Washington University Women During WWI

Women working at a community cannery during WWI. Washington University Archives Edna Gellhorn Papers, Series 3 Box 10.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we would like to honor the women of St.Louis, and particularly of Washington University, who aided in the war effort during WWI.

Recording Women’s War Efforts

Although women were not allowed to engage in combat at the beginning of the century, there were a number of ways that they could aid their country during war time. After WWI, the Washington University Memorial Association collected surveys from all Wash U affiliates about their participation. Although a majority of the completed surveys were submitted by men, the few we do have from female alumni offer a glimpse into what educated women were doing during the war.

In these surveys, women often list activities like knitting, gardening, and teaching as ways they supported their country and the troops abroad. Others report working with the Red Cross in various capacities, or helping in Liberty Loan and Thrift Stamp drives. A few, primarily students and staff of the Washington University Medical School, mention serving as nurses at Base Hospitals in France. Below is the record of Lora Noy, a former nursing student who worked at Base Hospital 52 in France.

Women Abroad

The most famous woman from Washington University to serve in France during the war was Julia Stimson, who after a year serving as the chief nurse for Base Hospital 21 became head of the Red Cross Nursing Service and later chief nurse of the American Expeditionary Forces. She received the Distinguished Service Medal, and in 1920 became the first woman to achieve the rank of Major in the United States Army. Below is a photograph of Stimson with a group of nurses from Base Hospital 21. Stimson is on the far right of the photo.

Base Hospital 21 Nurses, with Julia Stimson on the Far Right. Washington University Becker Library, Base Hospital 21 Photographs and Drawings.

Women at Home

Women who did not go abroad could still find many meaningful ways to serve the war effort, particularly when it came to food production and conservation. Washington University Archive’s Edna Gellhorn Papers documents many of the ways that the women of St. Louis were expected to keep the nation fed while it was at war. Mrs. Gellhorn was a member of the Women’s Central Committee of Food Preservation, which was first organized in April of 1917 and later merged with the newly formed U.S. Food Administration in St. Louis.

The Gellhorn Collection holds a number of interesting pamphlets, photos, and educational materials related to food preservation, including short cooking booklets that teach women how to substitute plentiful foods for rationed ones, instructional pamphlets on how to create gardens and can vegetables, and even a play on “Plenty, Waste and Need: A Masque of Food Conservation” that was performed to encourage people not to be gluttons. Thousands of women were directly involved in food conservation education and fundraising, community canning and drying efforts (photographed at the top of this page), and community gardens, while others did their part on a smaller scale by minimizing waste in their own households.

Pamphlet instructing women how to cook with cottage cheese in order to preserve more scarce forms of protein. Washington University Archives, Edna Gellhorn Papers.

Inside pages of “Cottage Cheese Dishes Pamphlet,” with recipes using cottage cheese as a meat substitute. Washington University Archives, Edna Gellhorn Papers.

More Resources

More materials on women’s efforts during the war from Washington University’s WWI collections will soon be available digitally through the Missouri Digital Heritage project, “Missouri Over There: Missouri and the Great War,” a project to digitize collections of Missouri’s participation in the First World War. You can check out the project at http://missourioverthere.org/.

Patrons interested in WWI can also view the library’s WWI Archival Sources finding aid to discover other related University collections.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.