening Post, she attended the Women's Peace Congress, also called Women at the Hague, in the Netherlands. She was then commissioned by the New-York Tribune to report on wartime Germany. Despite not speaking the language, she made two trips to Germany, during which she met with pacifist Social Democrats. On her second trip, she saw how the Allied blockade was only leading to intense hunger among the people. Despite constant surveillance, she was allowed to join an official tour of Germany for journalists. She returned to the United States and published several articles in major publications. These were subsequently collected in a book called Short Rations: An American Woman In Germany,1915–1916,[12] published in 1917.[13]
  • American nurse and author Ellen La Motte worked in a French hospital in Belgium to get her story. Her book The Backwash of War was published in 1916. Instead of promoting glory and heroism, the book focused on the agonizing deaths of men far from their friends and families. The book was banned in France and Great Britain but well-received in the United States until that country joined the war, when it was banned there, too.[14]
  • Dorothy Lawrence was an aspiring English journalist who wanted to be a war correspondent. In 1915, she travelled to France and posed as a male soldier working as a sapper for the Royal Engineers.[15] After 10 days, health problems led her to turn herself in. Upon her release, she was forced to sign an affidavit agreeing not to write about her experiences. After the war, she published a book called Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldier (1919), but it was highly censored and not successful.[14] In 2003, her story was rediscovered.[16] Her autobiography was republished in 2010, and she was featured in an exhibition on women at war at the Imperial War Museum.[15] Since 2015, several plays and films have been produced based on Lawrence's story.[16]
  • Germany in War Time: What an American Girl Saw and Heard(1917)[17] was written and illustrated by American Mary Ethel McAuley, an artist and war correspondent for The Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch who spent two years in Germany during the war.[18][19][20] Published after the United States entered the war, the book was considered much too sympathetic toward ordinary Germans and was immediately seized by the government.[21]
  • American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post, persuaded the editor of the Post to send her to the front lines in Belgium in 1915. Based on her earlier training as a nurse, she convinced the Belgian Red Cross to give her access to the army hospitals, and she was allowed to tour the Belgian front, including no man's land. She also received permission for personal interviews with King Albert I of Belgium, his wife Queen Elisabeth, and Queen Mary of England, wife of British King George V. In addition, she interviewed Allied leaders Ferdinand Foch and Winston Churchill. Upon her return home, Rinehart wrote 10 articles for The Saturday Evening Post based on her observations. The articles were also published in The London Times and subsequently collected into a book entitled Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front.[22]


In late July 1914 the Viennese press circulated a message published by Austria's first major women's group, the Frauenhifsaktion Wien, appealing to "Austria's women" to perform their duties to the nation and take part in the war effort. Women would be expected to provide much of the necessary manpower during this time and, depending on social class, some would even take part in the leadership of local communities in Austria.[23]

Notable individual[edit]

Viktoria Savs enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army disguised as a man and was decorated for bravery fighting on the Italian Front in the Alps.[24] She and Stephanie Hollenstein were the only two known Austrian women on the front line.[25][26]

British Empire[edit]

In the military[edit]

A Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) despatch rider on a tea break, seated on her P&M 500cc single, 1918.
WAAC recruitment poster

Women volunteered to serve in the military in special women-only corps; by the end of the war, over 80,000 had enlisted.[27][28] Many served as nurses in the following:

Other corps were created to release men from non-combatant roles in the armed forces.[29][30]

Two organizations trained women to use weapons in case of an enemy invasion, but the women never actually served in combat: the Women's Emergency Corps, which became the Women's Volunteer Reserve[31]

Poster campaign[edit]

Propaganda, in the form of posters to encouraged women to work in factories, did not show the more dangerous aspects of wartime labour conditions,[32] but appealed to women to join the workforce and play their part in the war. Other posters were designed to encourage women to persuade their men to join the armed forces. One poster has a romantic setting as the women look out of an open window as the soldiers march off to war. The poster possesses a romantic appeal when, in reality, many women endured extreme hardships when their husbands enlisted.[32] Many war posters challenged current social attitudes that women should be passive and emotional, and have moral virtue and domestic responsibility. In one war propaganda poster, titled "These Women Are Doing Their Bit", a woman is represented as making a sacrifice by joining the munitions industry while the men are at the front. The woman in this poster is depicted as cheerful and beautiful, conveying that her patriotic duty will not reduce her femininity.[32] These posters do not communicate the reality of munitions labour, including highly explosive chemicals or illnesses due to harsh work environments. The persuasive images of idealized female figures and idyllic settings were designed to solicit female involvement in the war and greatly influenced the idea of appropriate feminine behavior in wartime Britain. As a result, many women left their domestic lives to join munitions work, enticed by images of better living conditions, patriotic duty and high pay.[32]

Munitions factories[edit]

Lottie Meade, munitions worker who died of TNT poisoning
Female workers arranging and packing fuse heads in the Coventry Ordnance Works

Large numbers of women worked in the munitions industry, leaving when the industry reduced at the end of the war. They volunteered for patriotism and the money, with wages often double what they had previously made. Women working in these munitions factories were called "Munitionettes", or were nicknamed "Canaries", because of the yellow skin which came from working with toxic chemicals.[33]

Women working in munitions factories were mainly from working-class families, between the ages of 18 and 29 years.[34][35] They were involved in the making of shells, explosives, aircraft and other materials that supplied the war at the front, with some women working long hours. This was dangerous and repetitive work, generating toxic fumes and involving handling dangerous machinery and explosives. The factories all over Britain were often unheated and deafeningly noisy.[36] Some of the common diseases and illness which occurred were drowsiness, headaches, eczema, loss of appetite, cyanosis, shortness of breath, vomiting, anaemia, palpitation, bile stained urine, constipation, rapid weak pulse, pains in the limbs and jaundice and mercury poisoning.[37]

HM Factory, Gretna was the United Kingdom's largest cordite factory in World War I. Women from all over the world came to work there, manufacturing what was known as the Devil's Porridge, a term coined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to refer to the mixture of gun cotton and nitroglycerine that was used to produce cordite as a shell propellant.[38] They were collectively given the nickname of The Gretna Girls. Many proudly wore the triangular On War Work badge on their uniforms outside work which is now part of the Devils Porridge Museum Logo.[39][40] There were no creche facilities at Gretna, unlike other munition factories. The highest number of women employed at the factory was 11,576 in 1917, but this figure dropped to 6,285 by October 1918.[40] Most of the site was sold after the war had ended and the women returned home, some having had new experiences such as playing in the factory ladies football team.[41]

While the female role in the social sphere was expanded as they joined previously male-dominated occupations, once the war was over women went back to their role in the home, with their jobs going to returning soldiers. Female labour statistics decreased to pre-war levels and it was not until 1939 that the role of women once again expanded.[32]

Other jobs on the home front[edit]

Many women volunteered on the home front as nurses, teachers, and workers in traditionally male jobs.[42] Wealthy expatriate women from the United States set up an organization called the American Women's War Relief Fund in England in 1914 order to buy ambulances, support hospitals and provide economic opportunities to women during the war.[43][44][45]

Five Sisters memorial[edit]

Five Sisters Window, York Minster

York Minster’s Five Sisters window is the only memorial in the UK dedicated to all the women of the British Empire who lost their lives in World War I.[46][47] Ten oak screens were added to the north side of the St Nicholas Chapel. They list the name of every woman who died in the line of service during WWI. An inscription thereon reads, “This screen records the names of women of the Empire who gave their lives in the war 1914–1918 to whose memory the Five Sisters window was restored by women”.[48] There are 1,513 names listed on the screens.[49]


The role of Australian women in World War I was focused mainly on nursing services,[50] with 2,139 Australian nurses serving during World War I. Their contributions were more important than initially expected, resulting in more respect for women in medical professions.[citation needed]

Some women made ANZAC biscuits which were shipped to the soldiers. The biscuits were made using a recipe that would allow them to remain edible for a long time without refrigeration.[citation needed]


During World War One, there was virtually no female presence in the Canadian armed forces, with the exception of the 3,141 nurses serving both overseas and on the home front.[51] Of these women, 328 had been decorated by King George V, and 46 gave their lives in the line of duty.[51] Even though a number of these women received decorations for their efforts, many high-ranking military personnel still felt that they were unfit for the job. Although the Great War, had not officially been opened up to women, they did feel the pressures at home. There had been a gap in employment when the men enlisted; many women strove to fill this void along with keeping up with their responsibilities at home.[51]

Health care practitioners had to deal with medical anomalies they had never seen before during the First World War. The chlorine gas that was used by the Germans caused injuries that treatment protocols had not yet been developed for. The only treatment that soothed the Canadian soldiers affected by the gas was the constant care they received from the nurses.[52] Canadian nurses were especially well known for their kindness.[52]

Canadian nurse Madeleine Jaffray served in the French Flag Nursing Corps

Canadians had expected that women would feel sympathetic to the war efforts, but the idea that they would contribute in such a physical way was absurd to most.[51] Because of the support that women had shown from the beginning of the war, people began to see their value in the war. In May 1918, a meeting was held to discuss the possible creation of the Canadian Women's Corps. In September, the motion was approved, but the project was pushed aside because the war's end was in sight.[51]

On the Canadian home front, there were many ways which women could participate in the war effort. Lois Allan joined the Farm Services Corps in 1918, to replace the men who were sent to the front.[53] Allan was placed at E.B. Smith and Sons where she hulled strawberries for jam.[53] Jobs were opened up at factories as well, as industrial production increased.[53] Work days for these women consisted of ten to twelve hours, six days a week. Because the days consisted of long monotonous work, many women made up parodies of popular songs to get through the day and boost morale.[53] Depending on the area of Canada, some women were given a choice to sleep in either barracks or tents at the factory or farm that they were employed at.[53] According to a brochure that was issued by the Canadian Department of Public Works, there were several areas in which it was appropriate for women to work. These were:

  1. On fruit or vegetable farms.
  2. In the camps to cook for workers.
  3. On mixed and dairy farms.
  4. In the farmhouse to help feed those who are raising the crops.
  5. In canneries, to preserve the fruit and vegetables.
  6. To take charge of milk routes.[54]

In addition, many women were involved in charitable organization such as the Ottawa Women's Canadian Club, which helped provide the needs of soldiers, families of soldiers and the victims of war.[53] Women were deemed 'soldiers on the home front', encouraged to use less of nearly everything, and to be frugal in order to save supplies for the war efforts.[53]

Notable individuals[edit]


In the 1918 Finnish Civil War, more than 2,000 women fought in the Women's Red Guards formed in early February with more than 15 female guard units. Female guards saw combat throughout the war, in battles such as the Battle of Tampere where the city hall was held by the last pockets of Red Guard resistance. At the end of the civil war over 755 Red Guard women had died, 70 to 130 of them killed on the battlefield, over 20% or 400 to 500 members would be executed by the anti-communist White Guard victors and 80 to 110 died in prison camps with 150 to 200 members AWOL.[69]

Finnish women's military units were planned during the First World War and were formed in the Finnish Civil War by the Red Guard.

German Empire[edit]

German Red Cross nurses attending to wounded soldiers

Germany was hit very hard by food shortages due to early agreements among the Allies and neutral countries to cut Germany off from vital supplies. Facing wheat shortages, the country eventually began producing K-brot, a maligned type of bread made with potato. The working class that was forced to eat this bread felt it inferior to wheat bread and resented those who ate wheat breads and cakes during the war. The public perception of soldiers' wives in wartime Germany was that they had improved their station while German workers suffered. She was singled out for the ire and suspicion of the working class who questioned whether she fit the idealized image of the frugal wartime homemaker who formed the backbone of the "voluntary homefront army".[70]

The resentment against soldiers' wives spread among the police as well who felt her conduct was inconsistent with the German ideal and that her privileged status had outstripped their own: "soldiers' wives ought not to make so much racket so they don't have to stuff their muzzles so much."[70]

The police resented that women would benefit in such manner from their husband's service and protestors rejected the notion that soldiers' wives should be spending their afternoons "consuming quantities of cake and whipped cream with their children" while the nation could scarce afford such luxuries. There were complaints of women "dressed in somber clothing, claiming to be robbed of their breadwinner or other close family member...creating a sobering image;but one must on the other hand note that the women are untouched by either neediness or despair." One German officer said "it is exactly the poorer women who daily occupy the cafes of department stores, sampling delicacies that certainly don't number among the most necessary foods."[70]

Ottoman Empire[edit]

Ottoman Red Crescent and Red Cross staff at Hafir el Aujah.

Women had limited front line roles, being nurses and providing a subsidiary work force of emergency medical personnel. This was in response to the lack of manpower available since the empire was battling on multiple fronts, forcing the conscription of most of its male population. This medical workforce of women was made possible through organizations created by the government and international organizations, such as the Red Cross.[71]

Women such as Safiye Huseyin risked their lives working on the Resit Pasa Hospital Ship for wounded soldiers. This ship took in wounded Ottoman soldiers from the Dardanelles and was oftentimes bombarded by enemy planes and other ships.[72]

Women were also given limited roles in employment positions by the IOEW (Islamic Organization for the Employment of Women), an organization formed in 1916 with the aim to "protect women by finding them work and by making them accustomed to making a living in an honorable way". This was a necessary step to find workers to continue production of military goods while most of the available male population was off fighting the war.[73] The IOEW would prove to be responsible for a majority of the increase in female labor force in the military industrial industry in the 1916–1917. For example, over 900 women were employed by the organization at the military footwear factory in Beykoz.[74] However, the fate of the organization would come to an end after the termination of orders from the military and the NDL at the end of the world war. This led to a decrease for a need of female workers and a gradual decrease in the labor force employed by the organization in the year following the war, and an eventual closure of all of its factories and disbandment of the IOEW.[75]

Along with an increased demand in labor forces came an increase in White collared and Civil service roles for women, though to a much lesser degree than men. The mass mobilization of the male workforce prompted the nation to speed up the process of allowing urban, educated Muslim women into white collared jobs. The discrimination of non-Muslim populations with policies such as the deportation of non-Muslims in 1915 opened up a lot more jobs for Ottoman women for entrepreneurial roles within the country's economy. When the Ottoman Empire outlawed the use of any language except for Turkish in March 1916, it in turn granted new opportunities for Ottoman women that knew Turkish and other foreign languages with a specific focus given to women through organizations such as the Ottoman School of Commerce, which opened a branch specifically for women. The IOEW also provided women with administrative jobs and served as an intermediary for the school to allocate women students as interns in commercial and financial institutions throughout the country.[76]

Women shouldered a large portion of the agricultural and manufacturing burdens within the nation during the war, having to deal with the harsh conditions of wartime life with many women having to work in the construction of roads and fortifications. Rising prices of both staple items and consumer goods also rendered many women unable to subsist during these harsh conditions. To make matters worse, there were deserters and refugees roaming vast areas in the Ottoman Empire plundering and stealing large stocks of goods such as maize and hazelnuts that were stockpiled to last the war. Worst of all perhaps was that state officials through the military were pressuring many village women to provide grain for the army at little to no compensation; grain that was once meant for their own subsistence would instead be taken away to feed the army. Many homes were also commandeered by the military for various purposes forcing people (mostly women, due to the vast majority of men being absent to fight in the war) to sleep oitside or under trees. These wartime conditions affected women disproportionately to men due to the forced conscription nature of the Ottoman Empire leaving women to take care of villages and homes throughout the country.[77]

Another shocking look at the lives of Ottoman women during the war was the frequency of petitioners to underline the martyrdom (sehitlik) of their sons and husbands to show the contribution of their men to the war effort. If the death of a woman's family member was deemed worthy enough by the government, the woman would be allowed a small pension payment based on the contribution of their dead loved ones. This was also meant to show their religious faith in a public setting.[72]

Ottoman women were not given much of a voice in the inner workings of the government. Women would suffer violence and misogynistic negative reactions towards the end of the war as men returned to reclaim their jobs. However, the war also gave way to new ideas and desires for women's rights and is illustrated in the folk songs and state bureaucracy that followed the war.[78]


The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.[79] Its few "Women's Battalions" fought well, but failed to provide the propaganda value expected of them and were disbanded before the end of the year. In the later Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks would also employ women infantry.[80]

Notable individuals[edit]

  • Maria Bochkareva and the Women's Battalion of Death
    Maria Bochkareva (Russian: Мария Леонтьевна Бочкарева), née Frolkova, nicknamed Yashka, received the personal permission of Tsar Nicholas II to fight with men in 1914 and formed the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death in 1917.[81][82]
  • Olga Krasilnikov disguised herself as a man and fought in Poland in 1915. She received the Cross of St. George.[83]: 144 
  • Natalie Tychmini fought the Austrians at Opatow in 1915, while disguised as a man. She received the Cross of St. George.[83]: 225 
  • Marina Yurlova (Russian: Мари́на Максимилиа́новна Ю́рлова) served in uniform as a fighting Cossack, volunteering in 1914 at the age of 14. Wounded in combat on several occasions, she repeatedly won the Cross of St. George for bravery.[84][85]


Photograph of Milunka Savić in military uniform

Examples of women serving in the Serbian army include soldiers and foreigners Flora Sandes and Leslie Joy Whitehead[86] and soldier Sofija Jovanović, sergeant Milunka Savić, Antonija Javornik, and sergeant Slavka Tomić all serving with distinction.[87]

A number of women took part in the Battle of the Crna Bend (1916), during which Milunka Savić famously captured 23 soldiers single-handedly.[88]

Also includes a limited role for women volunteers as nurses during the war as well as in manufacturing roles outside the front lines. During the Great War, Serbia could be considered a country of women with a far greater number of women compared to men, Serbian census in 1910 showed there were 100 females per 107 males but by the time of the Austro-Hungarian census in 1916 there were 100 females per sixty-nine males, many of the men gone from the census just a short six years later were killed in combat, involved in the war effort or interned in camps. This led to a shortage of men in Serbia with many young and middle-aged women, not able to find similarly aged partners.[89] During this time period in Serbia as a female-dominated society the prevailing feeling of the majority of the nation was sadness, fear and anxiety because of the war, with very few marriages occurring during the war because of the disproportional numbers of men and women with more illegitimate children being born during this time, with 4 percent of children being illegitimate as compared to peace times 1 percent. As such children were the main victim of the war in Serbia, as women were forced to take upon the "social responsibilities of men including toiling in the fields, doing hard physical labour, breeding livestock and protecting their properties. It also shifted the traditional role of women in Serbia from that of the housewife to being the primary breadwinner in the family while the majority of men were fighting, leading to new obligations such as taxes, surtaxes and war loans that women in Serbia would have to contend with along with the role of caretaker of the household.[90] In fact, the war sent a message about the changing role of women.

Under wartime conditions, Serbian women began engaging in a number of activities outside their previous domain. Unexpectedly, but in most cases of their own will, women began appearing on the battlefront in the middle of the ravages of war. Some of them took up arms (Milunka Savić, Sofija Jovanović, Antonija Javornik, Slavka Tomić and others) defending their fatherland no differently than men, showing surprising courage and valour. A larger number of women started volunteering in military and civilian hospitals. They were housewives, artists (Nadežda Petrović), writers (Danica Marković), doctors (like Draga Ljočić), semi-skilled nurses, caretakers, teachers; some of them were highly educated and others were not as fortunate but they were astute, skillful and quick-learners. What they had in common was an intense loyalty to their country and love for their people that suffered utter devastation during the Great War. Most Serbian nurses had completed crash courses on looking after the ill and wounded at in-patient clinics or makeshift military field hospitals and ad hoc dressing stations. Draginja Babić, Ljubica Luković, Kasija Miletić and Mirka Grujić worked as members of the Circle of Serbian Sisters, whereas others were organized as part of the Red Cross mission in Serbia and abroad to solicit aid (Helen Losanitch Frothingham). Women from foreign countries, the members of international medical missions, were also of great support to Serbian volunteers in their effort to help others. During the early stages of the conflict foreign missions arrived in Serbia from Great Britain and Scotland, the United States of America, France, Imperial Russia, Switzerland, Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands. The members of the missions were mostly women – trained doctors and nurses – and they ran entire hospitals in the Kingdom of Serbia and the Kingdom of Montenegro. Elsie Inglis, Evelina Haverfield, Elizabeth Ross, Leila Paget, Mabel Grouitch, Margaret Neill Fraser, Louisa Jordan, Edith Holloway, Josephine Bedford, Isabel Emslie Hutton, Katherine Harley, Laura Margaret Hope, Jessie Scott, Eleanor Soltau, Lillias Hamilton, Florence MacDowell, Frances "Fairy' Warren,[91] Mabel St Clair Stobart who founded the Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps and Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance truck – these were some of the female humanitarian workers who shared the fate of Serbian people and army in the Great War. Together with their "Samaritan sisters" from Serbia, they used their medical knowledge and experience to help the Serbian army and in this way, they became part of the modern history of a small country from the Balkans and of the people who suffered the tragic Great Retreat over the treacherous Albanian mountains in the middle of 1915–1916 winter.

The rising tide of nationalism at the wake of the 20th century was certainly one of the women's motives in choosing humanitarian and charitable work. Aligning all these circumstances made it possible for a woman to break free from a historically long subordinate position in Serbian patriarchal society.[citation needed]

Notable individuals[edit]

  • Milunka Savić, one of the most highly decorated women in military history,[92] fought throughout the war.[88]

United States[edit]

In the military[edit]

Members of the Army Signal Corp operating telephone switchboards

During the course of the war, 21,498 U.S. Army nurses (American military nurses were all women then) served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. Many of these women were positioned near to battlefields, and they tended to over a million soldiers who had been wounded or were unwell.[93] 272 U.S. Army nurses died of disease (mainly tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia).[94] Eighteen African-American Army nurses served stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers. They were assigned to Camp Grant, IL, and Camp Sherman, OH, and lived in segregated quarters.[95][96][97]

Two members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in France using German helmets as baskets

Hello Girls was the colloquial name for American female switchboard operators in World War I, formally known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. During World War I, these switchboard operators were sworn into the Army Signal Corps.[98] This corps was formed in 1917 from a call by General John J. Pershing to improve the worsening state of communications on the Western front. Applicants for the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit had to be bilingual in English and French to ensure that orders would be heard by anyone. Over 7,000 women applied, but only 450 women were accepted. Many of these women were former switchboard operators or employees at telecommunications companies.[98] Despite the fact that they wore Army Uniforms and were subject to Army Regulations,[99] they were not given honorable discharges but were considered "civilians" employed by the military, because Army Regulations specified the male gender. Not until 1978, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War I, did Congress approve veteran status and honorable discharges for the remaining women who had served in the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.[100]

The first American women enlisted into the regular armed forces were 13,000 women admitted into active duty in the U.S. Navy during the war. They served stateside in jobs and received the same benefits and responsibilities as men, including identical pay (US$28.75 per month), and were treated as veterans after the war.[citation needed]

African American women cleaning and repairing military uniforms

The U.S. Marine Corps enlisted 305 female Marine Reservists (F) to "free men to fight" by filling positions such as clerks and telephone operators on the home front.[citation needed]

In January 1918, Myrtle Hazard enlisted and became a radio operator and then an electrician in the Coast Guard. She was the only woman to serve for the Coast Guard during the war.[101] It is widely believed that twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1918[102][103][104][105] but their story has been discovered to be apocryphal.[101]

These women were demobilized when hostilities ceased, and aside from the Nurse Corps the uniformed military became once again exclusively male. In 1942, women were brought into the military again, largely following the British model.[106][107]

American Red Cross recruiting poster

Non-military support[edit]

  • The Woman's Land Army of America was a civilian organization that employed tens of thousands of women in agricultural jobs in order to free men for military service.[6]
  • The Red Cross employed some eight million women as volunteers in various capacities and trained nearly 20,000 nurses for the armed forces. They also organized the Motor Service, consisting of thousands of drivers and auto mechanics who provided transportation of various kinds.[6]
  • Salvation Army "Lassies" provided coffee, baked goods and various personal services, such as letter writing, to soldiers in the US and abroad.[6]

Notable individuals[edit]

Other notable individuals[edit]


  • Marthe Cnockaert worked as a nurse in Westrozebeke and Rousselaere, treating both German and Allied soldiers. She was enlisted by a family friend to spy for British Intelligence and for a time served as a double agent. She was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for her medical service. In 1916 she was arrested and spent two years in prison. After the war, she received numerous honors from the governments of France, Belgium and Great Britain, and wrote a memoir entitled I Was a Spy![114]
  • Gabrielle Petit spied for the British Secret Service in Belgium. She was executed in 1916 and became a Belgian national heroine after the war's end. In 1919 her body was reburied in a state funeral.[115][116]


  • Madame Arnaud, widow of a French army officer, organized the Volunteer Corps of French and Belgian Women for National Defense.[117]
  • Louise de Bettignies was a French secret agent who spied on the Germans for the British using the pseudonym Alice Dubois.[118][119] The Alice Network she organized included some 80 people. De Bettignies was posthumously awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honour, the Croix de guerre 1914–1918 (France) with palm, and the British Military Medal, and she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.[120]
  • 1912 photograph of Marie Marvingt in an airplane
    In 1915 Marie Marvingt became the first woman to fly combat missions. She received the Croix de guerre (Military Cross) for her aerial bombing of a German military base in Metz.[121]
  • Émilienne Moreau, who was only 16 years old when the Germans invaded France, set up a school and later converted her family home to a makeshift first aid station. She killed several Germans, including two with a revolver, for which she received the French Military Cross, along with other awards and medals from the British.[122]
  • Louise Thuliez was a teacher who worked with British nurse Edith Cavell and others to help Allied soldiers who were trapped behind enemy lines to get out of Belgium and into Holland. She was captured along with Cavell in 1915 and sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison after the uproar over Cavell's execution. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour.[123]
  • Marie Léonie Vanhoutte worked with Louise de Bettignies using the code name Charlotte Lameron.[124] She was awarded the Legion of Honour, the Croix de guerre 1914–1918 (France), and she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.[125][126]


  • Known for her bravery, Ecaterina Teodoroiu received two Military Virtue Medals and was named a second lieutenant, becoming the first female officer in the Romanian army. After she was killed in battle in 1917, she became a national hero and was given a state funeral in 1921.[127]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Cook, Bernard A. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present (2 vol. 2006) ISBN 1851097708
  • Fell, Alison S. and Christine E. Hallett, eds. First World War Nursing: New Perspectives (Routledge 2013) 216pp ISBN 978-0415832052
  • Higonnet, Margaret R., et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (Yale UP, 1987) ISBN 0300036876
  • Leneman, Leah. "Medical women at war, 1914–1918." Medical history (1994) 38#2 pp: 160–177. online
  • Proctor, Tammy M. Female intelligence: women and espionage in the First World War (NYU Press, 2006) ISBN 0814766935 OCLC 51518648
  • Risser, Nicole Dombrowski. Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With Or Without Consent (1999) ISBN 0815322879



  • Braybon, Gail. Women workers in the First World War: the British experience (1981) online
  • Brittain, Vera. Testament of Youth (1933). Testament of youth : an autobiographical study of the years 1900–1925. London: Orion Publishing Co. 2014. ISBN 978-1780226590.
  • Farmborough, Florence. Nurse at the Russian Front: A Diary 1914–18 First published by Constable (UK) in 1974. ISBN 009459970X. (The US edition of this book has the title With the Armies of the Tsar: A Nurse at the Russian Front 1914–1918, and was published by Stein & Day, Briarcliff Manor, New York, 1975. ISBN 0812817931)
  • Grayzel, Susan R. Women and the First World War (2002) online
  • Hallett, Christine E. (2016). Nurse Writers of the Great War. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-1784992521.
  • Lawrence, Dorothy. Sapper Dorothy : the only English woman soldier in the Royal Engineers 51st Division, 79th Tunnelling Co. during the first World War (2010) [1]
  • Newman, Vivien (2014). We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War. Pen & Sword History. ISBN 978-1783462254. OCLC 890938484.
  • Ouditt, Sharon. First World War Women Writers: An Annotated Bibliography (1999) online


  • Fisher, Susan. Boys and Girls in No Man's Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War (University of Toronto Press, 2013) ISBN 978-1442642249 OCLC 651903020
  • Glassford, Sarah, and Amy J. Shaw, eds. A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (UBC Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0774822589 OCLC 774094735


  • Darrow, Margaret H. French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front (2000) online


  • Daniel, Ute. The war from within: German working-class women in the First World War (New York: Berg, 1997) ISBN 085496892X OCLC 38146749
  • Hagemann, Karen and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, eds. Home/Front: The Military, War, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Germany (Berg, 2002) ISBN 1859736653
  • Hagemann, Karen, "Mobilizing Women for War: The History, Historiography, and Memory of German Women's War Service in the Two World Wars," Journal of Military History 75:3 (2011): 1055–1093


  • Belzer, A. Women and the Great War: Femininity under fire in Italy (Springer, 2010).
  • Heuer, Jennifer. Women and the Great War: Femininity under Fire in Italy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) ISBN 978-0230315686 OCLC 5584091074
  • Re, Lucia (2016). "Women at War". In Amatangelo, Susan (ed.). Italian Women at War: Sisters in Arms from the Unification to the Twentieth Century. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 75–112. ISBN 978-1611479546.

Ottoman Empire[edit]

  • Akın, Yiğit (2014). "War, Women, and the State: The Politics of Sacrifice in the Ottoman Empire During the First World War". Journal of Women's History. 26 (3): 12–35. doi:10.1353/jowh.2014.0040. S2CID 143886448.
  • Akın, Yiğit. When the War Came Home: The Ottomans' Great War and the Devastation of an Empire (Stanford University Press, 2018) ch 5 pp. 144–162. ISBN 978-1503604902
  • Metinsoy, Elif Mahir. Ottoman Women During World War I: Everyday Experiences, Politics, and Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2017) ISBN 978-1107198906


  • Krippner, Monica. The Quality of Mercy: Women at War, Serbia, 1915–18. Newton Abbot [England]: David & Charles, 1980. ISBN 0715378864 OCLC 7250132

United States[edit]

  • Campbell, D'Ann. "Crossed Currents; Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook." Armed Forces & Society 20.4 (1994): 641–644.
  • Dumenil, Lynn. The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I (U of North Carolina Press, 2017). xvi, 340 pp.
  • Ebbert, Jean and Marie-Beth Hall (2002). The First, the Few, the Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I. Annapolis, MD: The Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1557502032.
  • Gavin, Lettie. American women in World War I: They also served (University Press of Colorado, 1997) ISBN 087081432X OCLC 35270026
  • Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy (2002) ch 1–2 ISBN 1557503176 OCLC 46791080
  • Greenwald, Maurine W. Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States (1990) ISBN 0313213550
  • Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (1993) pp. 3–21 ISBN 0891414509 OCLC 26012907
  • Jensen, Kimberly. Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0252032370
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford University Press, 2004.) ISBN 0195027299 OCLC 6085939
  • Millard, Shirley. I Saw Them Die : Diary and Recollections of Shirley Millard (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936) reissued in paperback by Quid Pro Books, 2011 ISBN 978-1610270236

External links[edit]