The US Armed Forces were like an all-men exclusive organization where women could only take no more than nursing assignments. While that, of course, was an important role too, many women wanted to join the fight and be soldiers too. That did not happen until Loretta Perfectus Walsh was allowed to enlist in the Navy in 1917, during the conflict of World War I, making her the very first woman to (legally) serve in the armed forces.
Waking Up The Sleeping Dragon
When the First World War erupted, the United States did not intend to be part of the conflict until Germany announced that they would resume the expansion of their “unrestricted” submarine warfare campaign on all ships. By all, they meant the US was no exception, and they did just so after four different American ships were attacked by German U-boats, and resulted in the death of fifteen Americans. That, plus Germany’s covert attempt to entice Mexico into invading the United States too, angered the Americans. So even before Congress authorized President Wilson to declare war, many were already eager to take part in it, and they already lined up to enlist, including Walsh.
If it weren’t for The Naval Reserve Act of 1916, women would not still be allowed in the Navy and other branches of the armed forces later on. As written by the Naval History and Heritage Command:
“The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 had conspicuously omitted mention of gender as a condition for service, leading to formal permission to begin enlisting women in mid-March 1917, shortly before the United States entered the ‘Great War.'”
When the Secretary of the Navy asked if the “persons” referred to in the act applied only to men and was told that it did not, applications from women who wanted to enlist started flooding in that by the end of April 1917, early 600 Yeomanettes or Yeomen (F) were on duty, alleviating severe clerical shortages during the war era. This number grew to 11,275 about a year later.
Yeomen were people assigned to secretarial and clerical works in the Navy. They were translators, draftsmen, fingerprint experts, ship camouflage designers, and recruiters. Female Yeomen were called Yeomanettes, and they were often assigned at Naval installations in the Continental United States, most of the time near their homes. They dealt with a huge amount of paperwork to help in the war effort. There were some who were sent to France with Naval hospital units, while others were deployed to Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and in the Panama Canal Zone.
Women were treated equally and were paid the same salary as men, $28.75 per month. They were also given the same benefits as men of comparable rank— something that was uncommon during those times. They all held enlisted ranks and remained in service during the first months of the post-war Naval reductions until they were all released by the end of July 1919. Even so, they still received Retainer Pay until the end of their four-year enlistments.
Loretta Perfectus Walsh
As mentioned, she was the first woman to legally enter the US Military when she enlisted in the Navy. That was because, during the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, a woman named Deborah Sampson cheated the system and snuck herself into the male-exclusive army by pretending to be a guy. (You could read her full amusing story here.)
Walsh was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1896. At the age of 20, she engaged in a four-year enlistment as a Yeomanette on March 17, 1917, officially becoming the first in her position. On March 21st, she became a Chief Yeoman, instantly becoming the first woman Chief Petty Officer in the Navy. She was assigned to the Naval Shipyard in Philadelphia until she was released after the war. In the fall of 1918, Walsh fell victim to influenza and later on contracted tuberculosis. She died on August 6, 1925, at the tender age of 29. She was buried in the Oplyphant’s St. Patrick’s Cemetery, and to recognize her contributions to Naval history, the Naval Historical Center identifies March 21, 1917, as a date in American naval history. Just last year, the USS Constitution honored her by naming their 24-pound long gun “Perfectus” after her.