“In Her Words: Women’s Duty and Service in World War I” opened Feb. 2 at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. The exhibition, open through May 8, offers a glimpse into the lives of four women serving in and alongside the American military during World War I.
Through letters, uniforms, ID badges, notebooks and other authentic objects, the exhibition reveals the wartime experiences, personalities and aspirations of two U.S. Army Nurses, a U.S. Navy Yeoman and a YMCA worker.
Visitors will learn about and see evidence of the work these women performed and the circumstances in which they served. Despite limited opportunities and unequal treatment compared to men, women served in record numbers during WWI and for the first time were able to formally enlist in the Navy and Marine Corps. After the war, women continued to press for expanded employment opportunities and political rights, setting the stage for cultural changes to come.
With an emphasis on women’s WWI experiences, the exhibition complements another WWI- themed exhibition, “My Fellow Soldiers,” on display in an adjacent gallery. Taken together, the two exhibitions and related programming provide a rich and textured view of WWI through personal experiences and letters.
“This exhibition raises awareness of the extraordinary work of women during World War I,” said Elliot Gruber, director of the museum. “The letters on display offer a unique window into the experiences of four individuals and the motivations to serve their country.”
This exhibition was developed jointly by the National Postal Museum and the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.
“We are thrilled to collaborate with the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum and share these treasured, rare letters from our collection to enlighten the public about the contributions of American
women serving in World War I,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Dee Ann McWilliams, president of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. “This exhibition, through the individual stories of the four women highlighted, collectively honors a groundbreaking generation of women and speaks to their patriotism, professionalism and devotion to duty.”
From the outset of WWI in 1914, American women went abroad to volunteer with uniformed civilian organizations, like the Red Cross, providing war-relief services. After the U.S. declared war on Germany April 6, 1917, the Army and Navy assigned nurses to overseas duty in record numbers.
Despite these developments and the increasing visibility of women’s contributions, the military establishment did not treat women as it did men, offering them limited opportunities and unequal benefits. The work they performed and how they were treated during and after the war raised significant questions and helped set new precedents for women’s employment opportunities and political rights.
The museum will host a lunchtime lecture with Britta K. Granrud, curator of collections of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation Inc., March 21, from 12 to 12:45 p.m. She will speak about the history of the service of women in WWI and provide background on the Women In Military Service For America Memorial.
The exhibition will also be highlighted during the museum’s Women’s History Month Family Festival March 10 and 11. Visitors that weekend will have the opportunity to meet curators of the exhibition and participate in related educational programs.
A special website has been created to augment the exhibition, providing additional access to the rich content presented.