Women in the trenches: war as a catalyst for change

Column by George Cooper.

At the opening of the 1918 Season, Arthur E. Bestor, Chautauqua Institution president, gave an address titled “Mobilizing the Mind of America,” a title that might be said to reflect a general attitude of the platform that summer. It was important to win the war, no doubt. But there were other things to be done and other lessons to be learned.

“This war is different from all the wars which have gone before,” Bestor said. “It is a war of nations, not of armies. It involves all the material resources, all the mechanical and scientific mobilization of entire populations.”

For United States citizens, it was something new.

A democracy, steeped in laissez-faire individualism, necessitated a complete reorganization of life and subordination of many controversies that were once supremely important in order to entertain controversy anew. In the summer of 1918, it was Chautauqua’s opportunity to “interpret to our fellow citizens the issues of this war.”

The United States was at war, because Germany had violated “every one of the fundamental principles of international morality.” The U.S. had been patient, only entering the battle after persistent breaches of “fundamentals of civilization and humanity.” Chautauqua would now take stock of those fundamentals.

On July 13, The Chautauquan Daily reported on a lecture by Edward Howard Griggs titled “The War and Feminism.”

Griggs said, “Professional militarism has always exalted the harsher masculine virtues and correspondingly despised the feminine virtues.” But this war has been different. “This war means the total mobilization of the men and women of the nations, and the way the women have responded, has aroused a wave of profound reverence for them.”

And it wasn’t just men who got to talk about it. One week of the summer was titled “Woman’s Service Week,” and the 10 major lectures during six days were all given by women. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt lectured on “For What Are We Fighting?” Mrs. Ella Boole on “The Temperance Reform in War Time.” Dr. Anna Howard Shaw on “Mobilization of Women.” Mrs. Anna V. Pennybacker on “Which Closes the Door, Youth or Age?”

But the headliner was Miss Helen Fraser, who gave five speeches that week. Fraser had a long list of credentials, showing her connections to the war, suffrage, agriculture, economics and the Lyceum movement. She had written a book titled Women and War Work. The Daily reported that “Miss Fraser’s presence itself will be an event, as her experience in prominent war work in England has made her name of international importance.”

Many women had been nurses, but Fraser said that a greater part of women’s work had been in doing the jobs vacated by men who had gone to war — many of whom would not return. Reports had shown that some 2 million women had taken the place of men in ordinary industries, but they had also worked “in the highest professions, working as statisticians, mathematicians …, bacteriologists, accountants, and architects.” A million more worked in munitions, “from the making of field glasses for officers to the building of dreadnaughts.”

On July 16, Fraser gave a speech about Lloyd George, the British politician and later minister of war whose cunning, conciliatory dexterity and “sanity of outlook” had made friends out people who at one time thought him inept.

“The people have realized that he has done more to help the country through than any other man they mention,” she said.

The next day, Fraser returned to the subject of women, speaking on the “Woman’s Land Army.” At the beginning of the war, many male agricultural workers enlisted because the pay was better. The Woman’s Land Army trained women to fill the gap on the farm. Accomplishing that meant changing the prevailing social and cultural view, as it had been previously thought that “farm work and conditions were bad for women.”

Women cultivated the land, raised flax that was used for airplane wings, harvested tons of vegetables, collected horse chestnuts (used for oil for munitions), overseeing in their toil the productivity of men who worked under them as did some German prisoners.

Fraser said, “The land girls and munition girls may be distinguished aside from their uniforms and the yellowed faces of the girls working in the munition plants by the badges of honor that are given them” — brooches with the insignia “War Service” or a “sleeveband of green bearing a red lion rampant.”

In her next speech, Fraser spoke of self-denial and saving. Titled “Money Behind the Guns,” her lecture asserted that “in the financing of the war, is the immense amount of savings secured by the Allies from the masses of the people.” But it was not just about money. It was also about the people and getting each person to contribute. “In this work, I think, as you do, that no country is steady, no democracy safe which does not get the great mass of the people to invest.”

Moreover, Fraser said it is not enough to tell people money is needed to win war. “Do not keep your minds on money itself too much.” Conservation and frugality were important, because “unless civilians of our country retrench when the government issues more and more money, prices soar higher and higher, labor demands higher wages, and this in turn makes prices rise again, and so you are caught in a vicious circle, which if continued will bring bankruptcy.”

Miss Helen Fraser gave the last of her series of speeches on July 19 in the Amphitheater. The Daily reported that Mrs. George E. Vincent, commandant of the National Service School, was on the platform, and President Bestor expressed thanks and gratitude.

Fraser pronounced women’s situation in the war to be premature, as war was ongoing. And she knew that once peace returned so would the way of life that had existed before. “So there is the question of what will become of some of these women who have been working in industries for the first time.”

Fraser said an agreement would have to be worked out whereby men and women would work on free and equal standing. Plans were in the works for women to contribute to and oversee the architecture and building of new homes. The government would sponsor reforestation plans, of which women should be a part. Women had been doing more educational work than ever. Even boys’ schools had female teachers. The field of medicine possessed many women of distinction.

“The war … has drawn men and women together as never before,” Fraser said. “Men never hesitate to ask us to take on the largest responsibilities, neither do they hesitate to ask us to do the most trivial things. This is getting far on the road toward the ideal condition.”

But Fraser issued a warning. “There is danger that the men coming back from the front, having felt and known what we have not, will feel a consciousness of a gulf between them and the women who stayed at home.”

Nonetheless, “We at home must hold the torch on high for them. We are fighting for all humanity; imperfect, mistaken as we often are, we stand for truth and righteousness, and in that consciousness we are going on doing all that is needed until the end.”