By Holly Quick, public affairs specialist, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Every March during Women’s History Month we commemorate the diverse contributions women have made, and continue to make, to our nation and our military. March also marks the Navy Reserve birthday and it would be remiss not to celebrate the contributions of Chief Yeoman (F) Loretta P. Walsh, the first woman enrolled in the Naval Reserve Force, and the women who joined her in support of the First World War.
In March 1917, as the United States was reaching the final decision to enter World War I, the Navy’s need for clerical assistance was far greater than had been anticipated. Shore stations, whose activities had been increased by the preparation for war, were asking for assistance.
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels consulted with his legal advisers and discovered just because women had never served in the Naval Reserve as yeomen didn’t mean it was prohibited by law.
“Then enroll women in the Naval Reserve as yeomen,” said Daniels, “and we will have the best clerical assistance the country can provide.”
On March 19, 1917, the Navy Department authorized the enrollment of women in the Naval Reserve. Women served under Class 4, the Naval Coast Defense Reserve, of the 1916 United States Naval Reserve Force, which included members who were capable of performing special useful service in the Navy or in connection with the Navy in defense of the coast.
The circular from the Bureau of Navigation stated:
“The Bureau authorizes the enrollment of women in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve in the ratings of yeoman, electrician (radio), or in such other ratings as the commandant may consider essential to the district organizations.”
On March 21, 1917, two years after the Naval Reserve was established, and two days after women were authorized to enroll in the Navy, Walsh enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a Chief Yeoman. By the time the U.S. joined its allies to fight in World War I on April 6, 200 women had joined her.
To distinguish these women from their male counterparts the Navy established the rate of Yeoman (F), though they were also known as “Yeomanettes” or “Yeowomen.” Men and women in the same rank earned equal pay, something that was unheard of in the civilian sector. However, unlike their male counterparts, the highest rank a Yeoman (F) could reach was that of chief petty officer.
At the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany on Nov. 11, 1918, a total of 11,275 Yeomen (F) had served in the Navy. All Yeomen (F) were released from active duty by July 31, 1919, and to them Secretary Daniels sent the following message:
“It is with deep gratitude for the splendid service rendered by the Yeomen (F) during our national emergency that I convey to them the sincere appreciation of the Navy Department for their patriotic cooperation.”
To read more about Women in the Navy, please visit NHHC’s website: http://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/diversity/women-in-the-navy.html