Women in today's Navy serve on ships and submarines, pilot jet aircraft, and perform in all combat roles, but until World War I, the military services did not officially accommodate women who wished to serve. Some women had to dress like men to fight in the field, and others risked their lives as frontline nurses, but these brave women were not recognized by the military for their contributions.
Women in the military today stand on the shoulders of women like Mary Gilligan Sutherland, a pioneer in the movement for equality. At the turn of the 20th century, progressive social movements advocated women's rights, as well as other societal advancements, but advocates faced fierce resistance from political and business leaders to church clergy. It took the first global war to give women the opportunity to prove their mettle.
As a Navy Veteran of World War I, Sutherland was one of the earliest women allowed to enlist. Her service, along with the thousands of other women who enlisted in the Navy during World War I, transformed the way that many Americans perceived the role of women in society, according to an article from the National Archives’ Prologue Magazine, “The Story of the Female Yeomen during the First World War,” by Nathaniel Patch.
In addition to the sweeping cultural changes of the time, new technologies and inventions were changing how people worked and lived. Many of these same technologies changed how wars were fought. World War I was the first industrial or mechanized war fought with new weapons like the machine gun, aircraft, tanks, battleships and submarines. Although President Woodrow Wilson was determined to stay out of the war in Europe, Germany’s unbridled aggression and unrestricted submarine warfare pushed the United States from neutrality to war.
Naval Act of 1916
When the United States entered World War I in 1917; hundreds of thousands of men volunteered or were drafted into military service. Even with the increase of manpower, the Navy remained undermanned due to wartime requirements and the number of ships which increased from 300 to 1,000.
As in previous wars, women were prohibited from joining the Navy and the other Armed Services even though their patriotic fervor and desire to serve was just as strong as male volunteers.
The Naval Act of 1916 inadvertently offered a window to women who were interested in volunteering for service in the U.S. Navy because 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." The last part of the statement contained the loophole that allowed women to enlist.
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, his legal advisors and the Bureau of Navigation (the forerunner to the Bureau of Personnel) concluded that the act’s language did not prohibit women from enlisting in the reserves. The act gave the Navy the previously untapped resource that it needed allowing administrative work to be done by female naval personnel so able-bodied men could serve aboard the expanded fleet of ships. Thus, the Navy opened up recruitment to women. It was the only military branch to do so during the war.
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 newly enlisted women were able to become yeomen, electricians (radio operators), or any other ratings necessary to the naval district operations. The majority of women became yeomen and were designated as yeomen (F) for female yeomen.
At the beginning of the recruiting effort for women, it was assumed yeomen would perform only administrative duties, so the majority of the tests focused on typing and office skills. In spite of the limiting categories the Navy placed upon the yeomen (F) initially, women also worked and excelled in a range of occupations such as mechanics, truck drivers, cryptographers, telephone operators and munitions makers.
Many women saw this as a chance to not only serve their country, but to prove to society that they were just as capable as men. Thousands of women quickly enlisted in the Navy. In September 1918, 22-year-old Sutherland enlisted as a Yeoman (Female) 1st Class.
The enthusiasm of these women to serve caught the Navy by surprise, according to Patch’s research. The Navy needed an increase of female nurses to perform medical examinations for the new women recruits. It needed to design and issue new uniforms for women. It had to build, assign and manage separate living quarters. As more and more women enlisted, they created the need for additional support. But women also filled many of these support roles.
The yeomen (F) enlisted for the standard four years. Days before the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, the Navy stopped enlisting women but had 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.
Most female yeomen were discharged in 1920. That same year, the Nineteenth Amendment passed after a decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage. Sutherland returned from serving in the Navy just in time to be able to vote for the first time.
Sutherland was the daughter of Irish American immigrants, John Gilligan and Nellie (Ellen) Dillon, according to the 1900 U.S. Federal Census. She was born Nov. 1, 1895 in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her father was a blacksmith and she had six siblings.
There is little information regarding Sutherland’s early adult life and childhood. Her biographer suggests that Sutherland most likely worked in a factory as a young adult due to Massachusetts’ vibrant industrial economy in the early 20th century, as well as how common it was at that time for women to work in textile factories.
Later after the war she moved to Seattle, Washington and then from Seattle to Palm Bay, Florida in 1978. She had three children, John, Richard and Marilyn, as well as thirteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, according to her biography.
Sutherland lived 92 years as part of an extraordinary trailblazing generation of women. These were women, like Navy Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, a Yale graduate, Ph.D., professor, computer pioneer, and naval officer, who joined the Naval Reserve in 1943 and rose to the rank of rear admiral through her brilliance and dogged determination. Hopper and Sutherland, and women like them, pushed the limits of what women could do for future generations. Hopper’s success in a male-dominated field and in male-dominated organizations, including the U.S. Navy, was remarkable for her time. It’s no wonder that her story and accomplishments are legendary within the Navy.
But Hopper’s story does not diminish the valor and success of the thousands of ordinary women who volunteered for military service at a time when such service was unthinkable.
Through her service, Sutherland (and others like her) furthered the women’s rights movement, and she became a role model for the military women that followed. She continued her passion to serve as a member of both the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion.
Sutherland died Sept. 28, 1988 and was laid to rest in Florida National Cemetery. In this respect, Mary Sutherland is unique. Women who served in the auxiliary branches of the Armed Services had to fight to earn veteran status, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs, for example, who flew during World War II, only earned veteran status after Congress passed legislation in 1977. Women like Sutherland proved to the military that women were important to the nation’s security and help us to remember that women can excel in any occupation.
In 2017, the Veterans Legacy Program partnered with the University of Central Florida to conduct research on veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery. Students wrote over 100 biographies for Veterans buried there, including Mary G. Sutherland. The story of her life, service, and lasting legacy is now shared with the public. You can read her biography here: https://vlp.cah.ucf.edu/biographies/B103-0-709-F.html
To learn more about Women in the U.S. Navy, go to the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website: https://www.history.navy.mil/
For more information about Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, see the CHIPS’ Grace Hopper page: http://www.doncio.navy.mil/chips/ArticleDetails.aspx?ID=2265