By: Deborah McConnel

World War I brought many societal changes in the United States. One such change was the role women played in the labor force. The shortage of males available for employment due to the military demands of World War I caused the first serious rethinking of women’s position in the American work force. In 1918 female writers predicted that the war would greatly advance the role of women. World War I did not significantly increase the number of employed women, but the war changed the types of jobs women held. Upon the return to peacetime activities, women laborers suffered a setback, losing jobs to returning veterans, but their advances could not be fully denied.

Because of their economic makeup, all regions of the country were not affected to the same degree. The influence of World War I on the role of women’s work in southern cities can be evaluated through the study of Nashville (Davidson County), Tennessee, from 1900 to 1920. Although not the watershed originally anticipated, a study of women’s involvement in military, volunteer, and industrial war-time work does reveal a significant impact. The need for additional laborers, the organization of African-American and Caucasian women, the inclusion of women in the military, and the visibility of women’s work, hastened the progress of women in the labor force.

Women’s roles changed dramatically from the founding of Davidson County in 1783 forward. The most significant changes, however, occurred in the twentieth century. As late as the mid-nineteenth century women were often classed with children, criminals and idiots. For example, women could not own property, vote, or participate in government; if married women worked outside the home, their wages were considered their husband’s property.

One of the first jobs considered acceptable for women was that of school teacher, but it took over half the nineteenth century before women teachers gained the same level of acceptance as their male co-workers. In 1858 women were first hired as teachers in the Nashville City Schools. In 1869 the Tennessee Superintendent of Public Instruction stated that female teachers in Tennessee were not as common as elsewhere.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century women were most commonly employed as domestic and personal servants, agricultural workers, factory workers, and teachers. The job most frequently held by women was domestic servant. This can perhaps be explained by the fact that the majority of employed women were African-American and they were relegated to that position. Other, more professional positions slowly became available to women. For example, in 1870 there were three women physicians in Tennessee.

By the 1890s women had carved out a small niche for themselves in the Tennessee economy. The women’s work exhibit at the Centennial Exhibition in 1896 was organized by some of the most prominent and progressive women in Tennessee. However, the emphasis was still placed on home decorating, modern kitchens, and the merits of being a graceful hostess. Because the pristine image of the southern lady remained an important legacy in the South, Nashville women working toward equal suffrage were careful to move slowly and avoid being associated with militant suffragist groups. They attempted to assure men that a woman could be intelligent and active in the political realm while remaining a good wife, mother, and housekeeper.

Due to industrialization and the Progressive Movement at the end of the nineteenth century, women gained more economic opportunities. As more industry came to Tennessee and the economy grew, women became more accepted in the work force. This slow rate of progress would have probably continued without World War I. But by introducing women to new types of work and creating a sudden large demand for workers due to the enlistment of approximately 8,000 Davidson County soldiers, World War I greatly sped up the progress of women’s work.

A significant factor that furthered the women’s cause was the participation of women in the military. One of the main arguments against the enfranchisement of women was that because women did not serve in the defense of the country they did not deserve the right to vote. In past wars women volunteered their services, especially as nurses, but never served in an official capacity.

During World War I women served as nurses in the United States Army on the homefront and on the battlefield. Army nurses, however, carried no military rank. Fifty-one Davidson County women served in the United States Army during World War I; thirty-one of those served overseas. Catherine Glynn Sinnott, a nurse at Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville before the war earned promotion to Chief Nurse and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her work overseas. The service abstracts of Gladys Burkitt Leake and Elizabeth Beal, also Saint Thomas Hospital nurses, show active service at the battle of Meuse-Argonne in France. Battles in the Meuse-Argonne sector produced 110,589 injuries, creating a great need for medical assistance. Bernice Hall of Nashville saw action at the Oise-Argonne, Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel engagements.

World War I presented females with the opportunity to serve in the United States Navy. Josephus Daniels, United States Secretary of the Navy during World War I, went out on a limb by soliciting the enlistment of women in the Navy. "‘Is there any regulation which specifies that a Navy Yeoman be a Man?’" He had no intention of sending women to sea but hoped to release men from clerical positions to serve in active duty. Some "yoemanettes" also served as radio electricians, pharmacists, chemists, draftsmen, accountants and telephone operators.

Daniels received spirited criticism for his ground-breaking decision. Newspapers published letters from outraged citizens as well as Navy personnel. One such letter read: "WOMEN in the Navy, fantastic, ridiculous. Petticoats in the Navy! Damn’d outrage! Helluva mess! Back to sea f’r me!" Marine recruiter Sergeant George W. Kase wrote: "‘Women in the military service, other than the medical branches, are a deterrent to progress and efficiency of anything military.’" Secretary Daniels maintained the fortitude to stick with his decision, and more than 11,000 females, including women from every state of the Union and Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, joined the Navy before the end of World War I.

Twelve Davidson County women are listed in Mrs. Rutledge Smith’s "Abstracts of Service Records of Tennesseans in World War I" as joining the Navy. At least one entry is missing. Miss Will Allen Dromgoole, a popular columnist with the Nashville Banner was the first Tennessee woman to enlist in the United States Navy. She enlisted May 1, 1917 and worked as a yeoman in publicity and recruiting in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.

Before World War I women’s clubs were fairly prevalent among the elite of society. The clubs served very little purpose except as a means of socialization. Two exceptions would be women’s work for temperance and suffrage. For the most part, people considered a respectable middle-class woman’s place to be in the home and church, not a social club.

As World War I became important to Americans, most women’s groups found a new vision and purpose in war work. Many new organizations were formed, making a place for middle-class women to help in the war effort. Women’s patriotism was obvious when President Wilson called for cooperation and was bombarded with letters from women’s organizations across the country volunteering their help.

Woman suffrage organizations set their objectives aside temporarily to focus on war work. They believed that women who worked as nurses overseas, farmed in their husband’s absence growing and preserving larger quantities of food than ever before, and doing all manner of homefront war work, could not be denied the right to vote. The ratification of the woman’s suffrage amendment was stimulated by World War I in making women’s work more visible and by forcing women to organize. President Wilson stated: "Unless we enfranchise women, we shall have fought to safeguard democracy which, to that extent, we have never bothered to create."

Although not a social club, the Committee of Women’s Defense Work of the Council of National Defense, also known as the Woman’s Committee, was formed on the national, state and county levels. The Woman’s Committee was the "go-between" for women’s groups and the government. They also assisted with the educational needs of women’s groups in areas such as nursing and food conservation.

The groups most prominently involved in war work were the YMCA, the YWCA and the Red Cross. The United States branch of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) first opened in 1851. General Pershing estimated that the YMCA conducted 90 percent of the welfare work carried out overseas. Women were first allowed to serve in the YMCA in 1917. Women’s YMCA work overseas during World War I started as kitchen help in the canteens. Soon their positions progressed to "welcomers" or greeters and secretaries. As needs became more apparent they enlarged their scope of work to include helping with the injured in field hospitals and triage rooms, especially after a battle. Often they helped with simple things such as making shields for the eyes of boys who were gassed. The YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) work included entertainment, housing assistance, and general welfare work. Women’s war work showed men, as well as the women themselves, that they were strong and capable of doing more than kitchen work; it inspired a new respect for women’s services.

Another prominent association was the American Association of the Red Cross, organized by Clara Barton in 1881. The Red Cross charter made its members responsible "to furnish volunteer aid to the sick and wounded of the Armed Forces in time of war, and to act in matters of voluntary relief and in accord with military authorities as a medium of communication between the people of the United States and their Armed Forces." When World War I began in August of 1914 the American Red Cross had 107 chapters. Before the war was over nearly one-fifth of the United States population were members of the Red Cross, with 3,864 chapters. The Red Cross provided a constant stream of trained nurses to the military overseas and in the United States during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Davidson County women were very active in volunteer war work through the Red Cross and many other organizations. Davidson County Women in the World War lists more than 35,000 women who participated in war work in thirty-five active organizations. Many large organizations, such as the Davidson County Red Cross contained smaller Auxiliary Units, such as the Vanderbilt Auxiliary Unit.

The African-American women of Nashville, although forced to work in separate organizations, took on their share of war work with interest and enthusiasm. They participated in every drive sponsored by the Woman’s Committee. The African-American Women’s Committee of the fourteenth ward received a medal for one-hundred-percent efficiency in collection of thrift pledges. The participation of women from the three large African-American universities (Fisk, Meharry, and Roger Williams), helped make African-American women from Davidson County the most active in the state. Nashville had "colored" branches of the YMCA, the Carnegie Library, and the Red Cross. The Nashville Globe reported on 18 May 1917 that the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs wrote to President Wilson: "yours has our earnest prayers and support and we offer ourselves in whatever way may seem best to use us." The letter was signed by Mrs. J. C. Napier, Chairman, Mrs. S. J. Carter, and Mrs. J. F. Pierce.

Many unofficial volunteer organizations were started before the United States entered the war. While visiting in France in 1914, Mrs. George Weeks Hale observed the war-induced need for medical supplies. While there she spent three weeks with the Red Cross learning how to prepare bandages. On her return to Nashville in November of 1914 she organized a small group of women to prepare bandages. The work progressed rapidly, and by the spring of 1915 they had three cases of hospital supplies ready to ship to France. Mrs. Hale received the Reconnaissance Medal from the French Government.

Before the formation of the Women’s Committee a great deal of war work was already being done in Tennessee by existing organizations. This was especially true in the conservation of food. An article in the 5 May 1917 Nashville Banner encouraged women to plan their menus to include meatless, wheatless, sugarless, etc. days, "without government dictation." A letter to Washington, DC from a Tennessee woman stated that she believed everything in her state had been "canned, dried, or et." Every community had canning centers where women would congregate to preserve their produce. One Davidson County woman set her cannery up in the center of her large garden every Thursday and neighbors would come and participate in a community canning.

Organizations, such as the YMCA and Red Cross, provided opportunities for women to be educated to better assist in the war work. An article in the 22 July 1917 Nashville Tennessean and Nashville American discussed training in the "conservation of food stuffs where it was never contemplated before." The Nashville Red Cross held classes in home care of the sick, first aid and home dietetics. The Nashville Tennessean and Nashville American reported on 22 July 1917 that as soon as Red Cross classes were scheduled they were filled. At the time of the article the Red Cross was holding classes three nights a week at the YMCA and two nights a week at the City Hospital. African-American women were trained as Red Cross nurses, but were not sent overseas because of the lack of "separate but equal" accommodations. Their help was crucial on the homefront during the influenza epidemic of 1918, especially at the Old Hickory munitions plant.

Women’s volunteer organizations used newspapers as a means of getting women to participate and to acknowledge their war work. An example of this appears in the 5 April 1918 Nashville Tennessean and Nashville American. The article is entitled "War Work is Discussed at Meeting Here." Mrs. James Frazer of Nashville is quoted as saying "We are all here for the same purpose, to rededicate ourselves to the service of our country. . . . We of Nashville are proud to be here to serve our sisters from over the state." This article also reported that over 66,000 women across the state had been registered for war work.

Concerning the work of Davidson County women, Colonel Harry S. Berry of the 115th Field Artillery stated: "It is fitting and proper that a record of the World War activities of the women of Davidson County should be preserved. The work of these noble women constitutes a precious heritage to prosperity." Extensive coverage of Davidson County women’s work during World War I would be sufficient to produce a volume in itself. Suffice it to say that the women of Davidson County joined efforts to produce previously unknown quantities of work in formerly unfamiliar areas during World War I.

World War I affected women’s employment dramatically. Each young male employee who marched away left a job that needed filling. Additional industrialization and work in munitions plants opened more jobs that needed to be filled. Who would fill the vacancies? The obvious answer was to employ more women.

Women in the labor force was not a pleasing notion to a great number of people. Harriot Stanton Blatch points out in her 1918 book Mobilizing Woman-Power that the Labor Administration was not willing to fill any position with a woman if a man was available. A deputy commissioner of the Industrial Commission of New York declared his preference for completely excluding women from industry. Blatch considered women to be fighting their own war for women’s rights in employment. She states that because of World War I women were "going over the top" in employment.

World War I allowed women to show that they were capable of doing jobs for which they were considered unsuited, such as automobile manufacturing, office management, and railroad work. An article in the 2 May 1917 Nashville Banner states that J. J. McCullough, owner of a large railroad line, ordered that no men be employed in positions women were capable of doing.

White male workers who had been drafted were often replaced by white females. African-American women filled the white women’s former positions as well as some of the African-American men’s former positions. At the end of the war men regained most of these positions, and women’s work suffered a setback. After experiencing their newfound freedom women took advantage of the postwar economic growth to regain their momentum. African-American women who held domestic and menial jobs before the war were reluctant to go back to them. Having held high paying and interesting wartime jobs, women were less likely than their mothers to be happy staying home as housewives.

The largest increase in positions held by women between 1910 and 1920 were seen among office clerks (+3.25%), semi-skilled operatives in manufacturing (+3.0%), stenographers and typists (+3.0%), bookkeepers (+2.75%), saleswomen and store clerks (+2.75%) and teachers (+2.5%). The occupations suffering the biggest losses were servants (-2.5%), seamstresses (-2.0%), and laundresses (-1.25%). There were more positive changes for African-American women who moved into factory work, and away from servitude. As women joined the more professional ranks, business clubs such as the Altrusa Club in Nashville, were formed to help women learn more efficient business skills and to encourage other women who struggled in the work force. In 1914 membership of the Nashville Altrusa Club numbered only 125, but grew to 800 members by 1918.

During World War I Tennessee women made definite strides in the labor market. In 1900 the census shows 116,204 women gainfully employed in Tennessee; in the 1920 census there were 152,108. Women were listed in over one-hundred new occupations in the 1920 census unopened to them in the 1900 census. New professions in 1920 included those of artist, clergywoman, surgeon, photographer, professor, etc. These new professions were in white-collar categories.

In July 1917 Draughon’s Practical Business College advertised: ". . . two hundred and thirty five women are wanted to take the training necessary to qualify them for positions in banks, mercantile houses, railroad offices, etc.,—-positions made vacant by the first and second drafts of bookkeepers and stenographers." A competing school, Fall’s Business College advertised in large print: "YOUNG WOMEN, awake to your OPPORTUNITY." As opportunities for women opened educational institutions actively pursued them as students.

A Nashville working woman, Mrs. Anne Rankin, was editor of the Southern Woman’s Magazine, and wrote editorials for local papers. During World War I she served overseas with the YMCA. The application for overseas work with the YMCA asked the question "Is your husband in sympathy with your application for this service?" was asked. She responded: "I must make my own choice." Oddly enough, Mrs. Rankin was an anti-suffragist. This could possibly stem from her conservative Christian religious beliefs, or the fact that she was already being granted professional respect from fellow journalists. Her attitudes and actions in her employment and war work demonstrates the increasing desire of women to participate as an equal with men.

An article in the 11 January 1918 Nashville Tennessean and Nashville American reports the "splendid opportunity" being offered to women in the field of telegraphy. Telegraphy was one of the few jobs where women were given equal pay for equal work, and where the work day was only eight hours. It was unusual for a woman to be paid the same rate as a man. Likewise, an eight-hour work day was also considered unusual. The long hours typically worked by men at the turn of the twentieth century was one argument used against women joining the labor force. It was believed that women lacked the stamina to endure such conditions.

Table 1. Percentage of Women Employed in 1910 and 1920












Women Employed 38.6% 38.4% 23.2% 19.7% 25.5% 24.0%
White Women Employed 22.8% 28.8% 22.6% 28.4% 38.3% 43.8%
African-American Women Employed 66.7% 59.8% 65.2% 55.9% 58.2% 43.7%

Source: United States Bureau of the Census, Statistics of Women at Work (Washington, DC.: Government Printing Office, 1929).

Statistics comparing women’s work based on race and geographical region between 1910 and 1920 are shown in table 1. A higher percentage of Nashville women were working in 1910 and 1920 than the Tennessee or national average; however, the Nashville percentage is near the mean of working women in Southern cities with populations over 100,000. The racial divisions of women employed in Nashville as well as the rest of the country is also important. The percentage of white women working from 1910 to 1920 increased while the percentage of African-American women decreased slightly. Also the percentage of employed white Nashville women is lower than the national average, while the percentage of employed African-American Nashville women is higher that the national average.

In Table 1 the statistics indicate that the number of women gainfully employed in the United States, Tennessee, and Nashville decreased between 1910 and 1920 for African-American women and women of the United States as a whole. There are some considerations concerning the census that need to be noted. For one, the 1920 census was taken nearly fourteen months after the war was over, so inflated war numbers are not reflected. Another consideration affects agriculture. The 1910 census was taken 15 April when numerous women were working as farm laborers; in 1920 it was taken 1 January when little farm help was needed. Also in 1910 the census taker was told to include people as farm laborers even if they worked on their own farm, in 1920 the census instructions said nothing about it. In the Southern states another influential factor was the migration during World War I of African-Americans to the North for better paying jobs. A large percentage of African-American women were employed as servants, laundresses and cooks. Although African-American women composed 58.2 percent of the total number of working women in the United States in 1910, they composed 66.7 percent of women gainfully employed in Nashville. Therefore, because of the decreasing African-American population in Tennessee, fewer African-American laborers were available in 1920.

A random sample was taken of four-hundred Davidson County women in both the 1910 and 1920 Census. In 1910, 284 (71 percent) of the women were not working. In both years the leading occupation for Nashville women was laundress, with 35 percent of working women holding this position in 1910 and 30 percent in 1920. The second most prevalent job in 1910 was maid/servant with 10 percent of the female working population. In 1920 maid/servant had dropped to 9 percent, while factory workers took second place by moving up from 10 percent in 1910 to 12 percent in 1920. The percentage of women holding white collar jobs went up in Nashville between 1910 and 1920. For example, the number of operators increased from 0.8 percent in 1910 to 4 percent of the total in 1920, while clerks rose from 3 percent in 1910 to 5 percent in 1920. This sampling shows no increase in the number of women working, but a definite change in the types of work being done by women.

The most significant industrial development in Davidson County during World War I was the building of the Munitions Plant by the E. I. Dupont Nemours Company, often referred to as Old Hickory. It occupied five-thousand acres at Hadley’s Bend, and at its peak employed fifty-thousand workers. The high wages and excitement of being directly involved in war work enticed many laborers to leave jobs in Nashville to work at Old Hickory.

At one time there were thirty-two trains coming and going daily from Old Hickory. One of the best remembered trains, the "Powder Puff Special," was exclusively for women. It ran forty-five minutes each way to and from Nashville every day. Most women occupied their time during the commute by knitting for soldiers. A song entitled "Du Pont Powder Puff" was written about the train. The lyrics of two verses are:

We’re in the War, right in the game,

We’re fighting with our men,

We back the chaps who’re at the front,

From dear old Nashville, Tenn.

The Nashville girls are not afraid

To learn a real, real trade.

And it is well, for none can tell

Who may yit [sic] need our aid.

This song is indicative of the feelings of Nashville’s women involved in war work.

More than ten-thousand women found jobs at the Old Hickory munitions plant. Among the amenities available were lodges and dormitories for single women who did not live close enough to commute. There was a black and a white YMCA and a YWCA for women’s recreation and assistance. The old Hickory plant also provided women’s welfare workers.

Lou Cretia Owen, a women’s welfare worker at the Old Hickory munitions plant in the Woman’s Work Department kept a diary of daily happenings there. It has been pointed out that some of the information in her diary very closely resembles information that appeared in magazine articles about other munitions plants. There is ample evidence of her employment at Old Hickory, however, and the majority of her information is thought likely to be true.

Owen’s work involved assisting and monitoring female employees. She tells of instances where young women ran away from home to work at the Old Hickory plant, looking for excitement and romance. Owen’s office received many letters from parents, looking for runaway daughters. One young woman married a sailor and ran away from home to the Old Hickory plant so her parents would not find out. The young bride became very ill with the influenza and eventually died. It was impossible to contact her family because she gave false information on her employment application. Married women sometimes came to Old Hickory, abandoning their families under the guise of doing their part in the war. Often women arrived without food or money.

Facilities at Old Hickory were separated by sex and race. A Caucasian, African-American, and Mexican section were each divided between men and women. The women machine operators used houses called "change houses" equipped with lockers, to don their uniforms, called "womanalls." Womanalls consisted of a blouse and khaki knickers. Women wore shoes with flat soles that resembled army shoes. This outfit was designed to keep women from getting injured due to loose clothing or slippery shoes.

The Old Hickory munitions plant provided women the opportunity to display their capacity for tedious, dangerous and laborious work. Women started out making boxes, but were soon working with machinery and chemicals, as well as in executive management in the woman’s department. Of course these jobs were only available for the duration of World War I, but the experience spurred women on to become active in the post war work force.

World War I was influential in changing the pattern of women’s work and, therefore, cultural trends in Southern cities. Women’s rights had been gradually increasing since the 1870s and would have continued to grow without the war, but the responsibilities placed on women during the war hastened their progress. Numerous and various positions, vacated because of men’s service during World War I, were filled by women. Positive experiences of self-support and accomplishment enticed women to push even harder for their rights. Men were often surprised at the quantity and quality of work produced by women in the military, volunteer work, and the labor force. Although statistics show that the number of women employed in Southern cities were not lastingly increased by World War I, it did provide a significant influence in the changing patterns of women’s work in Southern cities.