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 overseasalthough without rankand the first time, women who were not nurses were allowed to enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps. A handful of women also served in the Coast Guard. The US Army, however, refused to enlist women officially, relying on them as contract employees and civilian volunteers.
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.
US Army Signal Corps telephone operators or "Hello Girls," Tours, France, WWI. Elizabeth Anne Browne Collection, Gift of L.C. Jones. Women's Memorial Foundation Collection.
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 working with the Army were organized and trained by AT&T and took the same oath of allegiance as male soldiers. Dubbed the "Hello Girls," they maintained communications in numerous French localities, sometimes working under combat conditions.
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.