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Women in a Man's Navy

First women enlist in 1917

Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Sailors marched up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in May 1919, their spotless blue uniforms starched to a crisp, their covers carefully strapped beneath their chins as they celebrated the recent victory in Europe.

They shouldered their rifles and drilled in unison in front of a cheering crowd, their precision movements so inspiring that they raised more than $50,000 for the Victory Loan program.

Conscious that their Navy duties were coming to a close, the women might have reflected on their service. Perhaps they stood a bit taller, knowing they had blazed a path for their sisters, recognizing that their very presence at the parade was historic.

Yes, women.

Just over two years earlier, as the United States prepared to enter the Great War, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels knew he would have a manpower problem. There simply weren't enough able-bodied, well-trained men to go around. He couldn't send men to sea and keep administrative and support functions running. Britain was already enlisting women in its armed forces to fill support roles, and the Women's Royal Naval Service - popularly known as the Wrens - had been successful in freeing sailors for sea duty.

And it just so happened that the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 said the Navy Coastal Defense Force was open to any citizen of the United States who had prior seafaring experience or who "may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense."

The Bureau of Navigation, then the Navy's personnel department, sent letters to naval district commanders, Mar. 19, 1017, authorizing them to recruit women between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve as "radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, chauffeurs, etc. and in many other capacities in the industrial line." The women would be collectively known as yeoman (F) - the "F" added to identify them as female after the Navy accidentally assigned some women to ships. This was soon corrupted as yeomanette.

It wasn't solely Daniels' idea, pointed out Dr. Regina Akers, a historian specializing in diversity at the Navy's History and Heritage Command. By one account, a young woman who would later enlist urged Daniels to include women as early as 1916. A recruiter in Philadelphia, Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Payne, also suggested enlisting women might encourage - or possibly shame - more men into signing up.
Photo collage of first women in the Navy.


First Among Women

He already had a candidate in mind, a young woman who worked for the Navy League. As soon as he received permission to swear her in, he telephoned the press and invited them to a historic event.

Reporters turned up at the Naval Home to find a young woman, not quite 21, dressed in a dark blue skirt that ended just above her ankles; a white shirtwaist; a black, four-in-hand tie; a dark blue, belted, double-breasted jacket with brass buttons; and a black and white hat that sported a Navy chief insignia. Looking "unmistakably navy and unmistakably feminine,"* wrote Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall in "The First, the Few, the Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I," Loretta Perfectus Walsh raised her hand and swore to support and defend the constitution of the United States.

Historians generally consider Walsh to be the first woman to officially enlist in the U.S. military. Women from Deborah Sampson to Cathay Williams had fought in previous conflicts, but that was under the guise of men. The Army Nurse Corps had been officially founded in 1901, the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908, but they weren't yet full-fledged service members. Walsh was the first non-nurse servicewoman, the first enlisted woman, the first woman to officially hold equal rank and receive the same pay and benefits as a man.

As a chief yeoman, Walsh was also the first female petty officer.

Cultural Change


All around the country, women rushed to sign up, to do their parts, to help end the war as fast as possible. By the end of March, before the U.S. had even declared war, 100 women had already enlisted. Ultimately, some 11,880 women served in the Navy and, starting in August 1917, another 305 enlisted in the Marine Corps.

In many cases, Navy offices were so short-handed that the new recruit swore her oath of allegiance and then immediately turned around, sat down at a typewriter and started working in her civilian clothes. When uniforms finally became available, they were quite similar to Walsh's makeshift outfit, but the blue jacket was belted in a "Norfolk" style. There would also be a white summer uniform.

Indeed, when it came to uniforms and so many other details, the Navy wasn't ready for this new breed of Sailor, said Akers.

"When you talk about Daniels being a visionary, I would say he came up a little bit short," she said. "Where are they going to live? Where are they going to eat? Where's the uniform? Who's going to do the medical exams? ... This was a cultural change."

Estelle Kemper, who later published her experiences under the name Mrs. Henry F. Butler in "I Was a Yeoman (F)," graduated from college in the spring of 1917, desperate to aid in the war effort. A young Navy ensign, a friend of a family friend, had been deputized to escort her around Washington as she looked about for work. He "dreamed up a wonderful plan for me. ... If I really wanted to serve my country, I should join the Navy."

"Why not?" she thought. "If the Navy needed me, I was hers."

Off they went to Navy headquarters, where Kemper, who had never even been inside an office before, blithely told the chief clerk she could type 200 words a minute.

"I had no idea I was claiming a record," she said. "Without testing me on the typewriter, he made out my application papers and sent me off to the Naval Hospital."
Photo collage of first women in the Navy.


Medical Exams

There, Kemper, like any new Sailor, had to undergo a physical. The Navy had decided yeomen (F) should be 60 to 70 inches tall and weigh between 112 and 150 pounds, although those numbers could vary for desirable applicants, according to Ebbert and Hall. Like men, female recruits had to possess 20 or more teeth, and be free of "weakness," defective vision, speech impediments, and heart or lung diseases. Navy nurses were sometimes available to take heart rates and other vitals (and act as chaperones), but often, the Navy - and the young women - had to wing it.

"I joined a long line of stripped females, holding bath towels around their middles," Kemper recalled. "Male recruits may not mind being herded together in the 'altogether,' but those poor, stripped feminine patriots were a sorry sight as they cringed in the open hallway, waiting to be scrutinized by a strange doctor."

Horrified at Kemper's seeming nonchalance, another girl gasped, "You act like you don't mind having no clothes on!"

"Oh, after the first couple of times you get used to this sort of thing," she joked, to the other recruit's horror.

"This was the Gilded Age," laughed Akers. "They were tripping. What do you mean, wear a towel and stand in a hallway?"

Daily Life

Like many Sailors today, naval service marked the first time many yeomen (F) had ever been away from home. But this was an age when most girls had been raised to go from their father's house to their husband's. Kemper's father had been stunned speechless by her telephone call home to Richmond announcing her new status, while her mother gasped, "Oh, sister, can you ever get out?"

A major concern of many parents may have been where their daughters would live. Already facing a major housing shortage in Washington, D.C., where the majority of yeomen (F) were stationed, the Navy had neither the facilities nor the space to accommodate most of the young women. Some lived at home within commuting distance of their duty stations. Other yeoman (F) stayed with extended family or friends. More piled into boarding houses or the YWCA.

They received housing allowances in addition to their regular pay. Because the Navy actually paid the women at the same rate as servicemen in equivalent billets, and enlisted more experienced women at higher rates, their salaries were good, averaging about $29 a month, plus a daily subsistence allotment of $1.25.

It was more than 19-year-old Yeoman (F) 2nd Class Catherine Lorena Smith (later Wanslow) had ever made "on the outside," she remembered in an oral history. "I earned $6.00 per week and out of that I paid room and board, transportation and lunches. I don't remember my Navy salary, but it was much better. We paid for our room and board in Washington but were given an allowance. ... Many of the young women enlisted because of the much better pay."

Duty

In return, the women worked hard. Yeomen (F) not only served as clerks, stenographers and telegraph operators, they also functioned as translators, cryptographers, draftsmen, finger printers, mechanics, truck drivers and recruiters. They worked in intelligence and built munitions. They even helped design camouflage for ships, according to Akers.

Five women went to France to work in hospitals. Still others served overseas in Guam, Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone. One young woman, Akers said, took notes in shorthand, transcribed them and delivered the information directly to President Woodrow Wilson. After the armistice, Kemper supported the naval aviators who completed the first flight across the Atlantic via flying boat.

"None of the Yeoman (F) can ever forget the excitement of those months." she remembered.

A six-day work week of 10- or 12-hour days wouldn't be unusual. Then, the women often went to training in the evenings "to learn about covers and heads and sterns and identifying ships," Akers said. Many also learned to drill.

"They did the work of two or three men and did it much better," she added, explaining that the yeomen (F) did far more than free men for combat. They had important jobs, work that contributed to the war effort, national security and technological innovations.

Tragedy

And although the women didn't see frontline or sea duty, that didn't mean their jobs weren't dangerous. As the influenza pandemic spread in 1918, American cities practically shut down, and it hit crowded military camps particularly hard. Neither military nor civilian hospitals could keep up with the influx of patients, and there are stories of victims dying in hospital hallways.
Photo of first women in the Navy.


Kemper survived her bout with the flu, and would go to the office early each day to disinfect all of the desks and equipment. "Just the same, it seemed to me that every morning somebody else was missing from his or her desk, and all too often when I called a home phone number I learned our clerk had died overnight.

"We were winning the war in Europe, but for a few weeks Death seemed to have put his awful finger on our capital city."

In many cases, yeoman (F) took on nursing duties. Walsh, for example, had been selling Liberty Bonds and serving as a recruiter. Now, she went to work at Philadelphia's Naval Hospital, where she succumbed to the virus. According to Ebbert and Hall, she never truly recovered, and eventually died of tuberculosis in 1925.

Fifty-six women died in Navy service, the authors said, adding that most were victims of the flu. No one knows how many others sustained lasting complications and died young like Walsh, although the Navy opened a sanatorium for female TB patients in Colorado to meet the demand for extended care. (As veterans, the yeoman (F) were entitled to the same medical benefits as men, including health care.)

The female Sailors were phased out starting the summer after the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice, with the last yeoman (F) released from service in 1921. Most of them, said Akers, remembered their service "as one of the most meaningful parts of their lives."

They returned to civilian life with Daniels' thanks: "It is with deep gratitude for the splendid service rendered by yeoman (F) during our national emergency that I convey to them the sincere appreciation of the Navy Department for their patriotic cooperation."

*Editor's note: Written sources retain their original spelling, punctuation and emphasis. Check back Monday to read more about what the legacy of the yeomen (F) means for generations of Navy women.

For more information on Women's History Month, click here.