Women in war


Women in war


Is citizenship earned or inherent? Did women need to prove they deserved the vote?

Once the US entered WWI, women were eager to be of service--especially women with something to prove. Over the next days we’ll meet 2 groups of women who served: white doctors like Mabel Seagrave & Black YWCA leaders like Addie Hunton.

First, the heroic and infuriatingly unknown story of women doctors serving at the front. @Kate_c_lemay tells this chapter of suffrage history in Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence - another reason to get this gorgeous book.

When the war began, fewer than 3% of medical graduates were women, who were routinely denied access to internships and hospital positions. The war was an unmissable opportunity to train and serve, and women doctors eagerly volunteered. There was only one problem: the US War Department refused to enlist women doctors. The Red Cross wouldn’t take them either. NAWSA, which had embraced the war effort as a chance to prove women’s patriotism stepped into the breach. See 👇
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">White suffragists took very different approaches to the war. <br><br>Carrie Chapman Catt, though a founder of the Woman’s Peace Party, wanted NAWSA to support the war effort. She saw it as a chance to prove women’s patriotism and ability to contribute - and to curry favor with Wilson.</p>&mdash; Daily Suffragist (@DailySuffragist) <a href="https://twitter.com/DailySuffragist/status/1297718764952260609?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 24, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

The National American Woman Suffrage Association raised $200,000 and sent a fully-supported, all-female unit to France: the Women’s Oversea Hospital Unit. The first group to arrive in France included six doctors and a dentist, plus a female master plumber, electrician, mechanic, and carpenter. In just a few months they built a hospital near Bourdeaux from scratch - building barracks, operating rooms, the incinerator, all the mechanicals. To be clear, the women built the entire hospital themselves. The only men involved were German POWs who framed buildings under the women’s supervision.

Within a month the hospital was serving 10,000 refugees. As more teams arrived in France they set up mobile units to treat victims of mustard gas, moving as the front moved. A 600-bed unit treated as many as 20,000 men. The women doctors operated on soldiers under aerial bombardment by Germany. Wrote Dr. Mary Edward: “May the 28th [1918], operated 5-8pm, then 9-3am. Wounded were arriving...Bombs shook the operating room theatre and the barracks.”

The NAWSA unit weren’t the only women doctors in the war: Smith College organized a unit, and JPMorgan’s daughter Anne and her lover, a doctor, funded and ran a hospital in France. But only NAWSA was explicitly trying to prove women’s worth as citizens.

NAWSA required all members of the unit be suffragists, though it decided not to put “suffrage” in the hospital’s name. The whole team attended suffrage lectures while in France, and understood they were supposed to represent the cause for the folks at home.

When the war ended, the unit had money left over, so the remaining funds raised by NAWSA went to support the American Hospital in Rheims. Dr. Marie Lefort, from Newark, NJ, had founded the hospital; she stayed and ran it until 1935.

France was deeply grateful for the women’s service. Even before the war ended they awarded four of the NAWSA team their highest medal of valor, and promoted them to First Lieutenants in the French army.

The US continued to exclude women from the army medical corps, refusing women commissions even as the war raged and the medical corps was decimated by the 1918 flu pandemic. Nor did the US recognize women’s service after the war ended. As Kate writes, “More than 100 American women were decorated by foreign governments for their military service in WWI…[yet] not a single female physician or nurse described in this essay has ever been recognized for valorous service by the American military.”

France was more appreciative of the American women’s service, but suffragists’ underlying message was lost in translation. French women could not vote until 1945.


Daily Suffragist




NAWSA doctors in France.jpg
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Daily Suffragist, “Women in war,” Daily Suffragist, accessed February 8, 2023, https://dailysuffragist.omeka.net/items/show/495.

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