The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I

The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I

The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I

The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I


In tracing the rise of the modern idea of the American "new woman," Lynn Dumenil examines World War I's surprising impact on women and, in turn, women's impact on the war. Telling the stories of a diverse group of women, including African Americans, dissidents, pacifists, reformers, and industrial workers, Dumenil analyzes both the roadblocks and opportunities they faced. She richly explores the ways in which women helped the United States mobilize for the largest military endeavor in the nation's history. Dumenil shows how women activists staked their claim to loyal citizenship by framing their war work as homefront volunteers, overseas nurses, factory laborers, and support personnel as "the second line of defense." But in assessing the impact of these contributions on traditional gender roles, Dumenil finds that portrayals of these new modern women did not always match with real and enduring change. Extensively researched and drawing upon popular culture sources as well as archival material, The Second Line of Defense offers a comprehensive study of American women and war and frames them in the broader context of the social, cultural, and political history of the era.


What a good time the women are having in the war! And, in a way,
they really are. For into that somewhat drab thing called every-day
life has come the call of duty that makes every one, man, woman,
and child, who has red blood, get up and do whatever duty bids.

Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 28, 1917

In a 1918 address on the Young Women’s Christian Association’s Industrial Program for working women, YWCA staffer Henrietta Roelofs recounted the story of a young women receiving a poem, “To the Girl I Have Left at Home Behind Me,” from a soldier that described her as “sitting patiently, suffering, sorrowing, waiting for the time when he should win the war and come home to her.” But in reality, Roelofs noted, the woman was “probably working in a munitions factory and the queer part of the thing is that the boy knew it but so little had the real military value of her work entered into his mind that he still was holding in his imagination the same idea which men held a hundred years ago.” Roelofs, invoking both defense industry workers and the 30,000 U.S. women who served in various capacities near the fighting front in Europe, asked, “Can we not get into our minds the actual status of women from a military point of view—not only from a humanitarian point of view but the actual value of women in winning the war.”

In her comment, Roelofs fused women’s paid defense-industry labor with patriotism and independence, qualities that legitimated their claim to full citizenship. During World War I, observers routinely described women workers, especially those who were breaking down barriers that had limited their work opportunities, as the “second line of defense,” whose service in the . . .

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