20 October 1915 – Columbia

We sometimes forget that the United States of America has been portrayed as a woman before. Like her bare-breasted French cousin Marianne, who is always pictured with a flag and musket, Columbia is both armed and patriotic. Designed to encourage men to enlist and wage wars, she is nevertheless evidence that women have always been present for conflict, whether to treat the wounded and cook the meals or to slit throats and rob the corpses. The impulse to present one’s motherland personified as a woman is in fact very old, for the ancient Greeks believed in both an intelligent, creative goddess of war and an aggressive, heartless god of combat. Arms are inherently leveling, and firearms even more so; a woman with a gun is the equal of a man with a gun, and he forgets that at his peril.

The Great War has brought sweeping changes to the lives of women. Now toiling in diverse occupations once reserved for men, the women of Britain, Germany, France, and Russia are abandoning the limited opportunities of a patriarchal society forever. The surest signs of this immense social change are visible in what they wear. Coco Chanel opened her first store in Biarritz at the beginning of 1915, and women’s clothing styles are already being radically changed, with brassieres replacing corsets, hemlines rising, mannish work uniforms distributed, and layers being shed for comfort and convenience. It is the definitive beginning of the modern era; the war is altering women’s lives forever. They will never go back.

Louise de Bettignies in 1905.

Louise de Bettignies in 1905. Note the corseted torso and the elaborate dress — fashions now disappearing in wartime

Near Tournai today, Louise de Bettignes is arrested by German military authorities for running one of the largest and most successful intelligence networks in occupied France. Working under the pseudonym ‘Alice Dubois’ and known to her contacts in London as ‘the queen of spies,’ the native of Lille has employed over one hundred agents to spot German movements, map their positions behind the lines, and communicate the intelligence to France. In addition to homing pigeons and invisible ink, messages travel home through neutral Holland with wounded and recovered soldiers, for like British nurse Edith Cavell, Bettignes has been hiding them and arranging to have them smuggled out of the country. Unlike Cavell, who died before a firing squad eight days ago, Bettignes’s death sentence will be commuted to life, and she will instead die of botched surgery on lung abscesses performed just weeks before the war ends in 1918, still a captive.

Women are not restricting themselves to noncombatant or auxiliary roles, either. Scandalizing the Parisian press by flying without a corset, Marie Marvingt began the war as a world-class athlete and became the world’s first female combat pilot in March; prevented from fighting in the mountains of France with the Chasseurs Alpins, she will instead serve as a medic with the 3è Régiment in the Italian Dolomites, at one point rescuing wounded men by airplane.

But no history of women in combat would be complete without Émilienne Moreau. A resident of Loos, she was only seventeen when British troops liberated the town during their recent big offensive. After supplying Scottish troops of the Black Watch with critical information on the locations of German positions among the rubble-strewn streets and scarred houses, Moreau refused immediate evacuation, instead organizing a first aid station in the basement of her house. During the inevitable German counterattack, she actually led a grenade assault on the house next door, forcing its German occupants to withdraw, and then shot two Germans dead by firing through a closed wooden door — an impressive display of urban fighting skill that would not be out of place among the Kurdish YPJ today, and one that will be recognized with an actual Croix de Combattant. Incredibly, Moreau will not only live to oppose a second German occupation, but thrive as a spymaster and escape death again, becoming a formidable presence in the postwar Socialist Party.

emiliennemoreau croix de guerre

Émilienne Moreau receives her Croix de Guerre in November. Note how many awardees are wounded or limbless

Political enfranchisement marches forward in measure with the sacrifices and achievements of women in the Great War. Whereas suffrage was a fringe issue in Britain before the war began, and the movement promoting it was characterized by sometimes-violent action against an oppressive state, by the end of the conflict, Parliament will capitulate on the issue almost as a matter of course. Across the Atlantic Ocean, suffrage has succeeded in enough state referendums and initiatives that organizer Alice Paul is ready to move on from the exhaustion of countless local fights to waging a single, national fight for the right to vote. Speaking today in her home state of New Jersey, where religious leaders have defeated the suffrage issue in yesterday’s election with sermons expressing concern that it will destroy families, motherhood, and society, Paul gives voice to her new approach.

They are turning to the national Government, asking enfranchisement by action of the United States Congress. We approach the next session of Congress full of hope that the leverage which the suffrage movement possesses in Congress as a result of the fact that one-fourth of the Senate, one-sixth of the House and one-fifth of the electoral vote for President now comes from suffrage States will mean the passage of the national suffrage amendment, thus doing away with costly and laborious State campaigns such as has just been unsuccessfully waged in New Jersey.

Further ballot initiatives will be defeated in November, convincing women’s suffrage organizers to abandon their state-by-state approach. They will spend the next five years building a national consensus instead, finally succeeding after the war ends when the 20th Amendment is ratified.

Of course, the relationship between suffrage and war is not absolute by any means, for Paul is a young leader in a decades-old movement. In fact, the most prominent voice now supporting the cause, the devout populist Democrat and pacifistic former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, has finally endorsed the issue only out of opposition to the war. In a speech at Grace Methodist Church in New York City two days ago, Bryan remarked that “if there was only one question on which (women) could vote I would say that should be the question of peace or war.” A century later, women have sacrificed life and limb for the United States of America, and the right to vote seems utterly secure, yet the gender wars sometimes seem more entrenched than ever before, and Bryan’s assumption that women would use their vote to prevent wars has proven sadly wrong.


Alice Paul receives her Ph.D in economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1910. Her dissertation focused on suffrage