Historically, when women deviate from their traditional duties to home and family, they are often met with resistance. The early twentieth century brought forth opportunities for women beyond the home front: work, education, social reform, and political engagement. While many conservative Americans fought against this change in gender roles and believed women needed to be home, World War I served as a catalyst for volunteerism and ultimately, women’s suffrage. Volunteer service in the name of democracy was leveraged to secure voting rights for middle- and upper-class white women in the U.S.
Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Benet on the American Ambulance Hospital grounds, circa 1914-1917. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
According to Susan Zeiger’s essay, “U.S. American Women’s Volunteerism:”
Women in the combatant nations were called to work by the tens of thousands in war industries and government offices, and enlisted in uniform for the female auxiliary corps. Women’s volunteerism likewise flourished in many nations, as women began finding innovative ways to serve the wounded, displaced, and other victims of war through relief and military support organizations (Zeiger 10).
As a leader in establishing the American Ambulance Hospital and donating ambulances to the newly formed American Ambulance Field Service (American Field Service or AFS), W. K. Vanderbilt, “a railroad heiress, socialite, and noted philanthropist,” is an example of an American woman with a large impact on volunteerism (10). Women of all backgrounds, from affluent women able to use their personal wealth to influence social reform like Vanderbilt, to middle class women, were able to serve by the tens of thousands through organizations such as The Red Cross, YMCA, YWCA, Salvation Army, American Library Association, and more.
Mrs. W.K. Vanderbilt and Ed Tinkham (SSU 3) at Auberge St. Pierre (Poste Beyond Pont-à-Mousson), Verdun, August 1916. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
U.S. women’s volunteer service aligned with the women’s suffrage movement as it reached its zenith. There was a divide among more mainstream and radical suffragists on whether supporting the war would benefit their cause. The mainstream suffrage movement believed that by supporting the war and volunteering with patriotic zest would somehow prove women’s value to society, whereas the more radical wing to the movement refused to volunteer for a war that supposedly represented democracy, but barred women from equal rights.
The first wave of feminism, occurring in the 19th and early 20th century, was primarily focused on women’s right to vote as well as property rights. The end of the first wave is connected with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, granting women the right to vote, largely due in part to Susan B. Anthony and Carry Chapman Catt.
It’s important to note that while the suffrage movement made tremendous strides towards equal rights for women, these strides were made towards the empowerment of middle-class white women. The National American Woman Suffrage Association did not include Black and African American women, excluding them completely. In Brent Staples article, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women: “Black women’s suffrage clubs that sought formal affiliation with the national white suffrage movement were discouraged from doing so on the grounds that admitting them might anger white Southerners. It has since become clear that this was a ruse Northern whites used to obscure their own discriminatory policies,” (Staples 1). It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act was passed nearly a half century later, on August 6, 1965 that Black women were officially allowed to exercise their right to vote. The suffrage movement was imperfect, sparking second and third waves of feminism to come later with a greater focus on intersectionality and freedom from domestic, child-rearing gender roles.
For every American woman who volunteered for service in WWI, whether out of “patriotism, gender equality, professional and personal self-interest, political conscience, [or] public censure” (Zeiger 11), there’s no question that their volunteerism was both revolutionary and groundbreaking for the fight for gender equality in the U.S.
Check out topic 2 of this curriculum for a lesson plan focused on U.S. Women Volunteerism and Suffrage, which includes essential questions, objectives, and more for your students!
Group with headquarters staff at 21 rue Raynouard Headquarters, 1917. Top row: unknown, W. Ford Bigelow, A. Piatt Andrew, S. Galatti, A. Douglas Dodge. Middle row: unknown, M. Cartier, unknown, John Fisher, Henriette Betomine, unknown, unknown, unknown, Tom Bosworth, Peter Reut, unknown, unknown. Front row: Germaine Betomine, Mme. Cartier, Mlle. Jean, M. Isabella Howard, Miss Austin. Photograph by H.C. Ellis, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
Caserne at 21 rue Raynouard Headquarters (postcard), 1917. Photograph by H.C. Ellis, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
Kitchen and housekeeping staff at 21 rue Raynouard Headquarters in Paris, France, 1918. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
Headquarters staff at 21 rue Raynouard, Paris, France, circa 1916-1919. A. Piatt Andrew can be seen in the doorway, and Stephen Galatti is standing at the far left. Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
One of the convalescent wards in the American Ambulance Hospital showing French officers nearly recovered, doctors, and nurses, 1915. The American Hospital of Paris, established before the outbreak of war in 1914, used the unfinished Lycée Pasteur as their military hospital (referred to as their “Ambulance”) to accommodate a larger number of patients during the war. The American Ambulance Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine was the original location of the organization that eventually became known as the American Field Service (AFS). Photographer unknown, courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).