Michael McGuire (Boston University)

Ladies and Gentlemen? Gender and American Humanitarian Relief Efforts in France during the First World War, 1914-1919

During the First World War, numerous American women1 aided the French nation. Largely serving through non-governmental organizations, they functioned as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, public hygiene experts, and social workers for the French Army and a civilian population that received limited assistance from a beleaguered state. American women’s social and medical activism repeatedly clashed with French chauvinism, particularly as antebellum Frenchmen perceived American females as the most dangerous kind for their personal liberty and intrusions into the male sphere. Conversely, many American female volunteers (more than male volunteers) decried numerous deficiencies in French material culture—their morning toilette, their consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, and the impoverished, improvised lodgings in which they (the Americans) had to reside. Yet the French needed American women to reconstruct cities, tend to sick refugees, and aid refugees returning to liberated villages. Consequently, many Frenchmen and women reluctantly resolved themselves to the necessary intrusion of American women into their lives. For their part, American female volunteers reconciled themselves to the material, cultural, and societal shortcomings of their host country, and in some cases used their service and cultural interaction to encourage Frenchmen and women to narrow the gap between the sexes

This paper will evaluate the cultural interaction and friction that resulted from these American female volunteers’ activities. It will largely examine primary sources—newspaper and magazine articles, diaries, letters, memoirs, fictional works, and archival records and catalogs—to assess how diverging trans-Atlantic definitions of gender and the societal responsibilities of each sex facilitated and/or complicated these aid workers’ tasks. When appropriate it will consult pertinent secondary source literature.