American Nurses in the First World War. Exemplified by Female Literary Works

"The memoirs. The Forbidden Zone" by Mary Borden and "The Backwash of War" by Ellen La Motte

Term Paper, 2020

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 American Women at War
2.1 Nursing the Nation
2.2 Nursing and Suffrage
2.3 Nursing in War
2.4 Aftermath of the Great War

3 Approaching Female War Writing
3.1 The Memoir as Meaning Maker
3.1 Ellen La Motte —The Backwash of War
3.2 Mary Borden — The Forbidden Zone

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Women have long been neglected as authors about the First World War. Things changed during the last three decades when more and more researchers began to uncover women's voices. They have argued that women present an important part in the canon of First World War literature. Even though it started as European war, some American women joined the war effort, long before the United States entered the conflict. Mostly these women were employed as nurses in army hospi­tals along the frontline. For nurses the First World War somehow meant a new sense of freedom, even though they sticked to the domestic world of caretaking. This term paper focuses on how American nurses, representing white middle-class women, coped with the trauma nursing in the First World War caused. In addition, it will be discussed how they dealt with societal constraints concerning women in general and women in the nursing profession in particular. The study shows how the mud of the western front provided an opportunity to rise from the limited domestic sphe­re to the battlefield of the modern world. The memoirs The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden and The Backwash of War by Ellen La Motte are among the best known female literary works and will serve as examples to show she characteristics of female wartime writing. While women could not direct­ly attest to the experience of the trenches, they were the only ones able to explore war's all-consu­ming effects. Therefore, women's voices like Borden's and La Motte's deserve much more attenti­on, as their texts hold a not yet fully discovered truth and richness of accounts of the First World War.

2 American Women at War

War propaganda stated that women urged their husbands and sons to enlist while they stayed at home waiting, “yet the demands of total war and the desire of some women to break free of tradi­tional gender roles enlarged the ways that women eventually contributed to the war effort both at home and overseas” states Keene in the introduction to Scott Berg's (2016: 44) book. Propaganda called women to take over men's jobs for the time being and “simultaneously thrust women back into stereotypical roles centered on maternity and the hearth. Thus sexual boundaries were both blurred and reinforced”. (Higonnet 1994: 146). American women worked in munitions factories or prepared surgical dressings, or they volunteered with the French and Belgian Red Cross even befo­re the United Stated entered the conflict and served overseas. (Hallett 2016: 175, see also Burger Johnson 1993: 68). In their new work space women were confronted with male superiority and scepticism (Adam qtd. in Fara 2015: 16). Whereas at the beginning women seemed useless for over- seas actions, resistance broke down with the duration of the war and “women of all classes and educational backgrounds managed to travel abroad, often for the first time. The two main areas providing opportunities were the armed forces and medicine.” (Fara 2015: 19).

“The argument about men's ‘inclusion' in war and women's ‘exclusion' tacitly relies on and repro­duces the schematic view of the battlefront as a place where women and other civilians are not” (Higonnet 1995: 87). This definition of the battlefront however, is not applicable anymore when it comes to the bombardments of hospitals or Zeppelin raids on the English coast, where civi­lians and women were very much included in the battlefront. Cynthia Enloe (qtd. in Higonnet 1994: 145) also asserts that the military is in a constant need to define ‘combat' and ‘the front' as wherever women are not. And the only place where women are not is obviously the trenches and they have become the dominant representation of the First World War.

Whereas men's experiences of the First World War were pretty much all the same, women took on various occupations during the war. “Approximately 16.500 women served in France with the American Expeditionary Forces as nurses, telephone operators, clerks, and as welfare workers ser­ving soldiers in canteens and rest areas” (Keene in Scott Berg 2016: 45). In doing that, they had more in common with the soldiers than with the ones at home. According to Fuse (qtd. in Fara 2015: 19), men's “resistance to women's involvement in war work was enormous. Even the first nursing volunteers in France had been greeted dismissively: ‘women were such a nuisance in war time and who were these women in uniform anyway?'” Adie (qtd. in Fara 2015: 20) summarised the issue women were confronted with during their war work: “The war generated new opportu­nities for women to engage in medical work. During training they ‘had this drilled into us: you not only have to do a good job but you have to do a superior job. What would be accepted from a man will not be accepted from a woman. You have got to do better'”.

Even though Keene (in Scott Berg 2016: 45) asserts that “[m]ale doctors and orderlies often refused to recognize nurses' authority, and it required constant vigilance to deflect unwanted advances of physical assaults from male patients”, none of this is mentioned in the work that will be examined in the course of this paper, nor in many other memoirs of the First World War. Rather, Burger John­son (1993: 111) argued that patients appreciated the nurses work and most of the time male and female staff worked together with little difficulty even under conditions that would try their pati­ence: “the general tone is one of cooperation and shared experience.” Tilton (qtd. in Alterio 2013: 81) wrote what a male patient of hers said: “[w]e feel so proud of you girls, too, who have sacrificed good homes to come over here and look after the welfare of us chaps”. It was also not unheard of that patients kept contact with the ones who had nursed them and wrote the women letters or in­quired after them.

Many people believed — and still do— that the war represented a dramatic break with the past, liberating women by enabling them to work and giving the vote to those over thirty. [...] In reality, only a minority were enabled to act and think with anything even approaching the freedom of men, and even that libera­tion generally ended with the Armistice,

argued Fara (2015: 12). With the nursing profession, however, this is a bit different, as women have worked as nurses in the private or public range ever since and their jobs presented no threat to men. In the following chapter the nursing profession in turn-of-the-century America will be closer examined.

2.1 Nursing the Nation

Throughout the course of the nineteenth century nursing was seen as women's natural role. Most women nursed family and relatives at home and as no training schools existed before 1870 they learned by practice. During the American Civil War American women had served for the first time in military medical facilities and proved to be of great use (Lewenson 2013: 16). Following the ex­ample of English nurse Florence Nightingale, who had nursed during the Crimean War, nurse trai­ning schools were founded in America in order to improve sanitary conditions and nursing skills. Moser Jones (2015: 10) argues that nursing schools were similar to convents and provided an alter­native to marriage and early motherhood for young women of the upper-working and middle­classes. “Nightingale's belief that women should control the teaching and practice of nursing was revolutionary. She maintained this feminist stance in the face of opposition from paternalistic phy­sicians and hospital boards”, stated Lewenson (2013: 21). The idea behind women's education, not just in nursing, throughout 19th century America was to make women more successful in her do­mestic tasks and therefore contribute to society's welfare. This also meant that women were indeed socially relevant (Lewenson 2013: 6). “The developing nursing profession was influenced by as well as contributed to the ideology of domestic and social feminism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and parallels emerged between nursing's growth as a profession and the prevai­ling ideas of women's right to study, to work, and to vote” wrote Lewenson (2013: 5).

It has already been mentioned in the introduction that this term paper focuses on two women in particular. As one of them, namely Ellen Newbold La Motte, was a nurse by profession who also published articles on her work, this chapter will include her findings and views. According to Su- giyama (2006: 129), La Motte has been cast aside in the history of nursing partly because her papers cannot be found in archival collections. Nevertheless, she “stood at the crossroads in the histories of women, of professionalism, of nationalism and imperialism” (Sugiyama 2006: 130), which makes it worthwhile to include her views. Additionally, some of her ideas can still be found in modern nursing.

Nursing in turn-of-the-century America was not simply the field of caring, nor was its practice confined to the hospital ward. Nursing was a field committed to protecting the health of the entire nation as it faced an influx of immigrants. It was also the arena in which for the first time a woman, albeit mostly women from privileged families, could establish her own identity as a woman, a white women, as a nurse and as a citizen of the nation that was emerging as a world power. (Sugiyama 2006: 130).

The above quote highlights the importance of the nursing profession in relation to early feminism; women were allowed to work and earn their own money in this profession, while sticking to the naturally inherited womanly caretaking. Yet, nursing was also a means to Americanise the immi­grant population state Wald and Winslow (qtd. in Sugiyama 2006: 130), as it were mainly the poor (immigrants) that needed medical attendance, or as La Motte (2012: 185) put it: “sickness and po­verty go hand in hand” in civilian life. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century, hos­pitals in the Unites States were “no longer merely places for the sick poor to die: they were becom­ing temples of modern hygiene and efficiency”, argued Moser Jones (2015: 9).

“The concept of care in La Motte's writings defies the stereotype of the nurse as an ‘angel at the bedside', expressing her maternal instinct through careful nurturing of her patient's body and spi­rit” states Williams (2015: 65). Furthermore, La Motte criticised the constant supervision of the nur­ses which strangled women's independence from her point of view. She therefore sought autono­my for nurses and argued that this could only be obtained through public health nursing (Williams 2015: 61). There, however, the border between trained professional and domestic servant went blurry as most people were unaware of the nurse's capabilities (La Motte and Reverby qtd. in Wil­liams 2015: 61). Visiting Nurses had more freedom and independence as they were not under the constant supervision of a doctor. La Motte promoted this independence and strengthened the sup­port for a nurse who could “survey, inspect, supervise and decide” (Sugiyama 2006: 131). La Motte (2012: 186, see also Lewenson 2013: 28) explained the role of the nurse as the “go-between of the physician and the patient, [who] sees that the doctor's orders are carried out”, and “the only way the nurse could move beyond her role as the physicians handmaiden was through social training that prepared her for a broader scope of practice that that received in the hospital based nursing schools” (La Motte 2012: 185). She furthermore claims that we “ should have as much respect for [...] nursing training as we would have for the physician who had acquired his medical degree by mail”. Reverby (qtd. in Moser Jones 2015: 10) on the other hand argued that “trained nurses were gaining power within the hospital structure”. She continues that the private duty nurse had not been considered respectable due to her intimate exposure to male patients and in order to counter this stigma the nurses were so strictly supervised, which was then criticised by La Motte as men­tioned above (Reverby qtd. in Moser Jones 2015: 10). Even though La Motte, representing women working in nursing, did not have the same authority as middle class men, she had an authority due to her uniform. La Motte (qtd. in Williams 2015: 69) herself gave the following definition of authori­ty: “Authority is a term somewhat subtle in its definition — it means that hint of power, or suren­ess, of knowledge, which enables one to speak with a confidence which transmits itself to others, and compels them to accept one's point of view”. By giving this definition it also becomes evident that La Motte was aware of her own authority.

2.2 Nursing and Suffrage

Ellen Newbold La Motte was not only an “expert in the tuberculosis crusade[, but also] a strong advocate for women's suffrage”, states Williams (2015: 62). Born in 1873 in Louisville (Alumni Questionnaire by Ellen La Motte qtd. in Williams 2015: 58), she was privileged in the sense of being from a white middle-class family who was well connected. By 1910, La Motte was part of the Just Government League at Mayland (Williams 2015: 73), and the her surroundings, while working at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, were equally engaged. According to Williams (2015: 73) “Bal­timore had a vibrant activist community devoted to the suffrage cause, and John Hopkins women were an important part of it, lending their speaking and writing skills to raise awareness of the im­portance of recognizing women as political equals”. Williams (2015: 73) furthermore argued that women like La Motte used the skills they had acquired in becoming a nurse and in working as one to advocate the change in the political sphere by granting women the right to vote. Between 1910 and 1913 Ellen La Motte was an active speaker, organiser, and writer for the cause of suffrage (Wil­liams 2015: 73). In September 1913 Ellen La Motte published reports about “the tactics, meetings, and trials of militant suffragettes” (Williams 2015: 56) and also brought “awareness to gender affec­ted justice” (Williams 2015: 75). However, it is important to know that by ‘suffrage' La Motte did not only see a way to improve the public health system. Lewenson (qtd. in Wiliams 2015: 74, see also Lewenson 2013: 41) states that, “many of the efforts of middle-class White women in the suf­frage movement, understood suffrage as a way to empower women of their class and race to make changes in society”. Most of the engaging women were interested in having a say in things that concerned them, like domestic politics and health issues. Cott (qtd. in Williams 2015: 74) summari­ses the aims of these women as follows: “Embracing a nonthreatening role as defenders of the city's moral, social, and physical hygiene, the suffragists made no radical challenge to the way race and class affected women's lives, promoting instead their own middle-class reformist concerns and objectives for society.”


Excerpt out of 23 pages


American Nurses in the First World War. Exemplified by Female Literary Works
"The memoirs. The Forbidden Zone" by Mary Borden and "The Backwash of War" by Ellen La Motte
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
American Nurses, World War I, First World War, Feminism, Women, War Nurses, Memoir, Ellen La Motte, Mary Borden, The Backwash of War, The Forbidden Zone
Quote paper
Felicitas Deckert (Author), 2020, American Nurses in the First World War. Exemplified by Female Literary Works, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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