Arkansas Women: The Great War and World War II

Maxine Powell of Hope, Arkansas, photographed in New York City. Powell was the first WAC assigned to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s NATO Paris Headquarters.

Observing Memorial Day not only honors the sacrifices of our fallen heroes but also pays tribute to the often-overlooked contributions of women during wartime, whose resilience and dedication during times of conflict have been essential. This is evidenced in the contributions of women during World War I and World War II in Arkansas.

Women have served in support roles, ensured stability in their communities, and been central to the success of war conservation and rationing programs. Throughout World War I and World War II, Arkansas’s women honed these skills and contributed more to the workforce than they ever had before. They leveraged their existing organizing structures to address complex issues brought on by wartime and used their success in these arenas and the workforce to lobby for equity.

World War I

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the government faced challenges supplying four million troops abroad; women’s organizations that were part of the Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs played a crucial role. To coordinate efforts, the National Council of Defense was established in 1914 and expanded with state-level councils after the United States joined the war. In Arkansas, the Council of Defense formed, and the Woman’s Committee was created.

Poster, National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company, Inc., ca. 1918, Samuel P. and Kate Dowdle Davis Family papers (BC.MSS.06.31).

To diversify their work, the Woman’s Committee focused on registering women across the state for service activities, coordinating food production and conservation alongside local Home Demonstration Clubs, overseeing industrial conditions involving women and children in the workforce, and maintaining existing social agencies as outlined in their 1918 report on their work.

During their first year, the Woman’s Committee launched a food conservation effort for World War I. Their goal was 250,000 signed pledges, promotion of wheatless meals, meat conservation, and sugar reduction. Despite challenges, 55,000 cards, including one from First Lady Edith Wilson, were received by October. The Cooperative Extension Service aided with food preservation, and Black women agents, like Mary Lee McCrary Ray, established canneries, addressing nutrition in rural communities. Racial disparities persisted, however, in salaries and recognition.

View of nurses club during recreation hour, base hospital, Camp Pike, ca. 1918, Camp Pike and Camp Robinson collection (BC.MSS.97.04).

The urgent demand for trained nurses during World War I highlighted the nursing profession’s struggle for recognition. In the nineteenth century, hospital work lacked regulation and formal training. Arkansas took a significant step in 1913 with the Nurse Practice Act, establishing a nursing board and registration process. However, the shortage of trained nurses during the war spurred the establishment of military training centers like Camp Pike in North Little Rock. The camp, financed by public donations, played a vital role in treating servicemen and combating the Flu Epidemic of 1918. Despite challenges, the camp contributed to wartime healthcare and physical therapy advancements.

While the war was ongoing, Arkansas women actively advanced voting rights. The Arkansas Federation of Women’s Clubs had lobbied for reforms, and suffrage gained momentum with the Political Equality League (PEL) in 1911. The PEL expanded statewide, and despite national suffrage efforts, Arkansas women focused on state and primary elections. The Riggs primary suffrage bill granted women the right to vote in Arkansas primaries in 1917. In 1918, a state constitution, incorporating women’s suffrage, faced low voter turnout and defeat. However, in 1919, Arkansas swiftly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment after its national passage. Arkansas women’s impactful contributions continued post-war, setting the stage for broader societal changes in World War II.

World War II

Workers at conveyer built for M50 bomb production line, Pine Bluff Arsenal, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, World War II photograph collection (BC.PHO.3.E).

During World War II, Arkansas underwent profound social and economic shifts, transforming from the Arkansas of 1941 to a vastly different state by 1945. The war brought industrialization, urbanization, and migration, altering the landscape. Women faced worries of sending family members to war and coped with homefront changes, including widespread rationing. To supplement rations, Victory Gardens proliferated, symbolizing patriotic duty. Despite low per capita income, Arkansans ranked twelfth in war bond contributions nationally. Women, compelled to preserve food and contribute to the war effort, knitted for the American Red Cross. Black women, facing unique challenges, organized community support and demonstrations for improved home sanitation.

Arkansas women displayed remarkable contributions in both charitable work and workforce reintegration. Over 350,000 joined military and civilian roles, transforming the state’s economic landscape. Six ordnance plants brought industrialization, employing women, including Black workers, breaking into previously closed jobs, including one ordnance plant in Maumelle. Women’s integral role in war efforts extended overseas as nurses or in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Despite initial resistance, WACs played vital roles in non-combat duties.

Arkansas women’s experiences during World War I and World War II prevented them from stepping easily back into their prewar lives. As a result of the headway made by women’s clubs, suffrage activists, and those in the labor force permanently changed gender roles in American society and laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement.

By Danielle Afsordeh, community outreach archivist at the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies/Roberts Library

Header image: World War II Arkansas Ordnance Plant workers in Jacksonville (Pulaski County); circa 1943.

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