Women in World War I Sparked Remarkable Changes

Yvonne Pipkin
5 min readFeb 20


Women’s Contribution to WWI

It was the cultural norm that married women and many single women stayed home tied to the household and did not work. So, how, and when did American women enter the workforce?

The answer is U.S. involvement in World War I between 1917 and 1918.

Women Worked on the Homefront

With the start of World War I, women were finally given the opportunity to enter the workforce.

This was a tremendous change in the social structure of the period, allowing women to participate in many industries that had previously been the exclusive territory of men.

Women stepped in and filled the manufacturing/production factories (weapons and ammunition, uniforms, airplanes, tanks, etc.) and agricultural (farming to supply food) positions.

Photo of Ammunition Factory by Paul Popper on Getty

Women Volunteered Their Labor Abroad

· Many women volunteered for the American Red Cross performing a variety of tasks from making surgical dressings, masks, and gowns, to operating servicemen’s canteens (entertainment).

· Women volunteers for the Salvation Army provided coffee, doughnuts, letter-writing, clothes repairing, and other services to soldiers and sailors at embarkation and debarkation ports, canteens, and other locations.

· Even American Librarians contributed to the war effort by volunteering to deliver 10 million books and journals to American service members at home and abroad.

American Women Entered the Military for the First Time

Hello Girls Operating the Switchboards in France Photo by Sgt. Abbott, U.S. Army Signal Corps

Back in the day, there were operators on switchboards to connect phone calls. They were referred to as “Hello Girls”. Why? Instead of callers dialing another telephone number directly, the “Hello Girls” greeted callers with “hello” when the switchboard rang.

Women, not men, were Hello Girls because women were patient, polite, and had the dexterity to connect the lines on the switchboard.

That explains who they were. Why were Hello Girls needed as military personnel?

Over in France during WWI, there was a problem with communication. Keep in mind, French was the language spoken in France; not English that Americans spoke.

To resolve the situation of poor communication, General John Pershing of the U.S. Army agreed to the proposal from the Signal Corp and AT&T to hire experienced American switchboard operators who were fluent in English and French to serve in the Signal Corp in France.

That’s how American women enlisted in the U.S. military for the very first time.

These recruited switchboard operators took the same oath of allegiance as soldiers and received the same pay as soldiers.

Women Joined the U.S. Navy in WWI

The Naval Act of 1916 determined who could be enlisted into the Navy. The language of this law did not state that only men could join…a loophole.

Consequently, Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy seized the opportunity to recruit women to serve as stenographers, clerks, radio operators, messengers, truck drivers, ordnance workers, mechanics cryptographers, and all other non-combat shore duty roles.

A total of 11,272 Women joined the U.S. Navy for the duration of the war.

The sacrifices made by American military women included postponing the following: marriage, having children, and seeking higher education.

Furthermore, over 600 of these courageous ladies lost their lives while serving their country.

Effects After the War

Women were able to show the world that not only could they handle the same responsibilities and workloads as men, but could also be just as successful. This opened many doors that had previously been shut to women in the workplace, giving them newfound freedom and economic power.

This newfound freedom brought with it a sense of empowerment as many were now able to take on roles and responsibilities previously reserved for men. As such, women began to gain a sense of independence and self-worth that had never existed in their lives before.

Even though women made a huge contribution to the workforce, they had to reluctantly give up their jobs when the men returned home. Many women were laid off. Those who stayed were paid lower wages than the men to discourage women from working.

Women Advanced and Gained Voice

Women continued to push for their right to vote.

On September 30, 1918, weeks before the war’s end, President Woodrow Wilson spoke to Congress. His words were profound.

“We have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege?”

Photo of Women’s Suffrage Movement at Washington, DC 1919 on Picryl

As the Susan B. Anthony amendment was ratified as the nineteenth amendment to the US Constitution in August 1920, women finally succeeded in obtaining the right to vote.

Overview: Women’s Notable Achievements

The American military was able to focus its troops and resources on winning the war as a result of the achievements made by women during World War I.

Military women not only elevated the standing and influence of women in American society but in addition set the bar for today’s military women.

The women’s suffrage movement, which had been battling for women’s voting rights since the 19th century, gained increased momentum as a result of their efforts.

More to follow…stay tuned.

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Yvonne Pipkin

Writer | Published Author | Retired Career Woman. Writing for fun, sharing my experiences/interest in women’s empowerment.