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World War I

When the United States entered the European War on April 6, 1917, it marked the first time in the history of the country that regular Army and Navy military nurses served overseas—although without rank—and the first time, women who were not nurses were allowed to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps. (The US Army refused to enlist women officially, but relied on them as civilian volunteers and two women were permitted in the Coast Guard.)

  Salvation Army volunteers near the front lines in Europe.

Negative public opinion and hesitant military leaders limited women's roles, but the country needed their skills to pursue the war effort and to move male soldiers out of office jobs and onto the battlefield.

By war's end, American military women had served stateside and overseas on the eastern and western war fronts. Over 230 bilingual civilian telephone operators organized and trained by AT&T took the same oath of allegiance as male soldiers. Dubbed the "Hello Girls," they maintained communications in 75 French localities, sometimes working under combat conditions.

And from the outset of World War I, long before American troops arrived on foreign soil, American women were “over there” volunteering with civilian organizations to provide nursing, transportation and other war relief services. Women aligned themselves with humanitarian organizations such as the American Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army and others to meet wartime needs.

World War I marked a new era in women's movement from the home and into the public sphere. Their call to service by the military establishment was hesitant, limited and unequal in treatment and benefits. Yet they went to war anyway. As the peace process unfolded and they were removed from wartime work, many remained in the public realm taking on new roles in the workplace and seeking higher education. Others resumed traditional places in the home.

But when the call came for service in World War II, women's successful participation in World War I was an important precedent for expanding roles of American women in the military and for developing the military establishment's acceptance of women's service in the US Armed Forces.

  Marines conduct a recruitment campaign in New York City in 1918.   A YMCA volunteer who worked in Paris, France during World War I.
Women in the US Military - World War I Era