The Overlooked American Women of World War I
The new film Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s wrenching account of
love and loss in World War I, has received enthusiastic reviews. Brittain’s autobiography
has never been out of print, but those seeking a work with equivalent impact by an
American woman in the war would be hard pressed to find one.
Accounts do exist, but tend to be lacking the status of T of Y. I enjoyed Joyce Marlow’s
anthology The Virago Book of Women and the Great War, with its primarily British
contributors. But when I looked for a similar U.S. collection, I could not find one. Why
this state of affairs, when American women did serve in the war, as documentation such
as books, diaries, and letters attests? Did their published accounts have a short shelf
life, given the relatively brief period of official U.S. involvement in the war compared to
that of European nations? Were they affected by official and familial constraints
regarding the roles they could play and discuss during the war? Did they feel that
recording their experiences would be self-aggrandizement when they viewed their
service as their patriotic duty, and the men were the ones doing the fighting and the
dying? Did their roles mean that they could not discuss their activities (such as serving
in the armed forces)?
Irritated by the absence of a resource that captured these women’s varied experiences
in their own particular voices, I set out to collect first-person accounts of U.S. women
that dated from the war period, wanting the immediacy and the “I was there” point of
view. I would attempt to find women who pursued diverse work in relief, medical,
journalistic, military, entertainment, and other positions; served in different theaters of
the war; and represented various faith traditions. I would annotate their narratives so
that the casual reader could understand references that time might have made cryptic,
and I would find biographical material that would provide details on backgrounds and
often astonishing postwar activities. Wherever possible, I would try to locate photos that
could put faces to accounts.
The process was gratifying, frustrating, and even disturbing. Some amazing stories
surfaced, such as that of Marie S. Dahm Shapiro, the naval fingerprint expert turned
Ziegfield Follies showgirl turned fashion designer. The postwar trails of women could
grow faint due to marriage, family, work, and other demands, but the greater availability
of online genealogical and archival information assisted in this task. Promising lines of
inquiry often resulted in dead ends. For example, no personal story emerged by Pauline
Jordan Rankin (1892?–1976), a nurse imprisoned by the Germans (in World War I) and
the Japanese (in World War II) and founder of the first school for the blind in Armenia.
The suicides of poet Gladys Cromwell and her sister, Dorothea, en route from France
appears attributable to PTSD, and the letter to the editor from “A Yeomanette” shows
men’s fear of women’s encroachment into the previously male-only territory of military
I hope that readers will find the collection enlightening and interesting, perhaps leading
them to read further and see the many parallels between now and then. My blog,
American Women in World War I, provides links to WWI resources and details on
women for whom I could not find a first-person account.
Elizabeth Foxwell is editor of In Their Own Words: American Women in World War I, staff editor
of the Catholic Historical Review, managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection, and editor of
the McFarland Companions to Mystery Fiction series.