Issue 11 - Women in War

At the time of World War I, most women were barred from voting or serving in military combat roles. Many saw the war as an opportunity to not only serve their countries but to gain more rights and independence.

With millions of men away from home, women filled manufacturing and agricultural positions on the home front. Others provided support on the front lines as nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, translators and, in rare cases, on the battlefield. This issue of Understanding the Great War  focuses on some of their contributions, but there are far more educational resources on the wartime efforts of women  available in the online resource archive.

Women proved themselves in a time of war, and their tireless efforts paved the way for later social and legal reform surrounding women's rights.

In the header: A photo of Leola N. King of Washington, D.C., who became the first female traffic police officer in 1918. She and many other women took on important roles on the home front during the war. Look back at our newsletter issue on the home front for more information on their contributions.
"My ward was completely filled again last night, and many 'cases' are desperately ill. How one nurse can do justice to 70 horribly wounded men is beyond comprehension. One couldn't believe that is possible for one nurse to accomplish so much in twelve hours! You are just everywhere at once, but oh, what satisfaction in knowing that you are really needed. Really helping! Doing your part!"

- Alta May Andrews Sharp,
Army Nurse Corps Red Cross Nurse
From a Sept. 14, 1918 letter in the collections of the National WWI Museum and Memorial. You can also listen to a 1985 interview with her, available through Michigan State University.

World War I and America

In this resource from the Library of America, students explore the literary works of three WWI era women and then answer the question "Does women's wartime service transform gender roles and expectations?" The website also includes a short video clip with Dr. Jennifer Keene, a downloadable reader, and more.
View on

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article and Digital Video

223 American women were with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during WWI as telephone operators, often serving near the front lines. Author and professor Elizabeth Cobbs discusses the history of these courageous women, nicknamed the "Hello Girls," in a 55-minute lecture recorded at the National Archives. Watch on YouTube

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Digital Video (YouTube)

In this maker activity created by Virginia 4-H, young students learn about the history of the telephone and the "Hello Girls." Students also make their own string telephone!  Download the PDF Files: Making a String Telephone, The History of Telephones, and The Science of Telephones

Recommended Grade Levels: Elementary School
Format: Lesson Plan and Activity

"My father answered the phone and I told him proudly that I had joined the Navy. Never immune to my bomb-shells, he gulped and said quickly: 'I'll call your mother.' When I repeated my announcement to her, she was stunned into silence for a moment, then asked weakly: 'Oh, sister, can you ever get out?'

"The poor dear probably saw me in bell-bottom trousers, swabbing decks, keeping close to the rail, for I was not born to the sea! However, in no way daunted by my family 's lack of enthusiasm for my piece of news, I felt greatly pleased with myself. I had gone the limit in my effort to end the war, and end it fast."

- Mrs. Henry F. Butler [Estelle Kemper],
Yeoman (F) who served in the Supply Section of the Division of Aeronautics at the Bureau of Steam Engineering in Washington, D.C. The above quote is from her publication I Was a Yeoman (F) available online from Naval History and Heritage Command.

National Archives Prologue Magazine

American women were not able to officially serve in the military until World War I, when a loophole allowed for women to join the Navy as Yeoman (F) - The F stood for female. These women did not fight overseas, but their work in administrative roles was vital to the war effort. To learn more about the Yeoman (F) read this article by Nathaniel Patch in the National Archives' Prologue Magazine.
Read at

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article

Maria Bochkareva was the first woman to lead a Russian military unit and founder of the "Women's Battalion of Death." To learn more about her life, watch this video from The Great War YouTube Channel.
Smithsonian Magazine

Set against the backdrop of the February Revolution in Russia, this short article by Carolyn Harris for Smithsonian Magazine describes the creation of the Women's Battalion of Death. Under the command of experienced female soldier Maria Bochkareva, the Women's Battalion of Death was created in part to shame men into continuing to fight. While women's rights activists around the world applauded the female soldiers, they were unable to stop Russia from leaving the war.

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article

Stanford History Education Group

After leading Turkey to victory in its war of independence, Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk, pushed forward a series of reforms meant to modernize the new Turkish state. Among these was the granting of formal rights, such as suffrage and inheritance, to women. But did the extension of legal rights translate to real change? In this lesson from Stanford History Education Group, students read primary and secondary sources to answer the question: Did Atatürk's reforms actually improve the status of women in Turkey?
Download the Lesson

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School
Format: Lesson Plan (Free registration required to download)

The Experience of European Women in the First World War

In this high school lesson plan from the National WWI Museum and Memorial, students will examine a wide variety of primary source documents and artifacts that represent the experiences of European women during the First World War.
Download the Lesson

Recommended Grade Levels: High School
Format: Lesson Plan (PDF format), Primary Sources

In honor of America's entry into "The War to End All Wars" in 1917, the Smithsonian offers a free poster exhibition to educators, schools and other organizations. Developed for middle and high school students, World War I: Lessons and Legacies explores the war and its lasting impact and far-reaching influence on American life.

While the war killed millions and demolished empires, in the U.S., it was also a catalyst for change. The conflict brought women into the workforce; triggered industrial advancements and medical breakthroughs; brought about massive urban migration; and established this nation as a global power.

Click here to request a free copy of
World War I: Lessons and Legacies

The posters are accompanied by educational resources aligned with
Common Core and C3 standards.

World War I: Lessons and Legacies is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the National Museum of American History, in cooperation with the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission. It is funded in part by the Smithsonian Women's Committee.

Image Credit: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Posters were used during World War I to inspire citizens to support the war effort, and often images of women were used to convey those messages. Explore how female images were used in posters in the National WWI Museum and Memorial's Online Collection Database. Explore online

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Primary Sources

WWI in Girls' Series Fiction

When American women went to war, the young ladies of popular children's literature followed suit, providing girls with heroines to emulate in such stories as Ruth Fielding at the War Front  and The Red Cross Girls series. In this short article featured on Villanova University's website Home Before the Leaves Fall (, students will learn more about popular juvenile fiction during World War I. Read online

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online Article and Primary Sources

Smithsonian Magazine

This article by Timothy J. Jorgensen in Smithsonian Magazine details the lesser-known wartime contributions of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie. Curie invented a mobile X-ray unit, radiological cars nicknamed "little Curies," and ultimately trained 150 women to be X-ray operators on the battlefront, of which Curie herself was one - an act that she believed contributed to her later death from radiation exposure. Read online

Recommended Grade Levels: All Levels
Format: Online Article and Primary Sources

American Medical Women's Association

While nurses were accepted at the Front, women physicians faced obstacles putting their hard-earned skills to work. When these women were rejected from service in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, many sought other opportunities to serve the war effort: As civilian contract surgeons, with the Red Cross or other humanitarian relief organizations and even in the French Army. This digital exhibition assembled by the American Medical Women's Association celebrates their contributions with biographies, detailed information on their service and original photographs. View online

Recommended Grade Levels:
All Levels
Format: Digital Exhibition, Articles and Primary Sources

Topics in Chronicling America

This collection of period newspaper articles from the Library of Congress documents the coverage of women in espionage during the First World War. The articles provide a window into the divergent ways the media portrayed women during the war, from the veneration of English nurse Edith Cavell after her execution by the Germans, to a prurient fascination with the so-called "love tricks" of female spies. Search online

Recommended Grade Levels: Middle School, High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Primary Sources

This online article by Evan Andrews for HISTORY® looks at the life and death of the infamous Mata Hari. The Dutch woman, born Margaretha Zelle, desired a life of adventure which led to an early marriage, divorce and time in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) before becoming a stage performer and self-described courtesan. While called "the greatest woman spy of the century," her actual espionage activities are unclear and sensationalized due to her persona and lifestyle. This article seeks to separate fact from fiction in Mata Hari's actions in World War I. Read online

Recommended Grade Levels: High School, College, Adult Learners
Format: Online Article

In 1915, the International Congress of Women convened at The Hague. The meeting brought together activists for women's rights, suffrage and pacifists from around the world. Attendees included future Nobel Peace Prize winners Jane Addams, co-founder of Hull House, and Emily G. Balch, Wellesley College professor and leader of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

A summary of the event is available online from HISTORY® or read Louis P. Lochner original article on the gathering, printed in the journal The Advocate of Peace in July 1915 and available for free through JSTOR.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission and the National World War I Museum and Memorial are dedicated to educating the public about the causes, events, and consequences of the conflict and we encourage the use of these resources to better understand the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.

Partners on this project include:

The Pritzker Military Museum and Library is a founding sponsor of the United States World War One Centennial Commission.