Girls at War

Concerning Why anyone would want to write a war story for girls, how they would go about it if they did, and what issues might be raised thereby

The antiwar protester accosted the government official outside his office. Stung by taunts, the septuagenarian slugged the kid. The kid threw down his sign and waded in. Eventually the two were separated by bystanders -- and the young man got the worst of it.

A college town in 1970? No -- Washington, D.C. in 1917. America's entry into World War I was by no means universally popular, which may surprise anyone whose main knowledge of the War to End War comes from juvenile fiction of the era. After all, didn't the Boy Scouts, the Boy Allies, The Motor Boys, and the Aviation Boys -- not to mention the Khaki Girls and Grace Harlowe -- throw their youthful enthusiasm into the war effort, cheered on by the Motor Girls, the Outdoor Girls, The Camp Fire Girls, Pollyanna, and company?

Yes, they did. And there's a reason for it, an ugly one.

The 'teens were as turbulent a period in U.S. history as any you may find. It was the time that gave us Selective Service registration, the ACLU, farm price supports, the American Legion, the AFS, newspaper editorials in favor of lynching, the opening of many career fields to women, modern advertising, marketing, and propaganda (this, not Viet Nam, was the first war fought in the media) -- and severe censorship. If you wanted to get published in 1917, your book had better help form public opinion in favor of the war. In fact, if it didn't, you might end up in prison as well as unpublished.

This was an era when having a German name could get you fired, or run out of town -- speaking German was actually illegal in some places, even among a family in their own home. In a celebrated case, a man was lynched because he was suspected of being German -- and the trial of his murderers ended with an acquittal.

It's hard to say which segment of opinion had the better reasons and ideals, or which did the stupidest things, in the battle for the American mind over the war. Censorship is hard to defend. But it does have a rationale: as one historian of the subject observed in 1941,

While in peacetime individuals [can] have different ideas of ... evil ..., in wartime the evil has to be reduced to one, the nation or nations with which the democracy is at war.... If citizens persist [in exercising individual efforts] ... no united war effort can be made, and the democracy will be conquered. (8)

This writer also warns, "If the repression continues after the war is over, we shall have lost the very ideal for which we fought." And he points out that at no time did England -- which was at much greater risk -- take such extreme measures in thought control as did America, and he speculates that the difference stems from the American penchant for extreme positions.

Another historian observes that the antiwar faction "possessed in greater abundance the virtues of consistency, clarity of purpose, and prophetic accuracy."(6) Even President Harding, in retrospect, described much public behavior of the time as "hysterical and unseemly." (5) He had the hard-sell campaign for Liberty Bonds in mind, but everything else was approached in the same extreme spirit.

The Federal government used the techniques of the new advertising industry to sell the war to the people, while state governments and vigilante groups mopped up those who exhibited sales resistance. Newspapers -- and ministers -- were put out of business if the put too much faith in the First Amendment and expressed dissatisfaction with the way things were being done. Curricula were designed and required to be taught at all school levels, which showed the war from the "right" side; even college-level courses were directed to be "dumbed down" to be sure of "arousing the youth of the nation to their duties in peace and war"(6).

From the point of view of the writer of children's books, arousing youth to their duties had the effect of dictating plot. The hero should go into battle, or get as near it as practical. Saving that, he should capture a saboteur or a spy. Heroines should train as nurses and go to the front or as Red Cross girls and work further behind the lines. Or they should stay home, knit bravely -- and possibly catch a spy themselves. Patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice were the virtues to be fostered, and, furthermore, let us not forget that there really were spies and saboteurs around, especially in the port and manufacturing cities of the Northeast. As it happened, it was exactly in the Northeast that pro-war sentiment was strongest.

Until the Federal government put its resources behind selling the war, opinion had been more or less balanced, but the anti-war segment went down to defeat in short order once the Establishment decided in favor of involvement. Consider: a top music hit of 1915 was I Didn't Raise My Boy to be A Soldier, but by 1917, Over There and Johnny Get Your Gun topped the charts. Pre-war motion pictures sometimes were able to keep on showing by supplying a preface such as that added to the distinctly antiwar War Brides;

"This drama photoplay will show Mothers', Wives' and Sweethearts' reasons for opposing all wars, but between the lines everyone will perceive the reason why American homes and American Womanhood must be adequately protected by a strong army and strong navy. Young man enlist now."(8)

Some writers couldn't reverse themselves so quickly, and simply waited for the war to end rather than try. Much of the dialogue in Ethel Morton at Rose House (1915), for example, deals with the undesirability of war-like games such as Cowboys and Indians for children. This would never have made print two years later.

A number of children's writers found themselves in this dilemma. The Progressive Party, the party of reform, education, social progress -- and emphatically not war -- numbered many writers in its ranks, particularly writers interested in childhood development and education. Jane Addams and Lilian Wald, gurus of the settlement house movement, were outspoken Progressives, and a surprising number of girl's-book heroines of the early twentieth century take up social work or some form of reform as a career. Nursing was as much as many of them could in all conscience do by way of war effort, and some series stop short at this point or take a distinct turn away from their original themes. A few such the Outdoor Girls and L. M. Montgomery's last "Anne" book, Rilla of Ingleside, studied the home front, often to depressing effect. But some made a positive effort to write interesting books that would still hew to the official line.

It is, of course, much easier to get heros across the ocean and in the thick of battle than it is to do the same thing with heroines. Most heroines rode out the war on the home front (Vandercook's The Camp Fire Girls Behind the Lines (1) takes place in California). Winona's Karonya Camp Fire runs a War Farm to raise needed foodstuffs (10); Mary Lee works in a hospital which is shorthanded because most of the trained nurses are overseas (7); and the Outdoor Girls staff a servicemen's canteen (4). But the heroines who actually succeed best in actual involvement are Joan Mason and Valerie Warde, Edna Brooks' "Khaki Girls" (1,2). And in doing so they bring up a whole set of issues that most people today probably think only came under discussion during the Gulf War.

Is there a "woman's role" in war, or it is a matter of finding the person, regardless of the gender, with the right skills for the job? What, exactly, can be considered a noncombat position in modern war? Would the presence of women on warships wreck the Navy? Is it all right for young women to take the same risks young men are asked to take? If killing is going on, can it be acceptable for a woman to kill, even in self-defense? All of these 1990s questions come up in the first two volumes (published in 1918) of this short series.

Joan and Valerie first meet at an auto show; while everyone else is admiring the newest roadster with a collapsible rain roof, these girls are yearning over the newest Ford Company ambulance. Both are enthusiastic motorists; Joan is her own mechanic as well, and they find that they share a dream of combining their automotive passion with the urgent task of serving their country. Valerie's guardian/brother will back whatever she decides to do, and Joan has extracted a promise from her father that she can take on any kind of war work that can be done on this side of the ocean, and he will give permission for her to go overseas if (a) she finds war work that will let her go although she is underage; and (b) she proves to him that she is "just as fit for that work as a son ... would be if [he] had one."(2) (He knows she knits very badly.)

The two New Jersey girls immediately join the Manhattan-based Women's Transport Corps. They are put into uniform and given training in military drill, on the pistol range, and in First Aid as well as in automotive maintenance and evasive driving techniques. It is all very military, except that -- unless they are on an assignment -- they continue to live at home. Once trained, they are employed as messengers and chauffeurs to various military and government figures, all the time dreaming of that ambulance in France. They earn the chance at the ambulance by tracking down and capturing a saboteur and serving as matrons -- and finding evidence to convict -- when the agent's female associate is also arrested. It helps that both girls are very well off. Valerie has already bought her own ambulance and Joan's father, a car dealer, donates another.

In the second volume, equipped with their own vehicles they wangle assignment to a front-line unit run by a group of college girls who need reinforcement because one of their number has recently been killed and another severely injured. Because of very modern-sounding trouble with a New York cab driver (and the fact they think they've found another clue about the accomplices of their saboteur), they miss their transport and end up the only two women on a warship, to the great unhappiness of that ship's commander.

Eventually finding their unit, they join the "real war" at last. On Joan's first run, a shell demolishes one of her unit's ambulances and kills the wounded and orderlies in it, before her eyes. Valerie ends up killing a German (in self-defense); it's been established that other girls in the unit have found themselves in the same position. Joan, after all, shot at the saboteur back in New York, although she didn't hit her target.

All in all, this is not exactly the sort of adventure normally provided for teenage girls in 1918. But it is based on truth as much as the home-front stories. The war not only opened up careers at home for young women, but provided a way for the most adventurous -- and not just the young -- to go into battle in exactly this way. It was as dangerous and exciting a life as that their brothers were leading. In fact, given the conditions of trench warfare, some writers think it was more exciting than theirs:

Finally given a chance to take the wheel, these post-Victorian girls raced motorcars along foreign roads like adven turers exploring new lands, while their brothers dug deeper into the mud of France. Retrieving the wounded and the dead from deadly positions, these once-decorous daughters had at last been allowed to prove their valor, and they swooped over the wastelands of the war with the energetic love of Wagnerian Valkyries, their mobility alone transporting countless immobilized heroes to safe havens.(3)


  1. Brooks, Edna, The Khaki Girls Behind the Lines, Cupples & Leon, 1918.
  2. Brooks, Edna, The Khaki Girls of the Motor Corps, Cupples & Leon, 1918.
  3. Higgonet, Margaret Randolph, Jane Jenson, Sonja Michel, & Margaret Collins Weitz, eds., Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, Yale University Press, 1987.
  4. Hope, Laura Lee, The Outdoor Girls in Army Service, Grosset, 1918.
  5. Jantzen, Steven, Hooray for Peace, Hurrah for War: The United States During World War I, Facts on File, 1991.
  6. Kennedy, David M., Over Here: The First World War and American Society, Oxford University Press, 1980.
  7. Merrill, Anna Darby, Mary Lee's Friend, Whitman, 1920.
  8. Mock, James R., Censorship 1917, Princeton University Press, 1941.
  9. Smith, Mabell S.C., Ethel Morton at Rose House, New York Book, 1915.
  10. Vandercook, Margaret, The Camp Fire Girls Behind the Lines, Winston, 1918.
  11. Widdemer, Margaret, Winona's War Farm, Lippincott, 1918.

© 1995 Jo Anne Fatherly

(This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends)