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Why Suffragists Helped Send Women Doctors to WWI's Front Lines

March 4, 2021 in History

By Melinda Beck

Doctors of the Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit operated under bomb and gas attacks. And their all-female support teams built new hospitals—even the coffins.

The unlikely band of American women who crossed the Atlantic into war-torn France in February 1918 included six doctors, 13 nurses, a dentist, a plumber, an electrician, a carpenter and a mechanic. They were the first wave of women determined to build hospitals to treat the war-wounded and help the Allied effort in World War I. But they had an ulterior motive as well: to prove beyond doubt that women were just as brave, competent and self-sacrificing as men—and thus deserved the right to vote back home.

They did so working shoulder to shoulder alongside men in makeshift hospitals, operating under enemy fire, treating soldiers and war refugees who had been maimed, wounded, gassed or ravaged by influenza.

World War I offered many new opportunities for women—and suffragist groups pushed for even more. At the time, only about six percent of American doctors were female and most could only find positions in hospitals established by and for women. Soon after America entered the war in 1917, four New York-based physicians, Drs. Caroline Finley, Alice Gregory, Mary Lee Edward and Anna Von Sholly, offered their medical services to the U.S. military and were firmly rebuffed because they were women.

But the desperate French welcomed the women—along with whatever funding and supplies they could bring—into the Service de Santé, which oversaw French military medical care.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with some 2 million members nationwide, joined forces with the women doctors. At its December 1917 meeting, NAWSA pledged $175,000 to sponsor an all-female team of physicians, nurses and support personnel to build and staff hospitals in France. They called it the Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit, deliberately leaving “suffrage” out of the title—”for fear it would queer it,” according to accounts at the time.

In all, 78 women doctors and their assistants risked their lives under NAWSA’s suffragist banner in World War I, but their stories remain largely lost to history. “Practically no information exists about the women doctors and the Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit, outside of the rare mention in an obituary or the self-published pamphlet authored by a NAWSA volunteer,” writes Kate Clarke Lemay, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery who chronicled what she could find in her 2019 …read more


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