THE NAMING of a new U.S. Navy destroyer in honor of Chief Nurse Lenah Higbee may be just a blip in the news, but it represents a long-overdue recognition of American women’s participation in World War I.
Across the globe, more than 30 countries are commemorating the Great War with educational programs, memorial services and public events. The United States shed its isolationist stance and joined with the Entente powers in 1917, three years after the war began. Thus, our two-year centennial of World War I will begin later as well, on the 100th anniversary of Congress’ declaration of war, in April 2017.
This centennial provides a chance to re-awaken Americans to this largely forgotten war, and its continuing impact on our lives, and on the geopolitics of today’s world. Name a hotspot in the news — shall we start with Syria? Or how about the Ukraine, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa or the South China Sea? World War I and its aftermath continue to weave bloodstained threads into the global social fabric of the 21st century.
The Great War links directly to contemporary cultural issues as well. While segregated “colored” regiments like the highly decorated Harlem Rattlers met with a joyous welcome home at the war’s end, the violent reality of life within apartheid United States inspired black veterans to join a young organization called the NAACP. Along the way, their leadership helped spark the Harlem Renaissance.
The seismic impact of World War I also shaped the role of American women, both in the military and in civilian life.
We are all familiar with the poster image of World War II’s iconic Rosie the Riveter and her “We Can Do It!” ethos.
As the chairman of the US World War I Centennial Commission, Robert Dalessandro, recently commented, “Rosie the Riveter had a mother, and that mother worked in a factory too.”
In fact, by 1918, 2 million civilian women worked in war-related industries. Women also took on traditionally male roles in farming, participating in the stunning growth of American agricultural production during this era. We associate these changes with World War II, but the Great War led the way in expanding women’s horizons.
American women volunteered overseas in newly professionalized capacities on the war front, starting with the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.
Women worked as Red Cross nurses, as relief workers, as supervisors of large-scale resettlement efforts. They often wore military-type uniforms, displaying a no-nonsense appearance that helped them get the job done, whether it was driving an American Field Service ambulance or organizing a local orphanage.
When the U.S. officially entered the war in 1917, many of these female volunteers signed up in the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. On the USS Mongolia, one of the first troop ships to arrive in France in 1917, misfiring ordinance accidentally killed two female nurses as the ship pulled into the French harbor. They would be the first two Americans to die in the line of duty during World War I.
The Navy Nurse Corps began in 1908. It was here that Lenah Higbee made her mark. Under her leadership, the Corps grew from 22 original nurses to over 10,000 in wartime. She received the Navy Cross in 1918, the first woman to receive this honor. Higbee was also the first woman in the Navy to have a ship named after her.
There are other firsts associated with the Great War. Women’s suffrage was a hard-won victory in a battle that had begun over 75 years before the Great War, but women’s wartime service gave it that last, successful push.
The expansion of women’s roles during World War I provides just one example of the war’s impact on American life. The war’s history abounds in diverse themes — of immigration, technology, treachery, heroism, philanthropy, economic strength, artistic inspiration — and each of them lends valuable perspective on the 21st century.
Over the next three years, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission will build awareness about World War I through educational programs, the arts, and the creation of a national memorial park in Washington, D.C. Please join us in commemorating the upcoming centennial in your community and across the nation.
Also, the commission has a media campaign currently underway to raise money for the memorial. Check out the video featuring former Secretary Leon Panetta, Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, Dr. Vint Cerf, and retired General Barry McCaffrey.
Libby O’Connell was appointed Chief Historian, Senior Vice President, Corporate Outreach, AETN, in March 2005. Dr. O’Connell serves as historical adviser for HISTORY’s programming department. In addition, she spearheads all educational and community-based initiatives for AETN, including History’s Take A Veteran To School Day and the award-winning Save Our History, and A&E’s Intervention Town Hall Meetings, part of The Recovery Project.
Dr. O’Connell received her M.A. and Ph.D. in American history from the University of Virginia. She has taught history at Long Island University and has served as president of Raynham Hall Museum on Long Island. Dr. O’Connell serves on the boards of several organizations, including the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; the Civil War Preservation Trust; and National History Day. She is also on the Council of Scholar Advisors for George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.
She was appointed to the Commission by President Barack Obama.
Monique Seefried, during the past decade as president of the Croix Rouge Farm Memorial Foundation, purchased the historic land, commissioned one of the best sculptors in England and totally funded with private money a memorial statue to the US 42nd (Rainbow Division) on a WWI battlefield in France where the division fought with distinction. She also served from May 2003 until April 2009 as chairman of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Board of Governors. Prior to that, she founded and served as Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement and Study of International Education (CASIE) in Atlanta, whose board she now chairs. She also serves on the board of the United World College in New Mexico.
Between 1982 and 2002, she was Curator of Near Eastern Art at the Carlos Museum of Emory University and taught courses on Ancient Archaeology and Islamic Art in the University’s Art History Department. Seefried has been a regular pro-bono lecturer on art and archaeology topics as well as on international education and more recently on World War I, its causes and its consequences. Born a French citizen in Tunisia, Seefried became a US citizen in 1985. After a classical (Latin/Greek) secondary education, she did her undergraduate and graduate studies in History at the Sorbonne University in Paris from where she also holds her Ph.D. She is fluent in English, French, German and Italian. In 2005, the French Government made her a “chevalier” in the Order of the Academic Palms, in 2009 in the Order of Merit and in 2015 in the Order of the Legion of Honor. She was appointed to the Commission by the then-Speaker of the House, Congressman John A. Boehner of Ohio