In observing National Women’s History Month 2016 (March), the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) has adopted the theme, “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.” Among the women specifically cited is Judy Hart (1941–present), whose 27-year career with the National Park Service included a stint as the first superintendent of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Park in Richmond, California, a facility she helped create.
As the NWHP notes, “over 9,000 Rosies have contributed their stories to the park, and more than 2,000 have donated their personal items and mementos.” It’s fortunate that the Rosies are so well represented, but unfortunate that their World War I counterparts, who laid the groundwork for the Rosie movement, are largely overlooked.
The United States didn’t enter World War I until April 1917, after fighting had raged for nearly three full years. America had maintained neutrality until that time, but suddenly needed to mobilize quickly. A draft became part of the process, and by early 1918, nearly 10,000 soldiers a day were going off to war. Those men needed clothing, weapons, and food, but their departure left huge shortages of workers across all industries. To prevent an interruption of supplies, many solutions were floated, but the blueprint for action was already ongoing in England, France, and other countries where women were replacing men who had joined the fight.
Similarly, American women rose to the occasion, taking on all types of work, from clerical to farming to munitions production. Lists of women were compiled in communities across the country, resulting in registration cards identifying the potential contribution of each person. (For example, in mid-1918, it was estimated that 7,500 women living in Glens Falls had registered.) As men left for war, the lists were used to recruit women as replacement employees. If a woman couldn’t fill a position, she might babysit for mothers who were able to take over a man’s job. Or, she might grow a garden and donate the food, work on fundraisers, sew clothes, collect items needed by soldiers, or contribute in some other way. Everyone was expected to take part in a war effort necessary for self-preservation.
Before long, women were doing work historically reserved for men, and even jobs long believed beyond their capabilities. At Buffalo, an experienced foreman oversaw a railroad section gang consisting of nine women, all of them performing duties formerly the purview of men only. Farmers across the North Country were told to contact county agricultural agents to secure female workers for plowing fields, milking cows, tending to crops, and helping with harvests. In Watertown, several hundred women signed up to work in manufacturing plants and munition factories in the city. For the first time in nearly a decade, the position of rural mail carrier was made available to women in northern New York. At Lyon Mountain’s iron mines, where employing women had previously been unthinkable, several were hired after answering an advertisement for “strong, able-bodied women to unload cars of coal.”
Women were also recruited for state-related jobs normally performed by men. At Franklin Falls, Vermontville, Bloomingdale, and Meadowbrook (between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid), about sixty percent of the crews tasked with planting four million trees on deforested state land were female workers. Others were hired to fill shortages in fish hatcheries across the state.
While some jobs provided a good wage, it’s important to know that many woman worked to support the troops, but received no pay. For instance, college girls, teachers, and secretaries (giving up their vacations) volunteered to work on farms during the summer. When they returned to jobs or school in the fall, other women were hired to replace them.
In early October 1918, Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, a strong supporter of employing women to help fund and win the war, declared October 5 as Women in War Work Day to recognize their patriotism, selflessness, and achievements.
On November 6, just five days before the armistice was signed, the Glens Falls Post-Star commented on female participation during the war: “It is becoming an established fact that women can do many things which man has long said was impossible for the female of the species to undertake. The thing, however, which is most appalling to the so-called stronger sex is the fact that the women are doing their new work as well as the men did, and making records which are equal in every way to the men’s.”
Back in 1914, when the war began, 23.6 percent of working-age American women were employed. The nation’s future was altered during the next four years, and by 1918, that number had nearly doubled to an estimated 43 percent. Many left the workplace after the war, but a precedent had been established. Women enjoyed newfound freedoms in the 1920s, and during World War II, “Rosies,” many of them daughters of World War I women workers, answered the call once again.
Among those strongly urging women to fill men’s jobs during the First World War were suffragettes, who at the same time were battling for the right to vote. Their work for America’s defense, and the outstanding job performed by those unfairly characterized as the weaker sex, helped win ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote in national elections — the very definition of service to one’s country.
Photos: WWII Poster (Library of Congress); women in Massachusetts ordnance factory during WWI (Library of Congress); Rosie the Riveter, World War II icon (Howard Miller, Westinghouse artist)