After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Minnesota women, like Americans across the nation, were called to contribute to the war effort. Though some went to Europe and served as nurses, drivers, and aid workers on the battlefields, many more participated on the home front. They took on new jobs, conserved vital resources, and joined volunteer organizations. At the same time, they struggled to come to terms with conflicting ideals of patriotism, loyalty, and what it meant to be an American.
Participation on the home front took many forms. Some women worked in offices and factories to replace men who had enlisted. Schools and colleges across Minnesota offered them a variety of vocational programs, including training courses in nursing and clerical jobs. While Minnesota women did not enter factory work at the same rate as women in other parts of the country, they did more agricultural labor. In the summers of 1917 and 1918, women did paid and volunteer work in farm fields statewide. A 1919 vocational study in Minneapolis showed that during the war, over half of the women in the city’s workforce were paid less than the men that they had replaced.
During the war, women also were called on to join the “Army of American Housewives.” They were urged to conserve in nearly every area of household life. Women were encouraged to avoid using delivery services for their shopping to free workers for war service. To avoid inefficiency, fashion magazines and pattern companies advised women to choose patterns that made the best use of fabric and to do without new clothes whenever they could. Women, as well as men, were asked to buy Liberty bonds and donate to the Red Cross. Minnesotans were bombarded with reminders to make do with less, especially when it came to food.
During World War I, food and patriotism were closely linked. Historians argue that, aside from the draft, food conservation had the most significant impact on life on the Minnesota home front. Minnesotans produced as much of their own food as possible and consumed less meat and wheat so that it could be shipped to Europe. The 1917 Minnesota State Fair hosted canning and baking competitions for women and girls. By 1918, a conservation schedule of meatless, wheatless, and porkless meals dictated what was served on tables statewide. Since household cooking and shopping were largely the work of women, their participation was especially vital. The University of Minnesota Extension Service offered women courses in growing vegetable gardens, nutrition, and canning and preserving food.
Since the beginning of the war in 1914, Minnesota women had been active in organizations that fed, housed, and clothed war widows and orphans in Europe. Once the United States entered the war, voluntary organizations became more active. Women joined, led, and donated their time and money to groups that provided soldiers with food, shelter, and supplies. They joined YWCA sewing and knitting circles to craft items for soldiers and civilians. They rolled bandages and collected funds for the Red Cross.
Along with these larger organizations, women in book groups, college clubs, PTAs, and church groups committed to knitting, sewing, nursing, and fundraising. Girls were encouraged to enlist as “Victory Girls” by pledging money saved from allowances and babysitting jobs. Prominent women like University of Minnesota professor Maria Sanford traveled the state giving lectures to raise awareness of war-related activities.
While many relief efforts claimed to represent all Minnesota women, in reality the situation was more complicated. Although many girls and women participated in, and in many cases led, the state’s war relief organizations, participation was not always equal. Upper-class women held nearly all of the leadership positions. Urban women were more likely to contribute their support than women who lived in rural areas.
The work of the Woman’s Committee of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) highlights these divides. The MCPS was created by an act of the Minnesota Legislature in 1917 to protect the public and mobilize the state’s resources for war. Shortly after its formation, the MCPS established a Woman’s Committee headed by Alice Ames Winter. Winter was also named the head of the Minnesota Woman’s Committee within the Council of National Defense. By holding these two prominent leadership roles at the same time, Winter was able to set her own agenda apart from the MCPS.
During 1917, Winter’s organization built a network of women in every county in Minnesota. These county committees led food conservation efforts and Liberty Loan and Red Cross donation drives. They worked to match women with volunteer and vocational training so that they could fill vacant jobs. Winter stressed the importance of the protection of women and children, especially infants, on the home front.
One of the committee’s most central programs was also its most controversial. Winter, along with many other wartime leaders, believed that Americanization was essential to winning the war. They targeted Minnesota’s immigrant communities, including German Americans, Austrian Americans, and Finnish Americans. Stressing that it was a matter of patriotism, the Woman’s Committee and other groups pressured the immigrants to adopt English and abandon their ethnic identities. In turn, many immigrants resisted—particularly those in small towns and rural areas, where the war was unpopular.
Though it appeared to unite them in a common cause, the war divided Minnesotans along social, regional, and ethnic lines. Many groups used scare tactics to try to eliminate perceived disloyalty. Pamphlets and newspaper columns described the “woman slacker” who was a drag on the war effort. These slackers, they claimed, wasted wheat, neglected war work, and criticized the government. Newspapers printed the names of those who didn’t contribute to the Red Cross or Liberty Loan. Members of the American Protective League, led by Charles G. Davis of Minneapolis, made similar accusations against Minnesota women who were suspected of wasting sugar and wheat or neglecting to buy Liberty bonds.
When the war ended in 1918, few of its changes remained permanent for Minnesota women. Most of those who had been hired to replace enlisted men were laid off when the soldiers returned home. Winter and the Woman’s Committee of the MCPS did not retain the power that they had held. However, one notable change for Minnesota women occurred soon after the armistice. Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 granted them, and women across the nation, the right to vote.
Capozzola, Christopher. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Chrislock, Carl H. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety during World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.
Eighmey, Rae Katherine. Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks, and Conservation during World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.
Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. “Women Workers and World War I: The American Railroad Industry, A Case Study.” Journal of Social History 9, no. 2 (Winter 1975): 154–177.
Johnson, Elizabeth. War-Time Replacement in the City of Minneapolis. Minneapolis: Woman’s Occupational Bureau, 1919.
Kunz, Virginia Brainerd. Muskets to Missiles: A Military History of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Statehood Centennial Commission, 1958.
Schoone-Jongen, Robert. “Patriotic Pressures WWI: The Dutch experience in southwest Minnesota in World War I.” Origins Historical Magazine of Calvin College and Seminary Archives 7, no.2 (1989): 2–9.
The Woman’s Committee of the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety is founded in 1917. The group leads Minnesota women in a program of war support and public reform.
During the first year of fighting overseas, Minnesota women begin to participate in organizations that feed, clothe, and house European widows and orphans.
The United States enters the war.
Governor Burnquist signs a legislative act creating the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS).
The MCPS creates the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety Woman’s Committee.
Women and girls compete in canning and baking competitions at the Minnesota State Fair.
World War I ends in Europe.
Employers lay off women workers in Minnesota and across the United States as men return to the labor force.
A vocational study of the Minneapolis workforce shows that over half of the women employed in the city during the war were paid less than the men they had replaced.
The Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, is ratified in Minnesota.