A WWI service member from Pennsylvania was later named Chief Yeoman of the US Navy. A British ambulance service volunteer became a sergeant in the Serbian Army. An American journalist was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. If you heard the stories of these individuals who served and sacrificed during World War I, you may assume you’re looking at the résumés of men. But the experiences of Loretta Perfectus Walsh, Flora Sandes and Mildred Aldrich represent the countless contributions women made during this pivotal time in history.
The Great War mobilized women on all sides in unprecedented numbers from 1914 to 1918. While the vast majority of those women were drafted into the civilian workforce to replace conscripted men or staff expanded munitions factories, thousands also served in the military as nurses and in other support roles. In Russia, some women actually saw combat, including a peasant named Maria Bochkareva, who secured the personal permission of Tsar Nicholas II to join the Imperial Russian Army. She led the “Women’s Battalion of Death” combat unit.
“[Women] not only gained the gratitude of many in their own generation but they proved, for the first time on a global scale, the enormous value of a woman’s contribution, paving the way for future generations of women to do the same,” writes Kathryn J. Atwood, the author of Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies and Medics (Chicago Review Press).
Whether your female ancestors served in the trenches, tended to the wounded, worked in a factory or participated in conservation or patriotic efforts back home, here’s where to find key resources for tracing your female ancestors and learning about their contributions during World War I.
Women on the battlefield
In 1917, more than 20,000 American women joined the US Army Nurse Corps. More than half of these sailed overseas, leaving their families and private jobs to work under hazardous conditions as nurses to more than a million battle-wounded and ill American soldiers. Look for these clues to the service of women in your family:
• US military service records: Just as for male soldiers, records are available for women in branches of the service. Although a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis affected more than 16 million files of Army and Air Force personnel discharged in 1912 and later, you still might find records for female ancestors.
“Look for payroll records, morning reports and monthly personnel rosters, especially if service records no longer exist,” advises Jennifer Holik, a military historian and author of Stories of the Lost: Discovering the Story of Our Heroes Through Genealogy (Generations). “Also listen to oral histories and read unit histories or books about the branch of service in which your female ancestor served. These histories will provide context, even if your female is not named.”
To find women’s service records, start your search online. Subscription site Ancestry.com includes databases such as a roster of North Dakota men and women who served during World War I. Look for the site’s other WWI databases by using the Ancestry.com Card Catalog. You can search by keywords or filter by location, record type and year.
For example, a keyword search for nurse in the Card Catalog shows a database of American Red Cross nurse files from 1916 to 1959. Records in this database, which includes WWI records, provide the nurse’s name, residences, birth date and place, a list of assignments, education and licensing, professional experience, Red Cross badge number and more. A keyword search for women world war 1 returns a list of military records databases that contain information on both men and women who served from various US states.
In addition to Ancestry.com, check subscription site Fold3.com, which specializes in military records. To explore available WWI records on Fold3.com, click on the Search tab and select Browse Records. Next, select World War I from the Category list. The Connecticut World War I Service Rosters database, for example, has more than 66,000 records relating to the service of Connecticut men and women in the US Armed Forces (1917-1920).
• UK service records: For UK ancestors, check FamilySearch.org, which has a few databases for UK WWI records, including a collection of UK Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) records. This collection, which you can browse but not yet search by name, contains records of 7,000 women who joined the WAAC between 1917 and 1920. These records, which are also available at the UK National Archives, contain enrollment forms, statements of service and other service documents. Another possibly useful WWI collection on FamilySearch.org is UK WWI service records (1914-1920). In addition, subscription site findmypast.com has databases of UK military nurses from 1856 to 1994 and military nurses who earned the Royal Red Cross recognition.
Women at work
The Great War helped change that. Rosie the Riveter helped make female industrial workers famous during World War II, but women also were active in factory and farm work during the First World War. Industrial production was critical to the war effort, and severe labor shortages emerged. Women were called on, by necessity, to do work and take on roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations. A 1917 poster by the National Industrial Conservation Movement stated the case for putting women to work:
It takes the best co-operative efforts of from six to 20 workers at home to properly equip and maintain one American soldier at the front. […] With consistent help and encouragement for their wage-earning partners and themselves, from all classes of the people, American industry can and will win this war for human liberty. Breeders of industrial war at home must be eliminated. National co-operation is the slogan to insure victory for Democracy over Autocracy.
Women on the home front
In addition to working in factories and on farms, women on the home front were volunteers and patriotic supporters of the country’s economic initiatives and conservation efforts. For example, war bonds and stamps were sold to provide war funds, and food rationing, scrap drives and salvage collections helped conserve resources. Propaganda posters showed women wearing stars and stripes and holding vegetables to promote the victory gardens families planted to reduce demand on the nation’s food supply.
Women signed up for the Red Cross and other organizations, knitted socks, sewed bandages and collected books in support of the troops abroad. One Red Cross poster showed a basket of yarn and knitting needles with the slogan “Our boys need sox. Knit your bit.” War songs, movies, rallies, victory concerts, v-mail, buttons, medals, memorials and monuments also encouraged patriotism.
These programs resulted in ephemera, personal papers and newspaper articles about women’s war efforts. Search for diaries, manuscripts, photos, newspapers and recordings in the Library of Congress American Memory collections on Women’s History and Military History. Discovering Women’s History Online also offers news clippings, biographical sketches and more.
Widows and war brides
• Best records for finding female ancestors
• Finding wills
• Red Cross nurse records
• Finding Female Ancestors independent study course
• Preserving Memories: War Letters
• Secrets to Tracing Female Ancestors video class