The U.S. Women's Motor Corps in France, 1914-1921

Article excerpt

The massive relief effort engendered by World War I gave women an opportunity to demonstrate and develop their skills on a previously unknown scale. Although generations of women had used philanthropy to "expand their fields of action and their personal horizons," the social and economic needs created by the Great War provided women with a unique chance to expand their domain under the acceptable rubric of patriotism and humanitarianism. As a result, many women used their education and talents to venture into new fields of service.(1)

One of the new forms of volunteerism to grow out of the war was the women's motor corps. Thanks to the recent invention of the automobile, driving became a way for women to participate in the war effort. Like most volunteers, the motor corps women were young, single, well educated, upper- or middle-class, and professionally experienced. Moreover, they possessed special linguistic and automotive skills, making them a distinctly qualified group.(2)

Although men ran the majority of the ambulance services, women drivers played a prominent role in the work of the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW), Le Bienetre du Blesse, Societe Franco-Americaine pour nos Combattants (the French-American Society for the Welfare of Wounded French Soldiers or Le Bienetre), the Smith College Relief Unit, and the American Committee for Devastated France (ACDF). Each of these services relied on women drivers to perform their work in France. The AFFW and Le Bienetre volunteers drove supplies to hospitals and soldiers in the war zone, while the Smith and ACDF wakens used their cars to aid the peasants of northern France.

While women did not drive professionally prior to the war, many had already taken to the road before the first battles erupted. Turn-of-the-century car advertisements sought to entice drives of both sexes, promoting different features of the vehicle to each. To the female driver, the ads spoke of comfort, luxury, and leisure. Initially believing that women alone were concerned with style, color, and options, companies designed special models for women, offering such luxuries as gold clocks, crystal bouquet holders, and spaces for memo pads and fully stocked vanity cases. Some women even took their own private cars and chauffeurs with them when traveling abroad so that they could enjoy the pleasure and freedom of motor travel while surrounded by the comforts of home.(3)

The onset of war in Europe, however, quickly curbed American women's holidays abroad. Although some tourists viewed the war as a nuisance, others became seriously involved in the emerging relief forces. Isabel Lathrop, an American who had been living in France for seven years, founded the AFFW just two days alter fighting broke out. Initially, the AFFW served as a general supplier for small, isolated hospitals. In December 1917, the organization became an auxiliary to the Red Cross, increasing its membership and diversifying its responsibilities. The AFFW grew to sponsor fifty drives and fifty motor cars as a result of the merger, becoming the earliest and best-known motor corps.(4)

Like many wartime agencies, the AFFW served as an umbrella organization to numerous branches and smaller associations both in the United States and abroad. By December 1914, the AFFW had become a clearing-house for seven hundred American subcommittees that collected supplies and funds for France in its name. Anne Morgan, daughter of financier J. P. Morgan, headed the Civilian Committee, one of the women's motor corps units organized under the AFFW. Working with General (later Marshal) Henri Petain and the French Ministry of War, the Civilian Committee's original unit of ten women set up its headquarters in the devastated Aisne district of northern France. By 1918, the Civilian Committee volunteers had become so dedicated to their work that they sought independence from the AFFW in order to form an organization based solely on the peasants' needs. …