Published by EH.NET (June 2001)

Susan Zeiger, In Uncle Sam’s Service: Women Workers with the American

Expeditionary Force, 1917-1919. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,

1999. x + 211 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3166-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela Nickless, Department of Economics, University of

North Carolina at Asheville.

The image of an aristocratic (beautiful) young Englishwoman as a heroic

ambulance driver or nurse in World War I is common to most of us. Slightly

less common perhaps is the smiling (gorgeous) young American canteen girl

dispensing coffee, doughnuts and patriotic good cheer to American boys at the

front. These Anglo-American images of the role of women in World War I have an

element of truth but they have silenced a far more interesting story that

Susan Zeiger (Associate Professor of History, Regis College) tells in this

fine book about the first US war in which women were mobilized by the armed


At least 16,500 women were part of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as

members of the army, civilian employees of the army, or employees of official

welfare agencies working with the army. Zeiger uses previously unexplored

sources including personnel records and army files, oral histories, and

veterans’ questionnaires to reinterpret women’s wartime service. She finds

that the “vast majority of AEF servicewomen were wage earners, white,

literate, lower-middle-class, and often self-supporting” (p.2). She places the

stories of the servicewomen in the context of women’s employment in the early

twentieth century and she examines the role played by war in the social

construction of gender. In the early twentieth century, the problem of gender

and war was very different from our own attempt to grapple with women and

military service. The argument, simply put, was more essentialist.

Conservatives like Teddy Roosevelt argued that the US was undergoing “a crisis

in masculinity” and that war and military training would “renew the virility

of a nation in decline and restore men to a position of leadership and women

to their proper role of subservience” (p.4). Prominent leaders of the women’s

peace movement, like Jane Addams and Carrie Chapman Catt, argued that

mother-love was a force against militarism and could lead the nations into a

civilization based on peace and mutual respect. Both of these essentialist

arguments would be threatened by the deployment of women in the war zone.

Another view of gender neutrality and sex-blind “human” rights began to

compete with this notion of essential sex-differences among feminists in the

1910s and many women saw the wartime deployment of women as furthering the

notion of gender equality. Women’s wartime employment was bound to challenge

traditional gender roles and create even more instability about the proper

role for women. (Note the common Anglo-American images of women at war were

propagated during the war and do not directly challenge the more essentialist

views of women’s roles.)

Professor Zeiger has done a great job with this interesting and complex story.

She describes mobilization efforts and the women who enlisted and then spends

a chapter each on auxiliary workers (doughnut girls), clerical workers and

telephone operators, and nurses. She concludes with a chapter on the meaning

of wartime work. A number of Zeiger’s findings surprised this reader including

the fact that the typical recruit was mature (over 30) and single. Also

intriguing were the reasons why the US choose to use auxiliary agencies to

recruit women instead of creating a women’s corps in the army as the UK did,

the battle army nurses waged during and after the war for military rank, and

the post-war struggle for veterans’ benefits for servicewomen.

The struggle to use women for necessary labor but to avoid challenging

traditional gender roles is made clear in all three broad categories of female

labor. For example, the clerical workers and telephone operators were workers

who possessed skills crucial to the communication necessary to troop and

supply movements. They were subject to military discipline but were not in the

military (a distinction often lost on the women themselves and soldiers).

Early on it was discovered that men (who were not trained in civilian life to

run switchboards and typewriters) could not successfully replace women in

these vital roles. The information revolution of the late nineteenth century

had created a whole new class of workers required for the functioning of a

bureaucracy. Secretaries and telephone operators had access to vital

information hence the need for military discipline — yet, many in the

military, including the Secretary of War opposed enlisting women. It was

decided the women would not be in the army and the YWCA stepped in to oversee

the private lives of women and arrange for their living quarters. Women were

subjected to military discipline and dress, often putting up with heavy-handed

managerial policies because they believed they were in the army. Signal Corps

women in particular were disappointed after the war to discover they did not

qualify for veterans benefits and organized to demand recognition.

Nurses really were in the army and were officers but were denied military

rank. They technically “out-ranked” the enlisted wounded men under their care

but this was greatly complicated by their rank-less officer status. Enlisted

men who worked in the hospitals and men under their care often resisted

“taking orders” from army nurses whom they often perceived as just bossy

civilians. Nurses, unlike other servicewomen, organized during the war and

demanded recognition and autonomy but the army was resistant. One measure of

the army’s ambivalence toward nurses was that they refused to equip or uniform

them. The army required that the Red Cross provide each nurse (who was a

member of the army!) with equipment. Further army nurses would not be paid

when held as prisoners of war (male personnel were) and were excluded from

retirement benefits. The nurses were successful in overturning the pay for

prisoners of war ruling during the war but the exclusion from retirement

benefits held.

Concern about proper female behavior was paramount in the minds of the

military and the auxiliary organizations that recruited women. Auxiliary

workers in particular were expected to create a domestic environment on the

front. While real families might serve as a distraction (sisters and wives of

soldiers were barred from enlistment), surrogate families would serve to

improve morale and provide a distraction from the more traditional “camp

followers.” So auxiliary workers were to distract soldiers from dangerous

French whores, serving instead as substitute sisters — an interesting

notion. Many canteen workers had ‘enlisted’ to “stand up beside the boys and

say, ‘Here! Look at me! I’m just as good a soldier in my way as you are in

yours!'” (p, 60). When they found themselves doing work that resembled unpaid

domestic labor and isolated from the military aspects of the war, they were

often frustrated. The notion of creating domestic space without sexual tension

may have been easier than it seems since most women were ten or more years

older than the doughboys. Yet, rumors of sexual misbehavior occasionally

surfaced and camp love affairs did occur. Interestingly, the most vicious and

persistent rumors of sexual misbehavior by women or sexual violence by men

concerned nurses, the only women who were members of the armed forces. Zeiger

argues convincingly that these persistent rumors were a covert way of

resisting the dependence of the military on skilled women. The rumors reflect

the view that female sexuality was a threat to men at war.

Professor Zeiger argues convincingly that World War I was “a defining moment

in the evolution of the U.S. gender system” (p.173). The war exposed the

inherent contradiction between the increasing employment of (middle-class)

women outside the domestic sphere and the traditional ideology of gender

roles. Women’s service on the front in the war and the granting of suffrage to

women after a one hundred and twenty year struggle challenged the old

definition of citizenship. Women claimed full citizenship on the basis of

their participation in the work of the nation, both at home in the labor force

and on the front in the war. While there were no dramatic transformations in

women’s role as a result of the war, society would try to work out the

implications of women’s full membership in the nation state for the rest of

the twentieth century. I recommend this very thoughtful book to anyone

interested in World War I and to anyone interested in the changing nature of

gender roles. The role of the suffrage movement in the war effort and gender

role shifts is a very interesting sub-theme, which will also be of general

interest. Thanks, Professor Zeiger, I, for one, will never think of World War

I in quite the same way!

Pamela J. Nickless is Professor of Economics and Director of Women’s Studies

at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She is currently working on

an article on the changing legal status of women in nineteenth-century North