This year marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice with Germany that officially ended World War I. A ceasefire had come into effect after more than four years of fighting on November 11, 1918. During the war women from all economic classes worked to provide relief and support for the military in the United States and abroad. Their efforts to assist on such a large scale throughout the war and during post-war reconstruction were unprecedented.
The collections described below, which include letters, scrapbooks, and photographs, illustrate the multiple roles that women adopted during and after war time and are just a few examples of the Schlesinger Library's holdings related to World War I.
Many women traveled overseas during the war, often as nurses or hospital staff, and did so through various support organizations like the American Red Cross. Mary Frederika Farley was one of the first nurses to volunteer for overseas duty with the American Red Cross in 1914. She served as a nurse in Kiev and worked with the Russian Red Cross setting up a temporary hospital.
A graduate of the Massachusetts General Hospital School for Nurses, Carrie May Hall left for France in 1917. During the war she was appointed head nurse of the American Red Cross in Great Britain and was later transferred to the position of chief nurse of the American Red Cross in France, where she continued working a full six months after the Armistice. Hall's letters home recount her daily activities and her tenacity in the face of wartime nursing.
"You see I am where I am seeing something of the business of war. There is no glamour whatsoever about it. . . . I assure you all that I never should do army nursing from choice. I am not one bit homesick nor down-hearted but looking this thing squarely in the face I must say that I do not contemplate a year of it with enthusiasm." (Letter to family from "Somewhere in France," June 6, 1917).
In addition to women traveling overseas to participate in the war effort, a significant number of women supported the war on the home front, many of them taking jobs in industry and agriculture that were vacated by men who were fighting abroad. The Woman's Land Army of America (WLAA) was an organization which recruited and trained women to work on American farms during the war years.
Radcliffe alumna and social activist Cornelia James Cannon also stayed at home during the war, corresponding with her husband Walker Cannon while he served as a military doctor in France. Their correspondence portrays a family separated by war, describing Walter's experiences working in a military field hospital, and Cornelia and the children dealing with the effects of war at home, including rationing; planting victory gardens; the influenza epidemic; and growing antagonism toward Germans living in the United States.
While there were untold numbers of women who actively supported the war, there were also many women who actively protested against it. Pacifist and feminist Jeannette Rankin was the first congresswoman in the United States, representing Montana for the 1917–1919 and 1941–1943 terms. She was also the only member of Congress to vote against US participation in both world wars. Socialist and prison reformer Kate Richards O’Hare was imprisoned in 1917 in the Missouri State Penitentiary for anti-war activities. Her collection of papers contain a volume of letters, written to her family while she was in prison, concerning American politics and the war.
In the aftermath of World War I, reconstruction efforts were monumental and women played a significant role in reconstruction work. In 1917 the Radcliffe College Alumnae Association funded a committee which sponsored post-war relief work by Radcliffe alumnae in France. The resulting Radcliffe Unit consisted of members who were drivers and aides to the French Red Cross in French villages. The Library holds scrapbooks containing photographs, correspondence, and reports describing the Radcliffe alumnae war relief work. Social worker and Radcliffe alumna Mary Ursula Burrage joined the Radcliffe Unit and was stationed with the Union des Femmes de France, Poste Dispensaire in Vermand, Aisne. She wrote many letters home describing her experiences and sometimes shared her thoughts on the harsh reality of the war.
“At the foot of a big embankment, a little farther on, we came across a whole line of dugouts built into the side of a hill; one had steps that went down so far we could not see the bottom and I could imagine some poor devil sweltering there in summer or freezing in winter. It is intensely interesting and at the same time perfectly horrible. Every now and then cold shivers run down my spine when I think of what must have gone on here, the ground has been fought over at least 3 times!” (Letter home, Vermand, Aisne, June 14, 1919).
For more information about the Library’s World War I collections, see our research guide: https://guides.library.harvard.edu/schlesinger_WWI