When America entered World War I in 1917, some “society women,” as The New York Times referred to them in a patronizing tone, took the lead in finding ways for women to get involved. It is not at all surprising that Alice De Lamar, then in her early 20s, was among these women. Many had attended Miss Spence’s school with her.
These women, heiresses with names like Morgan, Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, and Harriman, weren’t interested in minor roles. They wanted to go to the front lines, where they could help the wounded soldiers. They volunteered to learn to drive Red Cross ambulances for the Red Cross Motor Corps, organized in 1917, taking courses in first aid and general motor repair before sailing to France.
Facetiously referred to as “The Heiress Corps” due to their wealth and social status, they had the precise skills needed for automotive work in France. They could speak French and drive cars, and they didn’t expect or need to be paid for their work. Further, they were independent and bold, unafraid to make decisions and take risks.
Gail Collins describes the situation in France as chaotic: “Relief and medical services in the early years of World War I were so uncoordinated that women who were daring and willing could easily assign themselves to duty. Some volunteers found themselves assisting doctors in the French hospitals. ‘I knew nothing about nursing and had to learn on my patients, a painful process for all concerned,’ said Juliet Goodrich, who had been a canteen worker until she was recruited to work in a Paris medical facility in 1918.” (America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, 2007).
Over 25,000 American women served in Europe in World War I, often as volunteers who paid their own way and carved out roles for themselves. The U.S. government had mixed feelings about women serving in war. The thousands of women who enlisted in the armed services found themselves doing clerical work. Those who went abroad as nurses and telephone operators were civilian employees, albeit in uniform.
Nearly a century later, these mixed feelings persist. A recent panel (March 2011) recommended that the U.S. Defense Department rescind its policy that prevents women from serving in ground combat units. Just like their women counterparts at the front in World War I, women now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are unofficially in ground combat situations, getting shot at and killed and maimed, without getting credit or the opportunity to advance their careers.
American women seized on the First World War, in Gail Collins’ words, “to struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women’s roles that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders.” (America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, 2007).