Chapter 1 Excerpt: “Carry On: The Women’s Overseas Service League and Veteranist Commemorations”

Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 1 of Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917-1945 by Allison S. Finkelstein. Titled “Carry On: The Women’s Overseas Service League and Veteranist Commemorations,” Chapter 1 explores how this organization of female veterans formed the vanguard of women who promoted service-based commemorations after World War One. 

A group of women standing outside a building

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Members of the Women’s Overseas Service League in 1922. Library of Congress

The Women’s Overseas Service League defined community service and advocacy as a form of commemoration to which it remained devoted throughout the interwar period. Through its veteranist commemoration projects, it supported, aided, and advocated for former overseas female and male veterans. Simultaneously, it attempted to include the story of overseas women in the historical and commemorative narrative of the war so that their wartime contributions would not be forgotten. It reminded the nation that these women too had served and fulfilled the duties of martial citizenship and should also be considered veterans. Although their service quickly faded from public memory, the WOSL hoped that their pioneering work overseas and their postwar commitment to the nation would create more opportunities for women to officially serve in the military. In the meantime, they used the WOSL to maintain a foothold in veterans’ affairs, national defense, and military commemoration.

By eschewing most traditional memorial projects and focusing on service, the WOSL commemorated the past by looking toward the future. Having experienced the war firsthand, these women returned home with a different perspective about commemoration. They believed that service constituted the most appropriate memorial to the war. As the organization matured, the WOSL became even more devoted to this belief and declined to participate in the American Red Cross’s Memorial Building to the Women of the World War, perhaps the biggest interwar memorial project to honor American women’s World War One service. Even though the building combined service with traditional commemoration, this compromise did not focus enough on service for the WOSL, which by the 1930s formed the core of the avant-garde group of women who promoted veteranism through commemoration.