ALTHOUGH KEPT DISTANT from battle by both convention and desire, women were nonetheless vital to the success of the American war effort. They filled non-combat roles in the military; they helped raise the funds needed to wage the war; they went to work so that factories and farms could stay productive; they kept the "home fires" burning so that there would be an America for the soldiers to come home to.
Before the war, most women did not work outside the home: cooking, cleaning and child rearing filled their days instead. Those who did have to work for a living were generally limited to low-paying jobs as maids, seamstresses or factory workers. The war changed all that. With all able-bodied men leaving civilian life and entering the service, thousands of jobs were suddenly available. In addition, new munitions and arms factories provided more high-wage jobs for the only ones left behind to work: women.
Many people were shocked. It had long been thought that “a woman’s place is in the home.” The pressure of war, however, soon made outside work an acceptable patriotic duty, sanctioned by the government. Poor women seeking higher wages weren't the only ones taking these jobs. Unmarried women – those traditionally expected to live at home and care for their aging parents – were attracted to the chance to get out and see the world. In addition, early feminists saw it as a way to prove that women were equal to men and should therefore be allowed to vote. No matter the motivation, all enjoyed the independence which came with their paycheck. It was an independence that would not be forgotten once the war was over.
A WOMAN'S RIGHT TO VOTE
Many progressive Americans felt that with independence should come suffrage, the right to vote. Women's suffrage had been a political issue in America even before 1869, when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. These women and many others campaigned across the country in support of women's rights, speaking out at rallies and parades. Signs and posters asked men – the only ones who could vote – to support their cause.
Women in Wyoming were luckier than their sisters elsewhere: they had been given the vote by the first Territorial Legislature in 1869. Addressing a Laramie crowd in 1871, Susan B. Anthony said, “Wyoming is the first place on God's green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the Free!” Even so, Wyoming women could only vote in local and state elections, not national ones. Most took their rights and responsibilities very seriously, including Eula Wulfjen Kendrick and Cecilia Hendricks, who noted in 1917:
We went to a school election yesterday and exercised our right of suffrage. People talk about objecting to women suffrage because it takes the women out of their homes, where they belong. Why, voting here is a regular family affair where both men and women vote. The whole family goes, and it becomes a regular social, where everybody visits and has a nice time.
In a way, the Great War helped win the war for women's rights. It proved that women could do the work of men both in the field and in the office. All men and women were persons living in America, it was argued, and therefore should have the same rights. As one anonymous newspaper columnist put it,
Today the woman suffrage question was to have the floor in the House, but it is a question if the women are suffered to be floored. The political Amazons claim the right to vote under the first section of the fourteenth amendment which says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens there of" etc. If all "persons" are citizens and all citizens have the right to vote it would seem that the claim of the women to vote is not without some apparent grounds.
Such arguments eventually held sway and Congress passed the Susan B. Anthony Federal Suffrage Amendment in 1919. It was signed into law in 1920. Living up to its billing as The Equality State, the Wyoming legislature held its very first special session in 1920, just to ratify the new amendment.
War brought changes to more than just labor and politics: fashion was affected as well. Shortages of fabric and dye became endemic - most were needed by the military - so changes had to be made to all manner of clothing. As one fashion designer said, “We have had our time for the dance and the dinner and the pretty frock. But that time is over." Ladies' Home Journal reported in 1918 that the government had "asked the leading dressmakers to use as little wool as possible in their new spring clothes, to save labor, and brilliant colors, which are not in harmony with war times."
The designers' biggest challenge was to make the new styles attractive to their customers. This was done by appealing to the national sense of patriotism. Washed-out shades such as pale pink, soft green and light blue were called sympathetic hues. Wearing them, the fashion magazines said, demonstrated patriotism because they required less dye. Military suits were introduced and were worn by women everywhere, providing a sympathetic link to the men in uniform. They also required less fabric, a point that was played up by the manufacturers and designers. Since many women made their own clothes, pattern books such as those offered by Russell's Standard Fashions in 1918 offered similar arguments:
Women of America, are you doing all you can for your country? Fashion and Home are the two spheres where you rule without question. Now is the time for each woman to show her true worth. To be patriotically dressed, wear simple clothes and above all wear out the clothes you already have. Since Fashion is in league with our country to win this war, we will eagerly seize this opportunity to remodel our clothes. The designs shown here are typical of what we are offering for the conservation of materials.
Other changes were dictated by women themselves. In 1917, when they went to work in the fields and factories, women wanted comfortable work clothing. Along with loose, dropped-waist dresses, trouserettes were popular and patterns were sold in most women's magazines. There was still a bit of the Victorian Age left over, however: while trouserettes could be worn during work hours, they had to be covered by skirts after the whistle blew. After all, patriotism could only be carried so far!
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1997 - December 1998
Detail from Red Cross poster, circa 1917 (Private Collection)
State Historic Site