Author Q&A with Allison S. Finkelstein

What was the inspiration for Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917-1945?

The inspiration for Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials began when I worked as a teaching assistant in the history department of a boarding school in England. I taught the history of the First World War to my students and simultaneously found myself immersed in the British commemorative culture surrounding that conflict. The memory of the war remains strong in Great Britain, especially in November, when most Britons wear poppies to commemorate it, among other rituals. 

These traditions increased my interest in the war’s history, which grew when we took our students on a field trip to British World War I sites in France and Belgium, a common practice in England. Touring the battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials alongside my students deeply impacted me. Over ninety years after the war’s end, its memory seemed fresh. Throughout the trip, we commemorated the war dead, and I even laid a wreath at the Menin Gate in Belgium with my students. As the only American in the group, I wondered: why did the memory of World War I remain so strong in Great Britain but seem almost forgotten in the United States? 

This question fascinated me, and when I began graduate school, I started to focus on military memory. Summers spent working at the American Battle Monuments Commission helped me narrow my research as I delved into the records at the National Archives and conducted field work at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. In particular, the records of the Gold Star Pilgrimages brought women’s roles in commemoration into focus, and the project took off from there. 

What is one chapter that might really interest people?

One chapter that might really interest people is Chapter Three, which focuses on the women who served as reconstruction aides—physical and occupational therapists who rehabilitated wounded service members. Their civilian status prevented them from receiving veterans’ benefits. After the war, they formed created their own veterans’ association, but despite years of advocacy, the government did not recognize their wartime contributions as active service until 1981, and they never gained full veteran status. Little known today, the reconstruction aides themselves feared that their pioneering contributions to their professions and the war would be forgotten. One former aide, Louise Robinson, even lamented that they were a “vanished and forgotten service!!” Readers will be interested to learn of their fascinating story, and in doing so, will help ensure that they have not been forgotten after all. 

A physio therapy (reconstruction) aide treating a wounded man. National Archives.

What did you enjoy the most about writing the book?

Throughout the process of researching and writing this book, I most enjoyed listening to the voices of the women I wrote about. Reading their words and hearing their recollections in oral histories introduced me to a group of vibrant, groundbreaking, and selfless women. I found much purpose in uncovering and telling their stories through this project. 

What made you passionate about this topic?

The more I learned about the women I researched in Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials, the more passionate I became about this topic. These women played an important role in World War I and its commemoration but have too often been overlooked. In fact, they expressed their fears that their stories would be forgotten. Learning this, it became my mission to bring them back into the narrative of American history. 

These women valued service to their nation, even while denied equality. They stood up for themselves and consistently advocated for what they believed in. When they could not achieve their goals for their own cohort, they worked on behalf of the next generation of women. Even during times of struggle, they put others before themselves. They remained devoted to service, particularly on behalf of veterans. Helping others formed the core of their identities and infused their commemorative actions with benevolence and empathy. It is easy to become passionate about sharing the stories of such women.

This 1918 poster depicts a uniformed woman who served with YMCA during World War I. It provides a vivid of illustration of American women’s wartime service. Library of Congress.

What is something you are excited for people to learn when they read your book?

I am most excited for people to learn two key things when they read my book. First, that commemoration does not always have to include the construction of a memorial or a monument. Readers will be introduced to the diverse range of creative and intangible commemorative methods employed by the women in this book. The commemorative projects they promoted provide a blueprint for alternative forms of commemoration centered on community service and advocacy. Their work demonstrates that such types of memorialization are not new and have a long history in the United States. I hope that my book will encourage people today to consider these concepts for their own memorial projects.

Second, I am eager for readers to expand their definition of who is considered a military veteran. While American women have been acknowledged for their historical roles supporting the military, their civilian status often excluded them from being considered veterans. The women of the World War I generation challenged this notion during their lifetimes. Many argued that their wartime service made them veterans and they contested the policies that prevented them from receiving the veterans benefits they believed they had earned. While the government usually denied their requests, they devoted themselves to securing veteran status for the women who served in World War II. The story of their struggle will compel readers to rethink who they consider a veteran. It will expand the narrative of military history to be more inclusive of women’s service outside of the official armed forces.