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Picture Perfect Images and Realities of Military Nursing During the World Wars

Class 3: Not New To War: The History and Realities of Military Nursing II


The third class provides a history of women in the military through World War I, with a focus on military nurses. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial website offers a timeline of women in the military from the American Revolution through the end of World War II, demonstrating that women have always been involved in American military efforts, even if it was not in an official capacity. Jeanne Holm’s first chapter of Women in the Military, is a general history of women in the armed forces, but focuses on nursing, because that was one of only martial roles available to females in this early period. Holm shows the military was a masculine institution, which made nurses’ experiences in the armed forces more difficult than those of their civilian counterparts. In Serving Proudly, Susan Godson specifically discusses women in American Naval history, explaining how professional nurses became involved with the Navy during the Spanish American War, the development of the Navy Nurse Corps, and female participation in the Navy and Marines during World War I. Lettie Gavin’s American Women in World War I uses Army nurses’ own words to relay women’s personal experiences caring for soldiers in war zones during World War I. “Nursing the Military,” chapter four of Does Khaki Become You? by Cynthia Enloe uses feminist theory to give a broad overview of how the military system feminized the nursing profession over a broad period of time.

In this class, materials in the Additional Online Resources section show photographs of military nurses from World War I to demonstrate how nurses really appeared while they were in working the field. Additionally, a 1971 oral history interview of Clara Wilhelmina Emily Hoke, a member of the Army Nurse Corps, adds a personal perspective to recruitment and nursing service during World War I. Hoke joined the Army when war broke out and the Army sent her to a field hospital in Paris. In the interview clips, Hoke, who had been a nurse for four years prior to the conflict, discusses why she enlisted and the realities of life in a war zone.

Class Resources
  • Enloe, Cynthia H. Does Khaki Become You?: The Militarization of Women’s Lives. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1983, Chap. 4.
  • Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War I: They Also Served. Niwot, CO: The University Press of Colorado, 1997, Chap. 3.
  • Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001, Chaps. 1, 2, and 3.
  • Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982, Chap. 1.
  • Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc. “Highlights in the History of Military Women.” Women in Military Service for America Memorial.
Additional Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. Explain the various paths women took to enter the military as nurses. Consider the timeline, “Highlights in the History of Military Women,” and the previous classes. Why do you think female nurses’ entrance into the armed forces took this particular trajectory into World War I?
  2. What qualities did Americans think made women good nurses, and what types of women were considered ideal nurses before and during World War I? How do those qualities relate to other previously-discussed feminine ideals during the period?
  3. Why did the military only want to contract women as nurses instead of making them part of the armed forces like male soldiers? Why do you think the military admitted women nurses before women soldiers? What do you think this says about Holm and Enloe’s arguments that the military is a gendered institution? Explain.
  4. How much of an effect do you think women’s performance as wartime nurses had on their greater acceptance into the armed forces?
  5. How did the concept of the ideal nurse compare to the actual roles women had to perform as nurses during World War I? How do the visual portrayals of the ideal nurse compare to photographs of real nurses? Provide examples from your readings and online resources.
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