“We like it fine. We never knew before what it meant to be a railroader. Many girls are on the job all along the line, some wearing overalls and working side by side with men.”

– Pipestone County Star, Sept. 25, 1917

Dr. Anita Talsma Gaul, began her presentation with a display of photos of the garments worn by women during the era of World War I and a description of their function and their discomfort.

She lifted her long WWI style dress to her knees, warning those in attendance at the Renville County Historical Society and Museum gathering to avert their eyes if they were uncomfortable, explaining that she would remain suitably covered.

The garments she wore included wool stockings, corset, pantaloons, petticoats, an underdress, a long floor length dress and sturdy boots.

Dr. Gaul’s lecture and discussion “The Women of Southwest Minnesota and the Great War” March 21 covered not just women’s wear, but the many and diverse contributions of women in southwestern Minnesota.

Women took a more active role in the war than most realize as they supported the effort through the Red Cross, food production, nursing, assuming jobs that had been done only by men and participating in public life. Generally, the war was supported enthusiastically, and one did not even speak against the war. 

The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety was a watchdog group created in 1917, its influence even regulating private conversation. A barbershop conversation included a man’s announcement that he had been drafted. In light of the fact he had a wife and two children, one of the others commiserated, “It just wasn’t right.”

The extent of this disloyalty was reported. He was summoned before the commission on charges of disloyalty, questioned about his patriotism, and told that in the future he was to “see things differently.”

The preservation and conservation of food was important for the war effort. Citizens were encouraged to produce more and eat less.

“Food will win the war,” was the challenge, and women responded. Many already gardened and preserved food. Now they were being patriotic. Wheat was limited and was to be saved for soldiers.

Young single women were sent out by the University of Minnesota to teach classes on alternative cooking procedures and recommended eating guidelines.

Advice by young urban women telling rural people how to live was not always warmly accepted. Women and men both joined the Red Cross. Some counties boasted nearly 50 percent membership.

Women took leadership roles, chairing Red Cross chapters. However, treasurers were always male – usually the town banker. Fundraising was an important part of the war effort, and money was raised through women’s efforts in organizing parade floats, concerts, picnics and luncheons.

One woman would host a luncheon with five guests who would in turn host a similar luncheon for the purpose of raising money. Comfort kits that included envelopes, tobacco, cigarette paper, Hershey bars, horehound candy, lemon drops, and cough drops were all packed to be sent to the front.

In some cases, a soldier might be given a pack of 800 cigarettes and a package of candy.

Knitting was no longer considered a hobby. Counties were assessed quotas of knit clothing, such as wristlets, scarves, sweaters, socks and a head covering to be worn under a helmet.

Quotas were reported in the local newspapers, and those who didn’t meet quotas were publicly humiliated. Women were expected to “Knit your bit.”

Editorials extorted women to do more knitting, and one suggested that if women did not respond, they should be drafted. Women did not take the “encouragement” without appropriate response.

One female editorialist suggested men should do their part laying aside cigarettes and cigars for the war effort. Women served as nurses in Army hospitals at times caring for victims of gassing.

The death of a nurse was not infrequent. Fyvie Rae Horne of Luverne contracted influenza and died at a training camp. Her body was returned to Walnut Grove and buried with full military honors. A total of 272 women died while in service, all from disease.

The war provided entrance into new fields of endeavor for women as store clerks, stenographers, telegraph operators, lumberyard workers, bookkeepers, telegraph and night operators. In some cases, women wearing overalls worked on the railroad. Women did field work, and those from town were encouraged to help. They picked corn, hayed and threshed. For some whose husband went to war, farm work became a full-time responsibility.

Women took a role in the protection of the homeland through home guard units known as “Guards of Loyalty.” If there was an attack they were prepared. Bessie Young Hartigan of Pipestone was the captain and organizer of the group that drilled and appeared in military uniforms in parades. Their effort became so well-known that the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran an article about their effort, noting that they wore “feminine” uniforms and carried “real” guns.

The war ended on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 now known as Veterans Day.

One might ask how the end of the war affected women.

On one hand, women gained the right to vote one year later, and some have suggested their contribution to the war effort may have been partially responsible. However, women’s entrance into masculine occupations did not last beyond the war when they were told to go home.

Lunch was served after the presentation that included trench cake. It wasn’t tasty, but it was an example of the cooking men did on the front lines.