Are Women Really Qualified for That? 100 Years Ago, Army Nurses Faced Similar Doubts

By Marian Moser Jones, PhD

The U.S. debate over the integration of women into military combat roles, recently reignited by the Army’s April 15th announcement that it has selected 22 women as infantry officers, may seem to be covering new territory in the gender wars. But underlying the debate is an enduring question that resurfaces again and again in widely different contexts: are women really qualified for that?

A century ago, as America’s entry into World War I looked increasingly probable, the American Red Cross (ARC) stepped up its plans to enroll nurses for the Army under an existing agreement between the two organizations.  The ARC nursing leaders who vetted female applicants were acutely aware that questions remained about whether these women could handle the discomforts, endless hours, and daily carnage. Would they collapse under the strain? Would they run away with the first handsome officer who winked and tipped his cap?


Like military leaders today, who appear to be choosing applicants carefully in order to ensure the smooth integration of women into combat roles, the ARC nursing leaders believed meticulous selection was key to their success.

The ARC sent a pioneer group of nurses to Europe in late 1914; an experiment which demonstrated that “their chances of illness when carefully selected seem to be no greater than men’s and that they face danger with equanimity,” as stated by ARC nursing leader Jane Delano.

Under the ARC’s original selection criteria, only single women of good character, ages 25 to 40, with diplomas from respected hospital-based schools of nursing, as well as recommendations from a local member of a national nursing association and their hospital superintendent, were accepted. (Men who were nurses were not eligible, but had a number of better-paying options in Army medical units). A physician’s physical was also required. In my ongoing research on these nurses through their diaries and letters, I have found that most selected for service abroad had post-graduate experience in major urban hospitals, some in supervisory positions. These were hardly green recruits.

But were they qualified to serve in a war zone? The Army’s ambivalence on this matter was reflected by the fact that these nurses were not assigned rank, and that their uniforms often arrived late, sometimes catching up with them after they arrived “over there.”

An early test case involved Beatrice MacDonald, a Canadian-born graduate of New York Hospital Training School for Nurses who worked as the office nurse for surgeon, George Emerson Brewer. MacDonald already had some war nursing experience, having volunteered in 1915 at the American Ambulance, a hospital for French war wounded supported with American philanthropy. When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, MacDonald and Brewer immediately signed up with the Army medical unit organized at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, Base Hospital No. 2, and shipped off to Etretat, France to relieve the exhausted staff of a British war hospital.

Nurses and Civilian Employees - 1918

Nurses and Civilian Employees, 1918. Photo courtesy of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing.

It was originally thought that U.S. nurses would get no nearer to the war than such hospitals, a long train ride from the front. But the British had discovered that delay in evacuating soldiers to these hospitals meant losing many unstable cases along the way and allowed badly infected wounds to fester. So the Army erected smaller casualty clearing stations (CCS) close to the front with operating teams sent to staff them. In July 1917, MacDonald and Brewer, along with a nurse anesthetist and another physician, received orders to report British CCS No. 61 near Ypres, Belgium.

Even though service at a CCS often involved twenty-two hour stints of surgery punctuated by short rests in a freezing, windy tent, MacDonald apparently embraced this duty with a “plucky” disposition. But on the night of August 17, 1917, the CCS came under attack from the air. As she grabbed her steel helmet, three bombs exploded in MacDonald’s vicinity, sending shrapnel flying through her cheek and into her eyeball. MacDonald’s tent mate, Helen G. McClelland from the Pennsylvania Hospital Unit, immediately began caring for MacDonald, stopping the hemorrhaging of her wounds and attending to her under fire until it was safe to evacuate her.

Two months later, MacDonald had recovered. The Army gave her the chance to retire, but she insisted on remaining in the war zone, famously stating, according to a news clipping pasted into her scrapbook, “I’ve only started doing my bit.” MacDonald was then sent to a hospital near the front and promoted to chief nurse. She served in Europe until 1919. Both she and McClelland received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest U.S. Military award next to the Medal of Honor. General Pershing commended MacDonald for her “exceptional conduct and gallantry.” She was also awarded a British military medal and the French Croix de Guerre. Several other U.S. nurses were decorated during the war for similar acts of bravery.

After the war, Congress passed two measures that reflected a recognition of nurses’ and other women’s contributions. The first was the Nineteenth Amendment, which when ratified by a majority of states in 1920 gave women the right to vote. The second granted Army nurses the “relative rank” of officers. However, it would not be until 1947, after a new generation of women had faced a new set of war dangers, that military nurses would earn the rank of commissioned officers. By this time, a still-continuing pattern had emerged: women needed to prove themselves under fire before receiving official recognition as qualified.

Marian Moser Jones is an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. She is recruiting veteran leaders and participants for a free weekend program “100 Years of American Women in Uniform,” at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. These weekends are sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more information, contact Jones at: 

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