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“Our share in the war is no small one”: Virginia Women and World War I, Part II

This is the second of a two-part blog post adapted from an article originally written for the Summer 2001 issue of Virginia Cavalcade.

Liberty Day opening U.S. Gov't Bag Loading Plant : Seven Pines, October 12, 1918 / Frederic H. Spigel.

While nurses and female yeomen filled military roles, civilian women’s organizations of all kinds worked on the home front. In fact, such groups composed three-fourths of the wartime organizations in Virginia. The state Equal Suffrage League temporarily suspended agitation for women’s voting rights and joined with dozens of other organizations, including the Virginia Association Opposed to Women Suffrage, to support the war effort. For instance, both groups supported the Khaki and Blue Kitchen, at 210 East Grace Street in Richmond, which provided meals for servicemen visiting the city. Richmond’s suffragists (including Adele Clark, Nora Houston, and Eudora Ramsay Richardson) transformed the Equal Suffrage League headquarters and worked tirelessly for the suffrage auxiliary of the Red Cross. “We have a sewing machine,” one member reported, “and [a] pleasant work-room.” The auxiliary also purchased a knitting machine and pledged to provide mittens for the hundred nurses assigned to U.S. Base Hospital No. 45. By November 1917, the women already had produced 1,244 garments, including bedshirts, bathrobes, pajamas, pillowcases, sheets, and towels, and had knitted sweaters, mufflers, mittens, and socks. In Roanoke, the Equal Suffrage League joined with twenty local women’s groups to encourage the cultivation of home gardens. As a result, agricultural production in the city increased by more than fifty percent in 1917, and women canned 28,000 quarts of fruits and vegetables, some of which they sent to wounded soldiers in France.

Two energetic Richmonders mobilized the commonwealth’s women in other ways. Mary-Cooke Branch Munford supervised the labor of white women as head of the Virginia Division of the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. The organization was affiliated with the Virginia Council of Defense and had sixty-five branches in cities and counties around the state. Margaret R. Johnson coordinated the Working Force of Negro Women, calling on members of missionary circles, art clubs, and women’s auxiliaries of fraternal orders to volunteer. African American women planted war gardens at Hampton Institute, where students and teachers collected books for camp and hospital libraries and knitted “war afghans.” The Colored Work Committee of the War Work Council, together with the Young Women’s Christian Association, opened “hostess houses” for African American soldiers and their families at Camp Lee and at Camp Alexander, a post near Newport News that housed regiments of black stevedores and work battalions. War recreation centers also appeared in Lynchburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond. They offered housing for working women, as well as outdoor activities such as tennis and hiking.

If they were not busy with club work, women supported the war effort at home. They planted gardens, attended canning classes, and planned frugal menus. Richmond’s food administration office plowed up the front lawn of John Marshall High School to plant a demonstration garden. Vegetables flourished in neighborhood yards, flower beds, and window boxes. Virginia women may have thrown a new kind of garden party, suggested by Ladies’ Home Journal, sending invitations on postcards decorated with pictures clipped from old seed catalogs and a poem: “Beg or borrow, buy or make / Some gardening duds, and bring a rake. / Don’t worry if you look a sight; / We’re going to help the boys who fight.”

Women’s traditional work in the kitchen took on added importance. In addition to planting gardens and canning crops, the government urged housewives to conserve butter and other foodstuffs. In 1917, 700 volunteers for the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense canvassed Richmond with Hoover Food Cards. Future president Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. food administrator, ran the program; by signing the cards, citizens pledged to conserve food. In July, Margaret Johnson encouraged black volunteers to distribute and collect the cards, and Lizzie A. Jenkins, secretary of the Working Force of Negro Women at Hampton Institute, organized other black women to work with the Woman’s Committee for Food Registration.

Virginia readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal, may have clipped recipes for “twice-as-far dishes,” which advised readers how to make two entrees from a can of salmon, a slice of ham, or a small chicken. The advertisements for Libby’s products said that patriotic women served more fruit and less meat. Other manufacturers trumpeted raisins (rich in vitamins) and delicious Victory Penny Buns (no sugar, less lard, and less wheat). Advertisers and magazine writers lauded macaroni as a meat substitute, along with the olive, a treat previously seen only at the holidays or floating in a cocktail. “When you eat three of Libby’s olives,” went one ad, “you are getting as much fat as you would in an ordinary sized butter ball!” Other women worked not in the kitchen but in the family business. In Richmond, for example, Anne D. Woodward operated an insurance agency while her husband served in the army.

Women on the home front across Virginia helped wounded civilians and servicemen in allied nations overseas. A 1918 thrift parade in Richmond promoted savings certificates with a cavalcade of 100 floats and 20,000 marchers. Women sold savings stamps and enlisted subscribers for the Liberty Loans that financed the war. They collected food, clothing, and medical supplies for European civilians, and made comfort bags containing soap, tobacco, cigarette paper, writing supplies, razors, and other items for the troops. The Portsmouth Section of the Woman’s Naval Service did their part for the sailors at home, knitting sweaters, mufflers, and gloves for workers at the Navy Yard. The Norfolk branch of the American Fund for the French Wounded sent thirty-four cases of hospital supplies, surgical dressings, and clothing abroad, and provided puzzles and basket-making materials for convalescent patients. Other women used patterns published in women’s magazines to make layettes and children’s clothes to send overseas. Virginians held knitting parties, perhaps with the invitations suggested by the Ladies’ Home Journal: “Come one, come all, who knit, knit, knit. / At eight o’clock, that’s it, it, it. / There’ll be nothing to do but sit, / And knit, and knit, and sit, and knit.”

In Richmond, Mary Munford was flooded with offers of help for the Woman’s Committee. Mrs. George T. Hobson, the wife of a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, sent a donation to the Soldier’s Library Fund and offered to collect books and pack them for shipment abroad. “I am here with my tiny son,” she wrote from an apartment in Richmond, “and long to be useful.” The Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association, headed by Mrs. Samuel Cohen, donated pillows and pillowcase to hospitals and invited soldiers stationed near the city into its homes and synagogue. A Liberty Loan drive held by the association at the Cohen Company department store in April 1918 raised $136,500. The Council of Jewish Women joined the women of the Beth Ahabah congregation to knit garments, conserve food, and participate in the Godmother’s League. They visited Camp Lee weekly, bringing food, music, and flowers to brighten the hospital wards, and many enlisted in the Red Cross canteen service and the women’s motor corps.

In Norfolk, the Young Women’s Hebrew Association raised money for the Red Cross, knitted gloves, scarves, and socks at the Red Cross workroom, and visited local military hospitals. The members also distributed “fruits, confections, flowers, stationary and smokes” to recovering veterans weekly. Other church groups did their part. Women at Norfolk’s Epworth Methodist Church organized the War Workers of Epworth to make necessities for the hospitals, while the Wesleyman’s Bible Class formed a company in the city’s Home Guards.

While female volunteers rolled bandages, the Graduate Nurses’ Association of Virginia was asked to survey the state’s professional nursing resources and to qualify nurses for Red Cross service. At home, women practiced preventive medicine learned from public-health drives, which attempted to compensate for the wartime shortage of doctors and nurses. The Woman’s Committee of the National Council of Defense encouraged women to work in medicine, arguing (unsuccessfully) that it would be “timely and patriotic” “to throw open the doors of the Medical College of Virginia to women.”

Such health concerns became especially pressing in the autumn of 1918 with the onslaught in Virginia of the worldwide influenza epidemic. The epidemic lasted until February 1919, and nurses were needed at home as well as abroad. Danville native Anne Verga Peterson left Norfolk, where she graduated from St. Vincent’s school for nurses, for Nitro, West Virginia, where a large munitions plant was located. When workers fell ill with influenza, other nurse were transferred there (Norfolk native Clara Jane Simpson arrived in September) to form “a combined force fighting the Flu.”

In Richmond, concerned women formed the War Relief Association of Virginia to provide supplies to military hospitals abroad, as well as to assist civilians in war zones, particularly women and children. Women in other parts of the commonwealth collected money, food, and clothing for Armenia, Belgium, England, France, Italy, Poland, and Serbia. In Richmond, members of the Barton Heights Woman’s Club raised funds for the association. The Barton Heights women sewed kit bags and bedjackets, knitted woolen caps, cardigans, and sweaters, and (working from special patterns available through the mail) made “Soft Slippers for wounded feet” and “Flannel Helpless Case Nightshirts.” The association collected secondhand tablecloths and appealed for games and equipment for convalescent veterans, including puzzles, quoits, and footballs. Talcum powder, feather pillows, hot-water bottles, and knitted washcloths helped patients feel more comfortable while they were recovering in the hospital.

Other needed supplies reflected the serious medical condition of wounded servicemen. Hospitals needed bandages, arm slings, and cushions, as well as pneumonia jackets designed to warm the chests of soldiers whose lungs had been ravaged by gas. In 1917, members of the Capital City Division of the Virginia Branch of the National League for Women’s Service set out to sell 30,000 American flags in downtown Richmond to raise money for hospital supplies. Women stationed themselves on every corner to hawk the small flags, sized to fit on lapels. By the end of the day, some passerby sported two or more flags. The local newspaper’s sales pitch was simple but effective: “Buy a flag and help bind a wound!”

Across the state, mothers, wives, and sisters added Women’s National Honor Medals to their lapels, indicating that a son, husband, or brother was in military service. Sold in recognition of “the sacrifices of American Womanhood,” the medal was engraved with a scene of women bidding farewell to a departing serviceman. Some unfortunate women adorned their medals with gold stars representing loved ones lost to the war.

Housewives and working women searched for all kinds of ways to help. Mary Somerville Gammon, an English teacher at the State Normal School for Women (now Mary Washington College), in Fredericksburg, planned to emphasize democratic themes in her literature class and encouraged her pupils to provide a “direct and practical line of effort” to the war. When they were not in class, students of Westhampton College for Women in Richmond worked in stores downtown, hoping to raise $2,000 for prison-camp relief. Norfolk widow Nora Capps Reid was a full-time dressmaker, but she nonetheless offered her services as a volunteer to Mary Munford. “I earnestly feel like doing, what ever I can do best and will mean the most to my country,” she said, “and will answer any call I can fill.”

The Virginia Women’s Committee had abundant numbers of energetic volunteers but little cash—only $125 a month from the State Council of Defense. Governor Henry Carter Stuart paid for the committee’s food cards and provided the House of Delegates cloakroom for office space. Soon thirty volunteers worked there. The committee fell victim to politics in 1918, when Governor Westmoreland Davis took office. The State Council of Defense resigned, and Davis appointed state officials to replace them but provided no operating funds. As a result, Munford lamented that the work of the committee “has been brought to a standstill.” The committee resigned and was replaced by a new Women’s Auxiliary of the State Council of Defense.

While her husband rearranged the defense organizations, Virginia’s first lady, Marguerite Davis, kept busy with her own war work. She served as president of the Women’s Munition Reserve and volunteered in the federal plant, at Seven Pines, sewing silk bags and filling them with smokeless gunpowder. Two thousand women worked there, wearing practical uniforms with pants called “trouserettes” or “womanalls.” Davis set an example for the commonwealth’s working women by driving her own car, volunteering as a nurse during the influenza epidemic, and entertaining enlisted men at Camp Lee.

Women like Davis sought to improve morale. They worked for the Red Cross, served coffee and home-cooked meals to sailors, and chaperoned dances. Virginia, especially the port city of Norfolk, was a major staging area for troops headed overseas, and women provided important social services for soldiers and sailors. They worked in a variety of patriotic and charitable organizations, including the women’s auxiliaries of the American Legion; Woman’s Auxiliary of the War Camp Community Service; and the Virginia branch, National League for Woman’s Service. The 650 members of the Godmother’s League of Richmond promised servicemen that “when you are somewhere in France, a Godmother will write you Letters—will send Tobacco and Eats—will help you keep in touch with the Home Folks. You can tell your Godmother your troubles.” The league also provided support and supplies at Camp Lee, sending magazines, tools, games, and sewing supplies to the veterans hospitalized there.

The Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs worked on the home front with enthusiasm. “Our share in the war,” its president Janie Gray Hagan wrote, “is no small one.” Clubs across the state contributed funds and supplies to the Belgian Relief Committee, sponsored war orphans, and served with the Red Cross. Hagan worked at the Danville Public Library while serving as the federation’s wartime president. Under her able direction, 115 Woman’s Liberty Loan committees marshaled citizens for a loan campaign. By the end of the war, they had sold more than $54,000 in bonds.

Many tireless women belonged to more than one organization. Martha Ethel Kelley Kern was president or chairman of three groups: the Godmother’s League of Richmond (renamed in 1918 the Woman’s Auxiliary of the War Camp Community Service); the Woman’s Auxiliary of American Legion Post No. 1, in Richmond; and the Woman’s Committee for the Armistice Celebration. Kern showed her mettle in the latter capacity. In 1919, as the first anniversary of the end of the war approached, she was planning Richmond’s event when she was injured in an automobile accident. Determined to continue her work, Kern convened the committee at her bedside.

Soon after the war ended, the Nineteenth Amendment gave American women the right to vote. Other changes followed. With innovations in domestic science and food preparation, the home functioned more efficiently. Bicycles and automobiles, along with less restrictive clothing and shorter skirts, gave women a newfound mobility. Many women continued to work after the war—as nurses, clerks, and in community organizations. Mary Munford served on the Virginia War History Commission. Some nurses, like Sara Waples Crosley, of Accomack County, remained overseas to aid recovery efforts. After her discharge from the Army Nurse Corps, she joined a Red Cross expedition to the Balkans, traveling to Serbia and Albania before returning home in July 1920 to continue her career as a public health nurse in Onancock, on the Eastern Shore. Verna Smith traveled to Germany after the armistice with nine of her colleagues, where they nursed veterans ill with influenza and pneumonia.

Through means both traditional and revolutionary, Virginia women like Crosley, Smith, and Munford fought to end World War I and alleviate its suffering. A mere two months into the conflict, “in Virginia the women are much more completely aroused than are the men,” observed Robert Walton Moore, a member of the National Council of Defense. He credited Virginia’s women with the patriotism, economy, and energy necessary to win: “We should unhesitatingly give them our emphatic approval and support.” As it turned out, such a gesture was no less than Virginia women gave their state and their country.

 

-Jennifer Davis McDaid, former archives research coordinator

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