The past several years of domestic debate over the roles and meanings of memorials on the American landscape can be enriched by looking to the example of female commemorators of the past. Today’s conversations tend to focus on statues and other artistic works. By learning about an overlooked cohort of American women who served in World War I, we can find inspiration for creative memorialization projects that will expand our understandings of memorials beyond physical statues and monuments.
In the decades after World War I, American women who served or sacrificed during that conflict championed memorial projects that prioritized community service over statues. Their efforts can provide a blueprint for how to change our approach to memorialization, should we care to look for it. Examining their philosophy can yield the untapped wisdom of a generation of activists, mothers, civic leaders, and unrecognized female veterans.
The women who pursued this unconventional approach to memorialization had contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways. Some had directly supported the military through service in wartime organizations, both at home and abroad. Others had suffered extreme sacrifices. In their number were Gold Star mothers and widows who lost a child or husband. The larger community of female veterans embraced these women as their own and honored them as having served the nation just as much as male veterans.
These women banded together and put service at the center of their commemorative work. They coordinated their efforts through new organizations such as the Women’s Overseas Service League (WOSL), which represented the interests of the thousands of American women who served overseas during the war. Instead of monuments, the WOSL concentrated their memorialization projects on aiding people impacted by the war, whether male or female. They felt obligated to help the male veterans they served during wartime, but they also supported their own community, particularly civilian women excluded from veteran status. In the absence of government support for them, the WOSL served as their advocates and benefactors.