Sisterhood of Suns

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World War One

In World War 1, over 30,000 women served. This was despite the chauvinistic attitudes of their society, which until then didn’t even allow them the right to vote. In fact, it was this very conflict, and their proven abilities both in the field and at home where they replaced their male counterparts in the workplace, that motivated President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim "...Are we alone to ask and take the utmost that our women can give, service and sacrifice of every kind, and still say we do not see what title that gives them to stand by our sides in the guidance of the affairs of their nations and ours? We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?". Ultimately, it was this display of competence, and the sacrifices that they made that lent a huge impetus to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

The vast majority of the women who served in the United States armed forces during this period were nurses and auxiliaries, and at least three were awarded their nations second-highest military honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, and several more the Distinguished Service Medal and over twenty received the French Croix de Guerre. And like their male counterparts, their duty was not always safe; some were wounded and a number of them died.

One group that stands out in particular, are the women of the US Army Signal Corps, also known as the “Hello Girls”. 300 women were recruited to serve as switchboard operators in one of the first attempts to connect soldiers in the trenches with their commanders. They were trained not only in their jobs but also in ‘self-defense’ techniques in the event that the enemy overran their positions. Although they were officially sworn into the Army before being shipped overseas, when they returned, they were informed that they had not been sworn in because only men could do so! Despite an appeal to Congress to recognize their status as veterans, it took over sixty years before they finally received the recognition that they deserved. By that time, only 70 were still alive, and the bill that acknowledged their service was not retroactive. During the ceremony that commemorated this recognition, one of these veterans reportedly remarked that receiving back-pay might have also been in order--a remark that made several of the generals standing alongside her visibly uncomfortable.

The United States was not the only nation to include women in the ranks of its armed forces, and not all of them served as nurses. Britain accepted women into its ranks through the WAAC’s (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps), and many served as clerks, telephonists, cooks and motorcycle ‘despatch riders’. Far from being the ‘soft’ jobs that their government had envisioned for them, they took causlaties from artillery fire and bombs. In one incident in 1918 for example, nine WAAC’s lost their lives.

One British woman, Flora Sandes began as British Army Nurse, but left and enlisted as a combat soldier in the Serbian Army. She was wounded in combat, and eventually rose to the rank of Sergeant major, and then Captain.

In France, Hélène Dutrieu volunteered for the French Air Patrol and made flights from Paris to observe the location and movement of German troops (although some sources state that she served as an ambulance driver during this conflict). Marie Marvingt also flew for the French and official government documents credit her with being the first woman pilot to participate in combat air operations during bomber missions over Germany. In Russia, five women flew for their nation, including Nadeshda Degtereva who also has the distinction of being the first woman pilot to be wounded in combat. Degtereva was injured while conducting a reconnaissance mission over the Austrian Front. In addition, Lyubov A. Golanchikova flew sorties for the Red forces during the Revolution that followed on the heels of the Great War and acted as trainer for Red Army pilots. And on a more sinister note, Princess Eugenie M. Shakovskaya, remembered as Russia’s first female military pilot, was convicted of treason and imprisoned, but after the revolution, went on to become the chief executioner for General Tchecka and a drug addict. She was shot after killing an assistant in the throes of a narcotic delirium.


Spotlight: Helen Fairchild


Fairchild served as a Nurse at the Ypres-Passchendaele area at Casualty Clearing Station #4, roughly the equivalent of a MASH unit. Faced with massive casualties and primitive living conditions, Fairchild and her fellow nurses worked long hours alongside Army doctors, often enduring grueling 14-hour days. Despite this, Fairchild’s attitude remained positive and upbeat. But despite her fortitude, she died, although the exact cause is still uncertain. Some historians feel that her death was due to complications from the use of chloroform for a stomach ulcer, however in this author's opinion, it was probably caused by the effects of mustard gas during a period of heavy shelling. It is known that she loaned the use of her gas mask to a soldier who did not have one of his own, and this would have exacerbated the problems she was having with her ulcer. If this is the case, then we have an example of the official minimalizing of what would otherwise be properly considered a combat-related cause of death--and an embarrasment to those who wanted to portray the service of women in the Great War as being less hazardous, and secondary, to the men.


Spotlight: Marie Marvingt


Born 20 February 1875, Marvingt became a world class athlete who won prizes for herself in swimming, fencing, shooting, ski jumping, speed skating, the luge, and bobsledding. She was introduced to aviation through ballooning and was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in her balloon the L'Étoile Filante (The Shooting Star/"The Comet"). In 1910 she studied the new field of fixed wing aviation, and the second to pilot a monoplane. During this period, she also advocated the idea of air-ambulances (also designing the first practical air-ambulance), and on 8 November became the third woman in the world to receive an aeroplane pilot’s license. When World War 1 broke out, Marvingt did what many women had done in previous conflicts and disguised herself as a man, serving as a Chasseur 2ième Classe (Soldier, 2nd Class) in the 42ième Bataillon de Chasseurs à Pied (42nd Battalion of Foot Soldiers). Eventually discovered, she went on to participate in operations with the Italian 3ème Régiment de Chasseurs Alpins (3rd Regiment of Alpine Soldiers) in the Italian) at the request of Marshal Foch. Then, after a stint as a Red Cross nurse, Marvingt volunteered to fly bombing missions, and ultimately received the Croix de Guerre for operations conducted against the German base at Metz. She died at the age of 88.

(Images (left to right); Helen Fairchild, an unknown female Despatch Rider, Marie Marvingt)



The US Army Signal Corps:


Helen Fairchild


Women Combat Pilots of World War One:


Marie Marvingt:


Flora Sandes

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