USN First Enlisted Women: Conclusion


Despite all the challenges, these women responded to their nation’s call, excelled in their service, and, by their own words, would have done it all again.

The service of Navy’s first enlisted women forever changed their own lives and the Navy. Their support during the influenza epidemic of 1918, their overseas service at field hospitals, and the deaths of 37 of them demonstrated their willingness to serve and to sacrifice wherever assigned.

The yeomen (F.) quieted most critics with their productivity and their ability to operate efficiently within a military organization and to work well with men.

Though enlisted primarily to provide clerical support, they excelled in munitions assembly, intelligence, cable decoding, recruitment, and other non-administrative specialties.

They showed that the Navy was better with them than without them. The Navy did not have to lose their talent because many yeomen (F.) continued doing the same job as civilian employees.

The officers who recommended them for commissions proved that women could qualify for officer ranks. Like many of their male counterparts, they met their spouses during the war and later started families with them.

A number of former yeomen (F.) became Gold Star Mothers or War Mothers, mothers who lost sons and daughters in military service during World War II.

While Secretary Daniels capably led the Navy through the war, laid the foundation for a more modernized service, and improved training and quality of life for Sailors, his efforts proved to be largely inadequate for ensuring equality for all naval personnel.

Despite his support for the yeoman (F.) program, he limited the pool of recruits by only reluctantly enlisting black women. Moreover, he ignored the obvious hypocrisy of his blatant racist actions in the midst of a war that was to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.”

To their credit, the Navy’s discriminatory practices did not deter African American women’s patriotism. They fought to defend rights they were denied at home.

The African American yeomen (F.) served in segregated offices and cities, all the while enduring a society that treated them like second-class citizens, and, like their white counterparts, bore the burdens of their gender.

The short-sightedness, chauvinist attitudes, and disregard for the yeomen (F.) led members of Congress to exclude women from serving in the Naval Reserve and to try to deny them benefits they had earned.

Rear Admiral McVay and others successfully intervened on the women’s behalf. Throughout the war, naval leaders, journalists, and others expressed their appreciation for the yeomen (F.) and addressed the challenges these women faced.

The women themselves expressed their concerns and achievements in newspaper articles, editorials, and interviews.

The service of the yeoman (F.) and the other women during the war contributed to the passage of the 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote in 1920. President Wilson said,

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. This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women—service rendered in every sphere. . . . The women of America are too noble and too intelligent and too devoted to be slackers whether you give or withhold this thing that is mere justice; but I know the magic it will work in their thoughts and spirits if you give it to them. The tasks of the women lie at the very heart of the war, and I know how much stronger that heart will beat if you do this just thing and show our women that you trust them in as much as in fact and of necessity depend upon them.

It is significant that President Wilson easily made this argument for women, but did not conclude that African Americans earned the same privilege and right.

Post-war attempts to deny women their rights as war veterans reflected some Congressional members’ disregard for their contributions.

Congress then left nurses as the only women in the military between the wars and necessitated the creation of a training program for new female recruits during the next world war.

Those planning the World War II program benefited from the experiences of the yeomen (F.). Like all recruits, women needed basic training, uniforms, and housing.

Naval leaders learned, for example, that they should have those things in place before women join. Moreover, qualified women should be promoted to officer ranks.

The yeomen (F.) would have profited from having female officers to train and mentor them, and the Navy would have benefited from their leadership.

The Navy’s women reservists took the initiative to preserve their history by starting the National Yeoman (F.) Association at the Sequa-Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926.

The association was “to foster and perpetuate the memory of the service of Yeomen (F.) in the United States Naval Reserve Force of the United States during World War I; to preserve the memories and incidents of their association in World War I; by the encouragement of historical research concerning the service of Yeomen (F.); by the promotion of celebrations of all patriotic anniversaries; to cherish, maintain, and extend the institutions of American Freedom; to foster true patriotism and love of country, and to aid in securing for mankind all the blessings of liberty.”

All women veterans of the U.S. Naval Defense Reserve Force who had served as yeomen (F.) between 6 April 1917 and 11 November 1918 and had received honorable discharges qualified for membership.

Cecilia Geiger was elected as its first commander. Helen C. McCarty and Bellerose Munier established the Note Book as their monthly newsletter in 1928 to preserve and share their history, and to exchange information about the organization and its membership (marriages, illness, retirements, deaths, etc.), progress on its goals, its budget, and reports from the leader of the association.

The Note Book included the association’s prayer, “O Lord, Pilot of our organization, The National Yeoman (F.), direct the course of our deliberations today that they may be pleasing to Thee, of benefit to the community, state and Nation, and ultimately in securing for all mankind the blessings of peace and good will Amen.”

The association received their charter from Congress (S. 1687, Public Law No. 676, 74th Congress) on 15 June 1936. The organization received the two pens President Roosevelt used to sign the bill into law.12

Over the years, their agenda included publishing the Note Book, attending patriotic events, and holding a national conference and regional meetings.

Loretta Perfectus Walsh, the first enlisted woman, was buried in Olyphant, Pennsylvania and association members subsequently tried to have her grave moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

They also gave media interviews. Margaret Mary Fitzgerald King appeared on the Today Show in New York City in 1963 and presented a plaque honoring Secretary of the Navy Daniels to the commanding officer of USS Josephus Daniels (DLG-27) in Boston in 1964.

The association also started a scholarship program. Their stamp advisory committee urged the Post Office to issue a commemorative stamp honoring yeomen (F.).

The subsequent congressional bill provided for the issuance of a commemorative postage stamp in honor of the first enlisted women in the armed forces.

Declining membership and health and financial challenges reduced the membership. Eventually, the association did not have enough members to maintain the leadership positions.

Former Yeoman (F.) Helen Holmes of Waynesboro, Virginia, noted this in her letter to Helen G. O’Neill: “You are the only Virginian yeomanette who has ever contacted me. Of course, we are now, very few in number—for time has taken its toll.”

The National Yeoman (F.) Association was disestablished on 31 December 1985. The final issue of the Note Book (Vol. XLIV, No. 6) was published on 31 December 1985, and the association’s archives were donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum in Washington, DC.

In spite of the association’s efforts, many were not familiar with the women’s naval service. During World War II, for example, Admiral Ernest J. King, commander in chief of U.S. Naval Forces and Chief of Naval Operations, asked Joy Hancock why she was not wearing her World War I Victory Medal.

She responded that she was uncertain about her eligibility to do so. After reassuring her, he presented her with one. Ironically, an admiral she encountered in the hallway challenged her:

“There is one thing you ladies must learn. You do not wear decorations unless you have earned them.” She explained, “But Admiral, I did earn this ribbon. I was in World War I and Admiral King has just pinned this ribbon on my uniform.” He responded, “Well, there are only a few of us left.

Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., "Conclusion" in The Navy’s First Enlisted Women, Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2019.

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