Women in World War I


Today we continue our Women in Wars Series and focus on World War I. Since I'm American and it is National Women's History Month I am going to focus on mostly American women. The changes in the world affected the roles of women in the war. In the Revolutionary and Civil Wars some women disguised themselves as men to fight. This would not have been as easy to get away with during World War I and there military roles for women now. In 1901 the United States established the Army Nurses Corps and in 1908 it established the Navy Nurses Corps. They

were uniforms and were attached to units but were still considered civilians and did not have rank or earn retirement pensions. In the Great War more than 21,000 women served in the Army Nurses Corps and 1,500 served in the Navy Nurses Corps. In 1916 the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels allowed women to join the Navy Reserves mostly because the Navy needed more help with clerical and administrative jobs or yeoman positions. In 1917 Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first woman to enlist in the United States Navy Reserves. Most women did clerical jobs but some were engineers, pharmacists, radio operators and more. More importantly these women got paid the same amount as their male peers! By World War I the Navy employed 11,274 women as yeomen. In 1918 the U.S. Marines Corps Reserve began enlisting women in noncombative positions. During World War I there were 305 women who served in the Marines Corps. The first was Opha Mae Johnson. There was also new technology as well as new weapons. This made World War I a very deadly war. The new technology also brought new roles for women, but more on that later. For this post I will be using Women Heroes in World War I and Heroism Begins with Her as resources for the entire post and will share additional resources as well. Sadly there are not many children's books about women in World War I. I will share the few others I did find when I share about the specific women.

Edith Ayres and Helen Wood

American Red Cross - A thru D - Gun accident kills two nurses on armed liner. Miss Edith Ayres, Chicago nurse who was instanly killed by a gun accident on board the armed American liner Mongolia, at target practi(...) - NARA - 20805872

We will start with the first women to die during service in World War I. Both were nurses and were not heroes per say but had a role. They both died on May 20, 1917 aboard SS Mongolia on their way to France. During a drill a gun exploded and the shell fragments killed both women who were on deck. They became the first nurses killed. Edith Work Ayres was born in 1880 in Attica, Ohio. Her husband died in 1906 and she moved to Chicago and went to the Illinois Training School to become a nurse. She took a job as a head nurse at Cook County Hospital in Illinois. In 1917 she volunteered with the Red Cross and was assigned to go to France. Helen Burnett Wood was born in 1888 in Portobello, Scotland. She came to the United States and studied nursing at the Evanston Hospital Training School in Illinois. She volunteered with the U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 12 which is also known as the Northwestern University Base Hospital. 

Lenah Higbee

Lenah Sutcliffe was born on May 18, 1874 in Chatham, New Brunswick, Canada. In 1899 she moved to New York to attend nursing school at the New York Postgraduate Hospital. She married a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel named John Henley Higbee and became a U.S. citizen. John died in 1908 which was also the year the Navy Nurse Corps was created. She traveled to Washington, D.C. and after the written and oral exams, she became one of the first twenty nurses admitted to the Navy Nurse Corps. All twenty of them were white women. They received additional training at the Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. and then they were assigned to hospitals in Washington, New York, Virginia, Maryland, Guam, Samoa and the Philippines. The nurses had to provide their own room and board during their service.  In 1911 Lenah was promoted to superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps. Between 1917 and 1918 the Navy Nurse Corps numbers grew from 160 to 1,386. The nurses were treating injured soldiers as well as treating people sickened by the Spanish flu which was a global pandemic. On November 11, 1920 Lenah Higbee became the first living woman to receive the Navy Cross, the second highest navy award for valor in combat. Three other female nurses were awarded it on that day as well but all three had died after contracting the Spanish flu from their patients. Lenah retired from the navy in 1922. She died on January 10, 1941 in Florida. She also became the first woman to have a U.S. warship named after her. Additional Source: Foundation for Women Warriors. "Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee, U.S. Navy." Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee, U.S. Navy - Foundation for Women Warriors

Mary Borden

Portrait of Mary Borden

Mary "May" Borden was born in Chicago, Illinois to a wealthy family. She graduated from Vassar College in 1907. She met her first husband in India while on a world tour. They started a family there but in 1913 she moved her family to England where she became part of the literary social circle. At the outbreak of World War I she used a significant amount of her inheritance to set up a frontline mobile hospital for the French army. She earned medals for her bravery and went on to run the biggest military hospital during the battle of Somme. During the war she met the love of her life, Captain Edward Louis Spears. They set up a home in Paris which led to Mary divorcing her first husband. It was a nasty fight for the custody of their three daughters and her first husband even kidnapped the girls. She eventually married Edward and they were married for fifty years in spite of his long affair with his secretary. After the war she wrote and became an international best seller. Her books were controversial and pushed the boundaries of society with premarital sex and divorce in them. She also ran mobile hospitals during World War II. Her life was full of interesting adventures and people. She even debated Albert Einstein on the existence of God in his Princeton home. Additional Sources: "A Short Biography of the Life of Mary Borden." Mary Borden | An Extraordinary Life | Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars

Loretta Perfectus Walsh

Loretta P. Walsh, first woman to enlist in the U.S. armed forces.

Loretta Walsh was born on April 22, 1896, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On March 17, 1917 Loretta became the first woman to enlist with any U.S. military service in a non-nursing position. She enlisted with the U.S. Navy as a yeoman for four years. The female yeomen had several names including yeomanettes or yeowoman. They performed clerical work like typists, stenographers, bookkeepers, telephone operators, accountants, and inventory control experts. The United States entered the war a few weeks after Loretta was sworn in. Loretta served in the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia. The war ended on November 11, 1918 and the female yeomen worked for several months longer, but by July 1919 the female yeomen were decommissioned since their service was no longer needed. Loretta remained on an inactive reserve list until her four year commitment was up. In 1918 Loretta suffered from a bad case of the Spanish flu. A few years later she developed tuberculosis. She died on August 6, 1925. Additional Source: The United States Naval Memorial. "Loretta Perfectus Walsh." WALSH-LORETTA | The United States Navy Memorial

Genevieve and Lucille Baker

Twin sisters and pioneering sailors, Genevieve Baker and Lucilie Baker

Genevieve and Lucille Baker were born on February 28, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York. They worked in clerical positions at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and had two brothers who were serving as soldiers in France. The twins enlisted in the Naval Defense Reserve and became the first yeomanettes. They are believed to be the first women to join the Coast Guard although there is some controversy on this. One source says they were the first uniformed women in service for the Coast Guard. They worked as bookkeepers and telephone operators during the war. Both sisters received honorable discharge and veteran's benefits following their service. Lucille Baker Steffen died in 1968 and Genevieve Baker French died in 1999. Additional Source: "WWI 30000 Women Were There." Women in World War One (

Opha Mae Johnson


Opha Mae (May) Jacob was born in 1879 in Kokomo, Indiana. She graduated from the shorthand and typewriting department of Wood's Commercial College in 1895. She married Victor H. Johnson who was the musical director of the Lafayette Square Opera House. On August 13, 1918, Opha became the first official female marine. She was posted as a clerk at the Marine Corps headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. She and the other female marines had to drill and train and the drill sergeants were not happy with having female recruits. Some referred to the female marines as marinettes. The women did not like the nickname. When the war ended all the female marines lost their posts. Opha became a clerk n the War Department and joined the American Legion. The American Legion had established a separate post for the female marine reservists and around 90 of the 305 joined it. She died on August 11, 1955 at Mount Alto Veterans Hospital in Washington, D.C. Additional Source: Sheppherd, Betsy. The United States World War One Centennial Commission. 
Opha Mae Johnson: first woman to enlist in the USMC - World War I Centennial (

Opha Johnson and Katherine Towle in 1946
 In 1946, Mrs. Opha Johnson, the Marine Corps' first woman Marine, and former Director of Women Marines, Colonel Katherine A. Towle, admire the uniform worn by Mrs. Johnson, modeled by PFC Muriel Albert. (USMC Photo 313950).

The Hello Girls

SC-33116 Phone girls on duty at Chief Signal Office Headquarters, 1st Army
Phone girls on duty at Chief Signal Office Headquarters, 1st Army. Left to right: Ester V. Fresnel, Yonkers, N.Y.; Leonie C. Peyron, Los Angeles, Cal; Marie Flood, Chicago, Ill; Marie D. Belanger, Rochester, N.Y.; Grace D. Banker, Passaic, N.J.; Jennie R. Young, Seattle, Wash; Suzanne Prevot, N.Y. City; Marie Lange, San Francisco, Cal; Louise Beraud, Houston, Texas; B. Hunt, San Francisco, Cal; Helen Hill, San Francisco, Cal; Bertha Arlaud, Brooklyn, N.Y. Souilly, Meuse, France.

Apparently during World War I the top commanding U.S. officer, General John "Black Jack" Pershing discovered he needed skilled operators to travel with him and maintain communication with the troops scattered over hundreds of miles. The men doing it were called doughboys and were not doing a great job. The men didn't want to be phone operators because that was seen as women's work. He appealed to women against the Army's wishes. He recruited women who spoke both English and French and were amazing telephone operators. Apparently it took one of the men sixty seconds to make the connection whereas the women only took ten seconds. The Army called them bilingual wire experts. The operators were given months of training, dog tags, and uniforms that included a skirt and bloomers. A small group of women served at Pershing's headquarters near the front and within German artillery range. None of the women died from enemy fire, but a couple contracted the Spanish flu and died. Eventually 223 women would serve. The women would have their helmets and gas masks hanging on the backs of their chairs. They had to remember the codes which changed frequently and were in both English and French. The codes could not be written down for safety sake. The Signal Corps often connected 150,000 calls a day. The women were highly trusted since they were connecting and hearing the orders to retreat, advance, fire or cease-fire. Two years after the war the women were called "The Hello Girls" by a newspaper. When the women applied for veteran status and benefits the Army decided they were contract workers and denied them. The women petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt through President Jimmy Carter to gain the benefits. It was not until 1977 that the Hello Girls were recognized as Army veterans. All but eighteen of the women had already died, but one reportedly said she deserved the medal she received for her service during the war for then as well as fighting with the U.S. Army to be recognized as a veteran. 

Grace D. Banker


Grace Derby Banker was born on October 25, 1892 in Passaic, New Jersey. She graduated from Barnard College with a double major in French and history. She worked for AT&T and rose in the ranks quickly. She even was one of the few female instructor's in AT&T's long distance division. She was a couple of years out of college and operator for AT&T when she volunteered.  Grace Banker was the chief operator of the first 32 telephone operators sent to France. While she was serving she got word that her father had died. On May 22, 1919 she was awarded the Army's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1922 she married Eugene H. Paddock and together they had four children. She died of cancer on December 17, 1960 in Scarsdale, New York. 

Additional Sources: 

Myre, Greg. NPR. "100 Years On, The 'Hello Girls' Are Recognized for Their World War I Heroics." (9 Nov 2018.) 100 Years On, The 'Hello Girls' Are Recognized For World War I Heroics : NPR

New York Times. "Overlooked No More: Grace Banker, Whose 'Hello Girls' Decoded Calls in World War I." (15 May 2019.) Overlooked No More: Grace Banker, Whose ‘Hello Girls’ Decoded Calls in World War I - The New York Times (

There are some books about Grace Banker and the telephone operators to share with kids.

And this is where we will end our look at World War I. However there are many other women from around the world who played significant roles in World War I. Join us next week as we explore women in World War II.