Women and the War Effort
World War I was the first war in which American women were recruited to serve in the military. Women were already present in France as members of the American Red Cross and as canteen workers, but for the most part, French and Belgian women staffed American military offices. In October 1917 the new American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) telephone system was put in place, but the American soldiers and the French women working as telephone operators were unable to communicate. The need for bilingual telephone operators precipitated the recruitment of American women.
When General Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, mounted an advertising campaign for bilingual telephone operators for the Army Signal Corps, more than seven thousand women responded and more than two hundred were recruited. These Bell Telephone System operators, known as "Hello Girls," worked in France from March 1918 to the end of the war. The Stars and Stripes reported their activities in several articles, announcing their arrival with the headline "Uncle Sam Presents 'Hello, Girls!'" (March 29, 1918, p. 1, col. 3)* and describing their work in the article "Six Hello Girls Help First Army" (October 4, 1918, p. 6, col. 2).
Women also served a symbolic function for the fighting men. Women were the subjects of sentimental poetry; poems to sweethearts at home or to French mademoiselles appeared in several issues. The protection of women was held up as an honorable justification for the war. An article entitled "German Brands Young Mother with an Iron" that appeared in the first issue of The Stars and Stripes typifies the manner in which sentimental and protective feelings towards "womanhood" were aroused to encourage the soldiers to fight: "It is in accordance with other stories of the prostitution of womanhood which the Kaiser is forcing in order to repopulate the German Empire. The rapid British advance at Cambria, in November, when towns which the Germans had occupied for three years were captured before the latter could deport the civilian population into Germany as is their custom, disclosed the latest effort of the German army. French women and girls had been made the victims."
The article then quoted an American officer: "Among the refugees who passed along the roads making their way southward farther into France after we made our first big advance were scores of women and girls, each marked on her breast by a cross in red paint. . . . the cross indicated that German soldiers were the fathers. The crosses had been painted on them, the women explained, to show that their children would belong to the German Government. . . . Thank God, America, by coming into the war, will help to stamp out this beastly 'kultur' from the world and make it a safe, clean place to live in for your womenfolk and mine?-our mothers, our sweethearts, our wives, and our daughters" (February 8, 1918, p. 3, col. 1).
In keeping with the concept of honoring womanhood, The Stars and Stripes encouraged the doughboys to write letters home to "Mom." In support of their intensive Mother's Day campaigns, the newspaper published heart-wrenching cartoons depicting a forlorn mother waiting for the postman or tearfully reading her son's letter. Editorials and headlines touted the millions of letters sent back home by dutiful soldiers. The newspaper also promoted the War Orphans Project, in which companies and officers "adopted" French war orphans by pledging to provide them with financial support. Articles promoting the effort were often accompanied by images of little girls and descriptions of the orphans' plight.
*Unless otherwise noted all references are to The Stars and Stripes.