IF A MAN was disabled or suffering from a chronic physical condition, he was exempt from military service. There was no shame in such an exemption and many of these men served honorably in the Home Guard, Liberty League or Red Cross instead of the military.
For healthy men who just didn’t want to serve, however, life quickly got complicated. Because all men had to register for the service, there was a public list of who was eligible and who was not. If an eligible man didn’t show up when his number was called, the newspapers printed his name under the heading of “Slacker.” If he didn’t have a good excuse for not serving, he faced not only public humiliation but fines and jail time as well.
WORK OR FIGHT
In May 1918, the government enacted a rule called Work or Fight in which two classifications of employment were identified: essential and non-essential. Either a man worked in an essential job – food production, mining, transportation or industrial construction, for example – or he had to join the army.
The most essential jobs during the war were in transportation, construction and mining. If a man got a job in one of these fields, he would be exempt from the draft. In Sheridan County, thousands of coal miners and railroaders did not serve in the military because their work was too important to abandon.
Non-essential positions – office clerks, food service providers, ushers and the like – were ordered to be filled by women. If a man stayed in such a job, he could be arrested. As the head of the Sheridan labor board said in July 1918, “No man shall occupy a position which a woman can fill.”
This was an astonishing declaration for the time!
WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE
BEFORE THE WAR, most women did not work outside the home; cooking, cleaning and childrearing filled their days instead. Those who did work were generally limited to low-paying jobs as maids, cooks, seamstresses, teachers or factory workers.
The war changed all that. With all able-bodied men leaving civilian life to enter the service, thousands of jobs were suddenly available. In larger cities, women went to work in munitions and arms factories. In Sheridan, women got work as store clerks and stenographers; even positions in sugar beet processing at the Sheridan Sugar Company were opened to women.
Many people were shocked. It had long been thought that a “woman’s place is in the home.” The pressure of war, however, soon made outside work a necessary and acceptable patriotic duty, one fully sanctioned by the government.
Working class women weren’t the only ones taking these jobs. Unmarried daughters, traditionally expected to live at home and care for their aging parents, were attracted to the chance to get out and see the world. In addition, early feminists saw such work as a way to prove that women were equal to men and should therefore be allowed to vote. No matter the motivation, many women enjoyed the independence which came with their paycheck – an independence that would not be forgotten once the war was over.
Women could join the military and serve stateside as clerks or stenographers. They could join the Red Cross or Salvation Army and go overseas to serve in hospitals and aid stations. But one thing women couldn’t do was put on a uniform and fight. That was left up to the men.
State Historic Site
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 2017 through December 2018
Detail from Poster, "Wake Up America," 1917 (LOC)
Poster, United States Fuel Administration (LOC)