The Center for Women’s History first met curator Kate Clarke Lemay when she came to New-York Historical to discuss the nascent Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative in 2017. A historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Dr. Lemay curated the important exhibition Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence (2019), which considered many of the themes at the core of our exhibition Women March. While the Museum is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, we’re committed to sharing the ideas of Women March from afar.
Lemay’s exhibition catalog includes her essay, “Où Sont Les Dames? Suffragists and the American Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit in France in World War I.” She argues that many suffragists began to see the war as the “driving force behind suffrage,” and considered war work to be a way to prove their citizenship and earn the vote. More American women were being trained as doctors than ever before, but the United States War Department refused to hire women doctors: They could be contractors, but were not eligible for military rank, pay, and benefits. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) sent approximately 30 women among the hundreds of women who went to France. The NAWSA contingent built several hospitals, including mobile units, and treated thousands of French soldiers and civilians.
At a moment when we’re all overwhelmed with an appreciation for a new generation of medical personnel, Sarah Gordon, one of the Center’s curatorial scholars in women’s history, sat down for a virtual conversation with our colleague from Washington, D.C.
Sarah Gordon: I love this photo of the members of the Oversea Hospitals Unit that you include in Votes for Women. Who were these women? Were they already connected to NAWSA or other suffrage organizations?
Kate Clarke Lemay: Thank you! We don’t know who everyone was, and I could only identify a few women in that group portrait. Alice Gregory is sixth from the left. The women came from all over the U.S., but the main organizers—Caroline Sanford Finley being the most important, but also Anna Von Sholly and Mary Lee Edward, as well as Alice Gregory—were working at the NY Infirmary Hospital. Mabel Seagrave trained as a doctor on the East Coast, but came all the way from her home in Washington State!
At the start of your essay, you write that NAWSA saw the war as a “driving force behind suffrage.” That’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, since as you point out women had been asking for the vote for about eighty years. Why did the war take on such a central role for suffragists?
To be honest, I think World War I is overplayed as a factor of women finally getting suffrage. To be sure, it was an important experience through which women demonstrated they could and should be considered valuable citizens, outside the realm of the domestic. But Alice Paul and the way in which her brilliant tactics grabbed media headlines were the real key. President Woodrow Wilson could not stay quiet any longer on the issue. And perhaps the war effectively was a catalyst—but not by much.
You write that the doctors who took part in NAWSA’s Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit had to be suffragists—what did that mean to NAWSA? Did they have to be organization members, have donated money, or marched in a parade?
I assume the women physicians and nurses had to be a member of NAWSA, but the fact is, there weren’t a lot of women doctors and nurses willing to go to France. So if they weren’t committed suffragists before this opportunity, they suddenly may have found themselves to be!
Most seemed to truly believe in women’s suffrage. For example, Mabel Seagrave wrote to her father about how she supported woman suffrage, thinking that a woman’s vote would help purify morality (she had just attended a lecture on venereal disease!) She wrote, “It was time for women to go to the polls and support the small percent of men who are moral, for so by doing they would help protect the foundations of the republic of the home.”
It wasn’t only doctors who made up the Women’s Overseas Hospitals Unit. In addition to nurses and orderlies, there was also a plumber, a carpenter, a mechanic and an electrician. They built and maintained the refugee hospital with little help. Did NAWSA promote these less- than-traditional trades back home as part of the political agenda?
The plumber, electrician and carpenters—all women—were to prove that women can do as many things that men can do, and thus, deserve the right to vote. I’m pretty sure that NAWSA did not promote these less traditional roles. The NAWSA women (as were most mainstream suffragists) were all about dignity; look at Seagrave’s prose about purifying the vote! That was more their style.
Do you think that, aside from the primary need to help the war effort, the doctors saw their war work as expressly connected to proving their fitness for the vote? Or were they more interested in elevating the status of women physicians, and saw the suffrage component as a source of support and promotion?
My feeling is that most of them were committed to the medical knowledge they would gain from this experience. Woman suffrage was part of this picture, but it wasn’t their driving motivation. These women were loathe to think about all the medical experience and knowledge all the men would gain, but not them. Women composed less than 2.6 percent of students in medical school during the 1910s. It was already tough for women to be accepted as medical professionals. So, they wondered, how would they be taken seriously as physicians without battlefield experience? And their insistence on being included did give them extraordinary experience beneficial to their careers. Seagrave wrote about it in her letters; she felt that by participating in professional groups, she could help promote the acceptance of women physicians. She was right—these doctors became pioneers in their fields after the war.
You explain that the War Department refused to hire women doctors. I read elsewhere that some women worked in Red Cross facilities once they persuaded the authorities they had no “feminist propaganda.” How did this square with NAWSA sponsoring the unit?
It did not go over well. I describe Katrina Tiffany, who was the leading fundraiser for the Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit, as being enraged, and the relationship between NAWSA and the Red Cross as being very strained. Tiffany stated, “Suffragists do not like the Red Cross attitude toward women doctors. They don’t like the attitude toward women in general.” She further explained that “it is only recently the Red Cross would accept the services of women for civilian relief, and they won’t have anything to do with women doctors at all.”
Tiffany was furious that the Red Cross and the War Department refused to collaborate with the group of women doctors from the New York Infirmary Hospital, but she did not let it stop her. “There was nothing for it,” she said, “but to turn to our own organization of women.” The advantage of working in the Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit was that the organization was autonomous and self-directed.
With the lack of government support, some medical professionals paid their own way to France. NAWSA raised money for the Unit. Do we know anything about the donors?
In late 1917, NAWSA pledged $175,000 to sponsor an all-woman team of doctors, nurses, aides, and other support staff to travel to France and help administer medical care to both the war-wounded and the war refugees. The Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit was the third group of women to be independently sponsored. Other independent groups of women physicians included a unit sponsored by Anne Morgan at Blérancourt, and one sponsored by Smith College.
What was their experience on the front?
Fannie Marion Gregory, sister to Alice, described the bombings: “The night raids were horrible. No words can convey the sickening sensation of hearing the explosion of a bomb. The firing of the defense is nerve-racking, but when the horrible bomb comes one’s heart is cold at the thought of what it means.”
How were the women received by male doctors? soldiers? nurses? civilians?
The French started asking for them, “where are the women?” because the women doctors were so good. In war-torn France, their gender was not seen; their skills were highly sought after. Some of them braved surgery under bombardment and were later recognized by the highest French award for military heroism, the Croix de Guerre.
However, I have yet to find any recognition of these women by the American government or by any professional medical organization. It is a stark under-recognition. All because they were women. This really makes me mad. The wartime accomplishments of these women leave no question regarding the degree to which their trailblazing actions and experiences merit recognition in American history. If women are not treated equally in the historical account, then we have little hope for equality in the present or in the future. Historians must uncover and remove women’s history from the margins—and boldly assert its place within American history.
I see that two of the nurses in the unit died of the influenza, and Dr. Sophie Nevin was sent home to Brooklyn when she caught it. You write that she and others asked NAWSA to stay in Europe after the Armistice, and that they treated soldiers suffering from the flu and pneumonia in Metz. Did they write about the pandemic? Did their work with the flu get attention?
Yes, these women were totally in the thick of it, especially those serving war refugees in Labouheyre, in the department of Landes, located in southern France. One of them, Dr. Mabel Seagrave, was awarded the Medal of Valor (Médaille des Services Militaires Volontaires Argent) from the French government for her outstanding services in treating patients with influenza. I don’t know of anything she ever published, but that is a great question for further research. While in Labouheyre, she and Dr. Marie Formad established a hospital of 500 beds and they, with their team, served over 10,000 refugees. And it was very dangerous. As you note, two of their team, Winifred Warder and Eva Emmons, both succumbed to the flu in Labouheyre by early October 1918. I haven’t read any writing by Formad or Seagrave specific to the flu; in general, I think the war trauma overwhelmed the relatively calm circumstances of the pandemic.
Do you think the doctors affected public thinking about women in medicine? How about suffrage?
The women doctors involved with the Women’s Oversea Hospitals Unit were super successful when they came back to the U.S.—almost all of them had major leadership roles in their various hospitals. After the war, women in medicine banded together to ensure that their progress in the professional realm was not inhibited. In June 1917, 300 women physicians formed the Medical Women’s National Association. Historian Kimberly Jensen notes that 58 percent of the women in this new organization registered for war service.
As you know, I was so inspired by your article that I worked the story of the doctors into a label in Women March. We both love the Woman Citizen cover with the woman pointing to the list of all the things women did for the war as reasons for getting the vote. Can you tell me about how NAWSA promoted war efforts, and how they used this work to promote their agenda of obtaining the vote for women?
It is a great cover, isn’t it! NAWSA leaders Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw were active on the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. This was an official government committee of the War Department, and they pursued this route to demonstrate women’s citizenship potential. If women could serve in war, they thought, then there was no alternative but to give them the vote.
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History