Women and World War I

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about Wheeling during the First World War leading to a centennial observation of Armistice Day (Veterans Day) to be held at 2 p.m. on Nov. 11 at the Doughboy monument at Wheeling Park. If you are a descendant of a World War I veteran or nurse, contact lunchwithbooks@yahoo.com.

Several shelves at our local library are laden with books on World War I, but it is hard to find a lot on American women in the war and even harder to find references to local ladies.

Americans were only “over there” from April 1917 to November 1918, less than two years. Plus the American woman’s status in society was not great.

There was one woman in Congress, Jeannette Rankin, on April 6, 1917, when the legislature officially declared war, and she voted no. The women in America did not yet have the right to vote, but the experiences of their general contribution to the war effort helped to generate more support for suffrage, granted in 1920.

For women in the armed services, the Navy was the most progressive, recruiting 11,000 as yeomen. The Marines waited until August 1918 to take women in and the Army used them in the Signal Corps. The feeling at the time was “A nation of war is a male nation.”

World War I was a total war, yet the women were often excluded from the history, outside the line of fire as it were. Yet many served. The Salvation Army was noted for its women overseas, introducing doughnuts to the battlefield. The YMCA and the American Red Cross recruited volunteers.

And one of the most important roles women played was as nurses. The Navy sent 5,350 nurses overseas and the Army set up a nurse corps. Gary Timmons of Wheeling had a great-aunt, Army nurse Nonetia Chloe Howard, who cared for the war wounded in South Carolina.

Here at home, women filled jobs in industry that were vacated by the men in service. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad recruited local women to work on the lines and in the shops and terminals as the men went off to war.

Women, as in the Civil War, were often charged with the task of remembering, lamenting the young men who died. In many windows in Wheeling could be seen the small World War I banners, with a blue star to signify a son in service and a gold star to signify a death. The East Wheeling ladies of St. Joseph’s Cathedral sewed a large banner that hung from the organ loft with hundreds of stars for each person in service.

As part of the task of remembering, women formed patriotic societies and one that began in Baltimore in 1919, even predating the American Legion, was the Service Star Legion. This group, composed of sisters, mothers, wives and daughters of service men, supported civic projects. They left their mark in Wheeling by erecting the monument, “Spirit of the American Doughboy,” at Wheeling Park, dedicated May 30, 1931.

These energetic women, headed by Mrs. Hugh McConkey, raised the funds to see that we had a living memorial to those men who fought and died for worthy ideals. In his Doughboy dedication speech, William Gompers, father of Joseph Gompers, paid tribute to the women of the war years.

He said, “The women of our country banded themselves together to show their love for their country and to give service, help and comfort in every possible way to preserve the principles of the greatest democracy of the world.”

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