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An Army of Housewives: The Women’s Committee during World War I
By Thomas Richardson
The home front directed factory production, agricultural output, and local community energies to the war effort in World War I. President Woodrow Wilson stated that “it is not only an army we must shape and train, but also a nation.”
National sentiment leaned mostly to isolation, but by 1917, the U.S. became increasingly involved overseas, culminating in its war declaration in April 1917. Local and regional energies and dozens of civilian and government committees were formed to contribute to the war effort. Communities saw it as a point of patriotic pride by ingratiating themselves with home front activities.
Alongside the Council on National Defense, women’s groups were pivotal in orchestrating home front activities. The Women’s Land Army of America placed thousands of volunteers on farms and ranches to compensate for the loss of labor. Thousands volunteered for the Red Cross and the Women’s Committee, whose primary goal was registering member’s skills and directing food donations.
The Women’s Committee worked in conjunction with the US Food Administration and its director, future U.S. President Herbert Hoover. Women’s Committee chapters operated locally, orchestrating food drives and agricultural practices in their community. Local food production was essential and securing enough for the armed services meant coming up with creative solutions at home that would not put additional pressure on the economy.
One focus of the Women’s Committee was to educate children and participate in school activities. These primarily included teaching children how to start a local garden, run food drives and can food. Each of these taught children and their families how they could save and preserve their food supply. This allowed people to conserve and stretch their groceries further, which in turn meant less food consumption.
Former National American Woman Suffrage Association President Anna Howard Shaw headed the Women’s Committee, and her connections with women’s suffrage groups proved critical in coordinating home front logistics and having a ready supply of volunteers. Shaw’s efforts awarded her the Distinguished Service Medal, the first woman to receive the award.
These interactions were not without some disagreements and compromises though. During the war, women’s suffrage activism was largely suspended in order to support the war effort; suffrage organizations who participated in home front work received widespread acclaim during the war, and that later played a critical role in passage of the 19th Amendment.
Women’s organizations in World War I played a crucial role on the home front and integrated the war effort into every community and home.
Thomas Richardson works for the National Archives and Records Administration. In graduate school, he taught U.S. history and world geography. He also worked on the World War II veterans’ oral history project at the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Thomas volunteers with the Midwestern History Association helping with their social media outreach as a contributing editor. He lives in St. Louis and spends much of his time with the Scottish St. Andrew Society.