Wednesday, August 13, 2014

From the Archives: Mount Holyoke Women and the Great War

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, died of a bombing attack in Sarajevo. This assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir triggered a war so ghastly that it soured the old saying "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." In 2014, tributes to the 100th anniversary of the Great War describe it as “bloody,” as “futile,” and as a “carnage.” A century of ill-will later, the slogan of WWI as “the war to end all wars” can only be looked on in an ironic light.

In 1917, the United States entered WWI in the name of democracy and civilization. As the first armed conflict yet to be backed by the might of modern propaganda, the war gained relevance in all aspects of American life. Mount Holyoke, like many other institutions at the time, rallied for the war effort. According to a newspaper clipping in the archives’ war collections, Mount Holyoke students pledged under the “star and spangled banner” to prepare themselves “mentally and physically” for the war by exercising, sleeping with the window open, and by cultivating “a willingness to profit from the wisdom and experience of others.”

More specific actions were also taken. “College girls,” as Seven Sisters students were called in a pamphlet issued by the central propaganda agency during the war, rationed, learned useful skills in “war courses,” studied to become dentists and engineers, and took up work usually done by male employees of the college. A newspaper clipping from January 1918 reported Mount Holyoke students shoveling snow on campus at six o’clock in the morning, completing a task until then had been done by male staff members.

Mount Holyoke also pioneered in establishing a “war garden” on campus. In the spring and summer of 1917 alone, Mount Holyoke “farmerettes” cultivated 14 acres of land, and grew bushels of vegetables that were worth $1,733. In the summer, the students rose daily at five o’clock, and sprayed, weeded, hoed, picked, and gathered in the field all morning. In the afternoon, Mount Holyoke farming squads helped out on other South Hadley farms, did housework, and participated in rallies for the war. Watching the “white clad” young women clear debris from the car track in a storm, a man said, as reported by the Alumnae Quarterly in 1918, “What them women can’t do…”
Mount Holyoke "Farmerettes" at work

Besides farming, Mount Holyoke students also served the war effort in many other venues, including sewing dressings and bandages, campaigning for donations, and participating in conservation. As of June 1918, twenty-four alumnae had departed for the front for various war-related services.

Outside of the college, women were needed in industrial production. Mount Holyoke Economic professor Ethel Dietrich wrote, in her capacity as the Special Investigator of the Ordinance Department, that the war presented the United States with a shortage of 250,000 skilled workers as of August 1918. Though “Rosie the Riveter” and “Wendy the Welder” only become cultural icons after WWII, WWI also relied on women for industrial production. A pamphlet issued by the Committee of Public Information stated that “the shining shield of the war” was “the varied opportunities of work for women. Female chemists, translators and “women with technical training and mathematical minds” were in great demand.

Despite the senseless violence, the innumerable lives lost, the grim disillusionment that followed, and the acrimony which eventually led to another world war, the Great War did facilitate progress. During the war, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum in North America as well as Europe, as women proved themselves as equals to men in intellect and civic virtue on the home front. While women had always been equal contributors in production and earnest activists in politics, the Great War afforded women a chance to be finally recognized for their labor and talents.

Besides the war effort, Mount Holyoke women also ardently contributed to the peace effort. Evelyn Eaton, class of 1919, wrote in a letter of her excited fellow classmates who heard a rumor that the war had ended in October 1918. The commotion in the hallways woke all the young women, and they marched to Mary Woolley’s house singing “Star Spangled Banner” with two flag bearers heading the parade. The students, though still without confirmation that the war had indeed ended, listened to an impromptu lecture on college students’ responsibilities in postwar reconstruction in good spirits.
Mount Holyoke Students on Armistice Day

I remember once looking through the class files of the classes that attended Mount Holyoke during the Great War. One photo, of a woman in Laurel Parade bearing a sign that reads “Three Wars Later, We Are Still Working for Peace,” stood out at me as earnest, optimistic, engaged, and empowering. Maybe WWI was good for something—it legitimized women’s rightful role in the world of work as well as in the world of politics. Soon after the end of the war, women in the United States gained the vote with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. The Great War accelerated the fight for women’s rights, a fight that continues still today.

WWI taught us to cherish peace. Perhaps this time around we will do a better job, with women’s voices and efforts better incorporated in the safeguarding of it.


Ruilin Fan, Class of 2017, is a Student Assistant in Mount Holyoke College's Archives and Special Collections.

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