Veterans Day: Remembering the Unrecognized Female Veterans of World War I

Women’s Overseas Service League (WOSL) Seattle Unit members, November 11, 1968. From left to right: Mrs. Edna Lord (American Red Cross), Mrs. I.M. (Anna) Palmaw (Army Nurse Corps), Miss Rose Glass (YMCA), and Miss Blanche Wenner (YMCA). Women’s Overseas Service League Collection, National WWI Museum and Memorial Archives, Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

Each year on November 11, Americans recognize the Veterans Day holiday and thank the veteran community for their contributions to the nation. Often, acknowledgment focuses on veterans in the traditional sense of the word—those who served in uniform as part of the official armed forces. However, this definition of a veteran excludes those Americans who supported the military from outside of the ranks, especially women.

As, I explain in my new book, Forgotten Veterans, Invisible Memorials: How American Women Commemorated the Great War, 1917-1945, many of the American women who served in World War I provide a prime example of a group that I call “unrecognized veterans.” Barred from equal opportunities to officially serve in the military due to their gender, these women served nonetheless—often in uniform and under oath, but as civilians. This distinction excluded them from being recognized by the government as veterans eligible for an array of benefits.

Yet, as I explain in the book, many of these women pushed back and called themselves veterans nonetheless. They believed that their wartime contributions made them veterans, even if the government did not bestow that status upon them. A riveting photo in the collection of the National WWI Museum and Memorial illustrates this well. Taken on Veterans Day in 1968, it shows four elderly women sitting around a table in their wartime uniforms holding a yellowed copy of an old newspaper from the day that World War I ended. As members of the Women’s Overseas Service League (WOSL), an organization created to unite women who had served overseas during World War I, they had served in different wartime organizations. Two served with the YMCA, one with the American Red Cross, and one with the Army Nurse Corps. Only the woman who had served with the Army Nurse Corps met the government’s definition of an official military veteran, but that made no difference to these women. As members of the WOSL, they recognized all women who served overseas as veterans, and they celebrated Veterans Day together on the 50th anniversary of the war’s conclusion. Their pride in their wartime service, so evident in this photo, provides an important reminder to include the unrecognized female veterans of World War I and throughout American history in our messages of appreciation on Veterans Day.