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The wartime roles of American women

The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I - Lynn Dumenil

When the United States entered the First World War a century ago, the scale of the conflict required a level of mobilization unprecedented in American history. Not only men but women as well were called upon to perform a range of new roles in life, from manual labor in industry to enlistment in the armed services. For many of these women, these new responsibilities offered stimulating challenges and economic opportunities previously unavailable to them. Some of them saw the war an an opportunity to demonstrate their role as patriotic citizens fully deserving of the vote, while others organized to oppose the nation's entry into a seemingly endless conflict that had already wasted the lives of millions.


One of the difficulties in describing the roles American women played in the First World War is in summarizing such a broad range of experiences for the socially diverse women whose lives changed as a result of the war. In response to this challenge, Lynn Dunmeil has written a book that examines the role women played in their American war effort from a broad occupational perspective, with successive chapters that look at their volunteerism at home, the work they performed, and the relative handful who crossed the Atlantic to serve in a variety of noncombatant roles in France. Dunmeil shows how these women responded to the challenges these new responsibilities posed, ones that often undermined prewar assumptions about the proper place for women in modern life. In this respect, the reversion to more traditional spheres of activity at the end of the war proved a significant setback that erased the gains many of these women had made. And while women nationwide were granted the vote soon afterward, the reimposition of most other limits was a major disappointment, one that colored their expectations and goals in the decades that followed.


Cogently argued and grounded in an impressive amount of research, Dumenil's book offers readers an excellent examination of the ways in which American women participated in the First World War and how it changed their lives. Her analysis of the role class and race played in defining their experiences is a particular strength of her book, and one that underscores the range of factors involved in shaping their relationship to the conflict. In the process, she restores women to their proper place in the history of America during the First World War -- alongside the men as active participants in it.