Lynn Dumenil: Remembering American Women in World War I

The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I by Lynn DumenilThis Sunday, November 11th, will be the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, and we welcome a guest post from Lynn Dumenil, author of The Second Line of Defense:  American Women and World War I, soon to be published in paperback by UNC Press.

In tracing the rise of the modern idea of the American “new woman,” Dumenil examines World War I’s surprising impact on women and, in turn, women’s impact on the war. Telling the stories of a diverse group of women, including African Americans, dissidents, pacifists, reformers, and industrial workers, Dumenil analyzes both the roadblocks and opportunities they faced. She richly explores the ways in which women helped the United States mobilize for the largest military endeavor in the nation’s history.

The Second Line of Defense is available in both print and ebook editions.

Lynn Dumenil will speak at the Greensboro History Museum on November 8th at 7 p.m. For details, visit:


The Armistice at 100:  Remembering American Women in World War I

If World War II is the “good war,” then I propose we call World War I the “forgotten war.”  Forgotten at least in popular memory.  The 100th anniversary of the U.S. entrance into the Great War (April 1917) came and went with little media attention and the anniversary of the Armistice (11-11-18) may well be equally slighted.  Yet the WWI era is a rich field for scholars seeking to explore the dramatic changes taking place in early 20th century America.  This is particularly true for the history of American women.  Indeed, contemporaries during the war — who were witnesses to extraordinary media attention to women taking on men’s roles, wearing uniforms, serving abroad as aids to the military, and marching boldly in patriotic parades – were convinced that the war was creating a “new woman.”

Many of the dramatic developments of the war, in fact, proved short lived.  This is especially the case for women who took on men’s jobs often at men’s wages.  In the workplace, the most significant long-term impact of war on women was their increased participation in clerical work, which became even more “feminized” — and devalued — in the post war years.   But in other ways the war helped to accelerate more far reaching changes.  In 1914, the suffrage movement had already seen success in fourteen states, but the war offered suffragists associated with the National American Woman Suffrage Association a way to bolster their claim for full citizenship by demonstrating women’s patriotic service on the homefront (in food conservation, fundraising drives, and defense industry work, for example) and abroad as nurses, telephone operators, and social workers.  At the same time, women in the National Woman’s Party picketed the White House with signs linking their call for the vote to the war for democracy abroad and branding the President “Kaiser” Wilson.  Both groups undoubtedly contributed to Wilson’s eventual support for the 19th Amendment, which in turn started the move toward Congressional approval.

The war proved important for many African American women, as well.  It encouraged the “Great Migration” of   an estimated 500,000 African Americans from the South to the cities of the North and Midwest, offering greater opportunities for both men and women.  And the persistence of discrimination and racial violence, made more poignant by the democratic rhetoric of wartime American, prompted African American women leaders to take a more active role during the war in calling for full citizenship, a process that would continue throughout the 20th century Civil Rights movement.

A more subtle harbinger of change was evident in the ways in which women crossed boundaries that had defined “respectable behavior.”  Working-class women donned overalls when they took on jobs formerly the prerogative of men.  Young clerical workers embarked alone on journeys to Washington, D.C. to take up jobs in the federal civil service. Women who went abroad as nurses, welfare workers, reporters, or telephone operators found meaningful work in the nation’s cause, and, as they did so, they satisfied a thirst for adventure, a desire to be part of the “big show” that signaled their independent spirit.  Women’s freedom of movement in public venues clearly expanded during the war.  Women marched in patriotic parades in unison and in uniform to express their patriotism and stake claims to citizenship.  Public protests, such as the National Woman’s Party picketing of the White House and African American women’s participation in a silent 1917 march in New York City that drew attention to a devastating race riot in East Saint Louis, are further examples of the ways in which women’s occupation of public space symbolized their rejection of ladylike norms and claims to political legitimacy.

I thought of these World War I parades, when I joined millions of other women in taking to the streets to protest the presidency of Donald Trump in January 2017.   Commentators were floored by the sheer numbers of marching women (and their male allies) nationwide, and were struck by their passion and militancy, but no one was surprised by their appearance in a public protest march.   But in early 20th century America, suffrage parades evoked scandalized comments.  And in March 1913 when 5,000 suffragists marched for the vote on the day before President-elect Wilson’s inauguration in Washington D.C, an unruly mob stormed the marchers while the police looked on idly. A few years later in the context of war, millions of women could take to the streets in patriotic displays of martial enthusiasm.   The war offered legitimacy for this form of advocacy.  While this occupation of public space did not accord women significant political power, it did signal evolving notions of women’s respectability and civic participation, and stands as part of the enduring legacy of WWI for American women.


Lynn Dumenil is Robert Glass Cleland Professor of American History Emerita at Occidental College.