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CHIPS Articles: The Story of Female Yeomen during the First World War

The Story of Female Yeomen during the First World War
By Nathaniel Patch, Prologue Magazine - March 13, 2015
I've been in frigid Greenland and in sunny Tennessee,
I've been in noisy London and in wicked, gay Paree,
I've seen the Latin Quarter, with its models, wines, and tights,
I've hobnobbed oft with Broadway stars who outshone Broadway lights;
But North or South or East or West, the girls that I have met
Could never hold a candle to a Newport yeomanette.
—Newport Recruit, 1918

Women in today's military services perform valiantly at all ranks and in most military jobs. Women are being integrated in into Navy submarine crews and vying for opportunities to serve in combat. But until World War I, the services did not officially recognize women who served, some as early as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

At the turn of the 20th century, the progressive social movements advocated women's rights, but it took the first global war to give women the opportunity to prove themselves.

World War I was the first industrial war. It introduced new weapons like the machine gun, airplanes, tanks, battleships, and submarines. Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare propelled the United States from neutrality to war. The submarine, introduced to world navies around 1900, evolved from a coastal-bound vessel to a terror on the open seas.

When unrestricted submarine war began in January 1917, the German navy sank 540,000 tons of shipping in the first month. In April 1917, the month's total had risen to 900,000 tons, several thousand of them American. Because Germany refused to stop sinking American shipping and Great Britain increased pressure for American intervention, the United States entered the war.

The Naval Act of 1916 Opens the Door

The call to arms went out, and hundreds of thousands of men volunteered for or were drafted into military service. Even with increase of manpower, the Navy remained shorthanded. The number of ships increased from 300 to 1,000.

How were these new ships going to be manned? The answer lay in the unassuming language of the Naval Act of 1916, which unintentionally opened the door to women volunteering in the U.S. Navy. As in previous wars, women were prohibited from joining the Navy and other regular armed services.

But the act's vague language relating to the reserve forces did not prohibit women. The act declared that the reserve force within the U.S. Navy would consist of those who had prior naval service, prior service in merchant marines, were part of a crew of a civilian ship commissioned in naval service, or "all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense." This last element contained the loophole that allowed women to enlist.

After reviewing the act, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and the Bureau of Navigation (the forerunner to the Bureau of Personnel) concluded that the language did not prohibit women from enlisting in the reserves. The act gave the Navy a previously untapped resource that allowed administrative operations to be carried out by naval personnel and freed able-bodied men to serve aboard ships.

On March 19, 1917, the Bureau of Navigation sent letters to the commanders of the naval districts informing them they could recruit women into the Naval Coast Defense Reserve to be "utilized as radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, chauffeurs, etc. and in many other capacities in the industrial line." The new enlisted women were able to become yeomen, electricians (radio operators), or any other ratings necessary to the naval district operations. The majority became yeomen and were designated as yeomen (F) for female yeomen.

The Navy began recruiting women immediately, but it had no provisions for medical examinations or standards to which they were going to hold new recruits. Some recruiting offices were able to borrow female nurses from nearby naval hospitals to conduct the examinations.

At the beginning, it was assumed the yeomen would perform only administrative duties, so the majority of the tests focused on office skills. In spite of the confining categories the Navy placed upon the yeomen (F), the women also worked as mechanics, truck drivers, cryptographers, telephone operators, and munitions makers.

The Navy faced two problems specific to the new yeomen (F): living quarters and a dress code. A large number of these young women were assigned to posts away from home. Because the Navy had no protocol for women on naval bases, the female yeomen had to make their own arrangements for living quarters. Some were lucky and could find a place to stay with family or friends nearby. Many yeomen roomed at the YWCA or shared other apartments.

In some cases, the Navy helped. In Washington, D.C., the Navy leased some apartments for female yeomen who did not live locally. As the war progressed, housing became such a problem in Washington that the Navy proposed building dormitories for the beleaguered yeomen. The war ended before any of the construction projects began. In Newport, Rhode Island, the Navy housing conditions were so deplorable that the secretary of the Navy agreed to a subsidy to pay for room and board.

Standard Navy uniforms were tailored for men, but the Navy had no provision to supply women's clothing. At the time, it was still considered improper for women to wear anything but a dress or skirt. The solution was to lay down guidelines on what was to be considered regulation dress, and the yeomen (F) were given additional money to purchase what they needed.

The uniforms of the yeomen (F) varied because they were either homemade or purchased outfits. Navy regulations later stated that uniforms had to be either white or blue. A single-breasted jacket topped a skirt whose hem had to be four inches above the ankle. Hats tended to be a brimmed hat made of a stiff felt. By the end of the war, the Navy had made changes to the regulations that governed gloves, hats, jackets, skirts, and handkerchiefs.

The yeomen (F) enlisted for the standard four years. Days before the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the Navy stopped enrolling women but made no decision on what to do with women already in service. It was assumed they would finish their enlistments, and for some that period would end in 1922.

In 1919 the Navy made its first move to dismantle the women reserves. The Naval Appropriations Act of 1919 placed both Navy and Marine female reservists on inactive duty. Because they had not been discharged, they had to keep their uniforms and medical information. The Navy was also willing to pay for passage to return home or to the place of recruitment. In one special case, Yeomen Rose Volkman was recruited in her home in Hawaii and transferred to New York. The Bureau of Navigation investigated who had ordered this assignment because they were now responsible for paying $300 for her return passage.

The Navy was not so shortsighted as to willingly lose such a valuable resource as the services the yeomen (F) provided. Before the passage of the Naval Appropriations Act, Secretary Daniels advised the Navy and Marine commanders of civilian positions that would open within the Department of the Navy and at shore establishments. Appointments to these positions, such as clerks, messengers, or police, would be offered to reservists for a temporary period. Those who accepted the appointments kept their rate of pay and received bonuses to compensate for losing living expense allowances that they had got during their service. At the end of the appointment, usually six months, the former reservists had to take the civil service exam to become permanent federal employees. In most cases, the majority of the yeomen (F) within an office applied and accepted appointments.

The official end of the yeomen (F) classification came by a special act. Secretary Daniels cut their enlistments so that all yeomen (F) would be discharged by October 24, 1920. But because of negligence of naval district commandants, many yeomen (F) remained on the books well past the discharge date. Some stayed on because they were in charge of the final processing of the yeomen (F). It was reported that the last yeoman (F) was discharged in March 1921.

This article was first published in 2006 in Prologue Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3, a publication of the National Archives. Reprinted with permission.

A yeoman (F) on Submarine K-5 gazes through her binoculars. National Archives image (80-G-1025873)
A yeoman (F) on Submarine K-5 gazes through her binoculars. National Archives image (80-G-1025873)

Rear Adm. Victor Blue (left center) chief of the Bureau of Navigation, inspects yeomen (F) on the grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., in 1918. National Archives image (19-11386)
Rear Adm. Victor Blue (left center) chief of the Bureau of Navigation, inspects yeomen (F) on the grounds of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., in 1918. National Archives image (19-11386)
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