Women in the War Effort

By Jessica VanLanduyt

With the United States’ declaration of war on Germany on April 6, 1917, President Wilson immediately mobilized troops and readied the United States to enter the Great War. Various federal and private organizations had already begun to participate in relief efforts and many others sprang into action instantly. Across the country, women of all classes, nationalities, and races joined service and military organizations prepared to mobilize for the battlefront, the hospital, and the relief effort. They trained as drivers, machinists, telephone operators, office workers, and linguists, and provided support for military and aid organizations during and after the war. Nurses traveled overseas to work in foreign hospitals or volunteered with the American Red Cross, American Women’s Hospital Services, or Army Nurse Corps.

Wilhelmina Drummond Harland in her WWI uniform.

On the home front, women organized bond drives for Liberty Loans supporting the Allied effort, worked jobs vacated by men called to war, and founded and supported organizations intended to coordinate and provide support for the war effort. Atlanta women formed the Woman’s Council of National Defense, Georgia division, and immediately began to gather members and support from around the state. Council chair Mildred McPheeters Inman recruited members from around the state including her family members, niece Emily MacDougald Inman (future owner of Swan House) and her mother, Emily Fitten MacDougald. The Woman’s Council encouraged women to enroll in nursing programs, supported child welfare programs, and advocated for food conservation and public health.

Through her work with the Neighborhood Union, leader and activist Lugenia Burns Hope supported returning soldiers by organizing canteen and recreational services for black and Jewish soldiers who were not permitted in segregated canteens. As Special War Work Secretary for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Hope trained young women at Camp Upton in New York to work in the YWCA Hostess Houses.

Those women serving in the midst of the fighting in Europe were significantly decorated for their wartime contributions. Future influential lawyer and legislator Helen Douglas Mankin was awarded the French Medaille Reconnaissance for her bravery while driving ambulances for the American Women’s Hospital Unit in France. Wilhelmina Drummond Harland, seen in the photo above, also worked as an ambulance driver and chief mechanic with the American Women’s Hospital. Harland’s post war efforts include relocating a field hospital to Serbia to serve refugees. She was decorated by both the French and Serbian governments for her work. Her uniform is currently on display in the Atlanta History Center atrium.

Rosalie Howell served as a Red Cross nurse in French military hospitals--often those near the front lines and the frequent targets of German bombing. In a letter home to her brother Clark Howell, she recounts a period of heavy bombing that left eight dead:

“The doctor had come in to get my evening report (it was just before we go off duty). Just as I was talking to him there was a most terrific crash outside the hospital, then another, and six in rapid succession. After a few minutes lull and then another crash just outside of my window. When this one came I knew it was the hospital that was hit...As I entered the ward, two more blinding flashes came, and more crashes outside of the windows, which were all burst open by the concussion, and then the stillness of death came!”

At the end of the war, Howell was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with a bronze star for her wartime bravery. General John J. Pershing pinned Howell’s medal during a special ceremony at the Red Cross house of Ft. McPherson.

To learn more about the efforts of the brave American women who helped with the war effort during World War I, see the exhibition Anne Morgan’s War: American Women Rebuilding France, 1917-1924, now on display through September 30, 2017.

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