On March 17, 1917, United States Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels took what was then the bold—and controversial—step of admitting women into the navy as yeomen.(1) Hundreds of women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five headed to recruiting stations to enlist. By the time the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, two thousand women had enlisted as “Yeoman (F).” By 1918, the number of female yeomen had increased to eleven thousand.
Daniels had no intention of creating women warriors. The navy recruited women to “free a man to fight” by taking over clerical positions. Most “Yeomanettes” (2)were indeed assigned to clerical jobs, but the list of jobs the navy considered suitable for women grew as the war went on. Women also worked as radio operators, supervisors for naval shipments, telegraph operators, commissary stewards, fingerprint experts, and camouflage designers.
Once the navy realized that young women in uniform were good publicity, female yeomen were trained to march and perform basic military drills so they could parade in support of war bond drives, troop send-offs, and other official events where goodwill was valuable. Although they were not allowed to serve at sea, female yeomen received the same pay as sailors and marines at the same rank, a uniform allowance, medical care, and war risk insurance. (3)
Daniels is sometimes given credit for being the first to allow women to join the modern military, but both Britain and Russia beat the United States to the punch. Britain recruited women to become “the girl behind the man behind the gun” as part of Queen Mary’s Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1916. Under the supervision of their own noncommissioned female officers, “female Tommies” traveled to the front, drove ambulances, ran printing presses, and dug graves. Bolshevik Russia took things one giant step further: in the short period between the Russia Revolution in February 1917 and the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917, roughly four thousand Russian women served in combat. But that’s another story.
(1) In what many Americans found to be a shocking oversight, regulations in the Naval Act of 1916 did not specify that US citizens had to be male to join the navy. Oops.
(2) Adding a feminine or diminutive suffix to a noun does more than make the noun feminine in a grammatical sense. It also trivializes female accomplishment by presuming that the base noun is masculine: a poet is a more serious creature than a poetess, for example. Daniels, who objected to the nickname, summed up the issue: “I never did like the ‘ette’ business. If a woman does a job, she ought to have the name of the job.” (Can I get an “amen”?)
The official designation, “Yeoman (F),” made it clear women were the institutional equivalent of men who held the same rank. A revolutionary concept that we still haven’t come to terms with as a society.
(3) As we’ll see in a future blog post, the US Army didn’t do as well by the young women it “enlisted” to serve as telephone operators in France. Don’t touch that dial.