By Dr. Regina T. Akers, historian, Naval History and Heritage Command
Editor’s note: ‘Why We Do What We Do’ is an initiative CNO Richardson asked the Naval History and Heritage Command to help share with the fleet. Each month, our historians will dissect a seminal moment in our Navy’s past and then highlight the lessons we learned. The purpose, is to ground today’s Sailors in their history and heritage by explaining the reasons behind some of today’s seemingly mundane or routine activities and actions.
The Navy’s First Enlisted Women, 1917-1918
Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels began preparing for the United States’ entry into World War I before Congress declared war in April 1917. While assessing the administrative, material, personnel, strategic other requirements, Daniels discovered that the Civil Service Department could not provide an adequate number of workers. He was delighted to learn, however, that there were no legal barriers to recruiting women, as the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 permitted any U.S. citizen to serve. Rear Admiral Leigh C. Palmer, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, announced via his 19 March 1917 memo that the Navy was enlisting women for primarily clerical duties. Loretta Perfectus Walsh of Olyphant, PA distinguished herself as the first female enlistee.
The recruitment of women began soon afterwards without thorough planning, leaving the Bureau of Navigation with administrative hurdles. For the first time the Navy had to designate gender, give a large number of women physical exams, and provide women with uniforms and housing. The bureau identified female yeomen as Yeoman (F.), the “F” indicating gender. Since they did not attend basic training, the Navy taught female recruits how to drill, how the Navy operated, and the requirements for enlisted personnel in the evenings after their work day. Insufficient housing and no access to mess halls led the Navy to pay the women stipends to supplement those expenses.
Women at Work: Their Impact to the U.S. Navy
Little work was done in the Navy Department without encountering a female yeoman. The majority of the 11,275 female yeomen worked in the Washington, DC region and provided administrative support. Others contributed as finger print experts, munitions workers, deciphering intelligence, designing and painting razzle dazzle, and observing movements along the Atlantic coast. A few served overseas in European field hospitals and naval attaché offices. The YN(F.) proved to be very effective recruiters and marched in Liberty Bond parades.
Despite the racial injustices that persisted throughout the Navy and the government, John T. Risher, an African American and the supervisor of the muster roll section at the main Navy building, assigned 14 black female yeomen to his staff. They hailed from three states: Mississippi (7), Texas (2) and Maryland (1) and the District of Columbia (4). It is unclear how Risher integrated the YN(F.) or why Daniels allowed him to do so.
The female yeoman faced many challenges. Some of them reduced their income when they enlisted. They endured written and verbal insults objecting to their enlistment. Due to the nature of some of their assignments, they could not discuss their work with family or friends. Men initially resented them because they realized that if women worked well enough, they were likely to get new orders for a ship or a less desired command. Some men also found it difficult to accept women attaining the rank of chief without having to meet the sea time requirements or having the experience associated with it. Editorials criticized Secretary Daniels for ruining “their navy” by recruiting women. Some questioned the character and integrity of women desiring to serve in the military. The African-American women endured discrimination based on their race and gender while working in a segregated Navy and city.
However, there was no shortage of accolades for the YN(F.). As Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels said, “They did everything but go to sea!” in 1918. Rear Admiral Samuel McGowen, Paymaster General of the Navy, noted that, “The war efficiency of the Navy is due, in big part, to the excellent work of the women employed in it . . . the women who have the men’s jobs have shown themselves as efficient as the men.” Some supervisors recommended enlisted women for commissions. Congressman James A. Gallivan (D-MA) appealed directly to Secretary Daniels that Chief Yeoman Daisy Pratt Erd be promoted to the rank of ensign.
While the YN(F.) welcomed the war’s end, some desired to remain in the Navy but Congressional mandate called for their discharge. Navy bureau chiefs had no desire to lose their skill set so they invited the women to return to their jobs as civilians. Charlotte Winters is one example, having retired from the Navy Gun Factory in the Washington Navy Yard where she began her career. Sarah Davis, one of the 14 African Americans, had a 23-year career as a clerk in the Navy Department.
The enlisted women described their World War I service as one of the highlights in their lives, second only to getting married and having children. They appreciated their personal and professional growth and increased situational awareness. Their time in the Navy enriched their lives and their outlook on life. As YNC Lillian Budd, noted, “I thought I was doing something for my Country-I can see now how much more my country has done for me.”
The female yeoman preserved their history by establishing the National Yeoman (F.) organization in 1926. Over the years they held regular meetings, did community service, and funded a scholarship. Their published newsletter, The Notebook, served as a portal for exchanging information and maintaining contact over the next 60 years. They also supported the effort to move Loretta Perfectus Walsh’s grave from Olyphant, PA to the Arlington National Cemetery and to urge the U.S. Post Office to issue a stamp in their honor. Declining membership and advanced age led them to disestablish and deposit their organization’s archives with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The Yeoman (F.)’s multiple and diverse contributions to the war helped the Navy complete its mission and the Allies secure victory proving that the service performed better with women. Though perceived by some to be a weakness, a diverse Navy proved stronger, more efficient and more capable. This brief history contains several important lessons:
- Secretary Daniels demonstrated the importance of leaders being innovative and learning from history. Women had served with and in the U.S. military during times of war and peace since 1775. Building on that knowledge, Daniels’ recruitment of women on the eve of the First World War benefitted naval leaders. In 1942, from what was learned by the first female Sailors, the Navy established the Women’s Advisory Council composed primarily of female educators to design a program for women, select the program’s director and to plan their training schools, housing and uniforms prior to their enlistment.
- John T. Risher reminds us that sometimes it takes one person to take one step that may make a tremendous difference. Allowing African American women to serve, he proved, through their work that the racial and gender discrimination they encountered would not diminish their patriotism. The Navy had discovered a new population of fiercely determined people ready to serve. Had he not taken that initiative, there would not have been 14 African American Yeoman(F.), ready to continue the black Americans’ rich legacy of service and sacrifice.
- Finally, the YN(F.) helped forge the way for the opportunities available to the women who followed them in the ensuring decades by proving women were dedicated workers, committed to the Navy’s mission.
Women continue making invaluable contributions to the Navy’s mission across ranks and communities today. They command strike groups, numbered fleets, shore establishments, and ships. They have seamlessly integrated the submarine force. They lead and participate in anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance/disaster recovery, maritime security and many other operations. In America’s Navy, women continue to excel as trailblazers, leaders and shipmates that dominate in dozens of dynamic career fields.
Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, The First, The Few, The Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2002)
Susan H. Godson, Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy (Naval Institute Press and Naval Historical Center, 2001)
Richard E. Miller, “The Golden Fourteen, Plus,” Minerva (All/Winter, 1995), 7-13
Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee, A Few Good Women: America’s Military Women from World War I to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York: Anchor Books, 2011)