The caption for this photo, provided by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command (, quotes an unidentified Yeomanette saying, “There's one thing certain, and that's the spirit of the American women if you men can't lick the Kaiser, we women will.”

Yeomanettes — women go to war

When women invaded the manly ranks of the bell-bottomed Navy, there was more to endure than cynical catcalls.

In 1917, it was considered improper, if not scandalous, for women to wear pants, and the U.S. Navy had no provision for skirts or dresses in its uniform regulations.

With the United States about to enter World War I, President Wilson directed the enlisted strength of the Navy be increased to 87,000.

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels noted that because the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 only required inductees to be "persons who may be capable of performing useful service for coastal defense," women could legally be enlisted as yeomen, a Navy term applied to sailors doing almost anything clerical.

Women were given a special designation: Yeoman (F) — the "F" for female. When said aloud, the designation sounded enough like "Yeomanette" to inspire the nickname that stuck.

Until Navy brass could work out a dress code, the Yeomanettes' uniforms were multicolored variations of either homemade or locally purchased items.

That's not to say that every Yeomanette was happy when official uniforms finally arrived.

"The skirts were straight, tight and of the most awkward length possible," remembered one Yeomanette. "The jackets were shapeless affairs. They were about as flattering to the female form as our father's business suits would have been."

But patriotism trumped all, and even before Congress officially declared war on April 6, 1917, 600 women already had joined nationwide.

In Jackson County, Bernice Cameron, Evelyn Taylor and Ruby Burke were the first three women to receive orders. They would follow 25 male recruits to Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash.

Cameron had been manager of the local telegraph office for nearly 10 years and, when the war was over, she would retire with 32 years in the same position.

Taylor was the only night long-distance operator at the telephone company, and Burke was the chief operator during the day. Within a week, half of the local company's operators were on their way to war. Company officials pleaded with customers to remain patient and keep their tempers in check while replacement operators were trained.

On April 15, 16 women, including Oregon's first woman state legislator, Marian Towne, left Medford on Southern Pacific Train 16. Within a few weeks, two more ladies joined them.

While male recruits wrote home complaining about mopping floors, shining guns and living in "a nice little private hell," the women were more cheerful.

"Why, I wouldn't leave this work for anything in the world," said Jacksonville's Pauline Greaves, although she did admit she'd like to turn her typewriter in for a chance at overseas duty.

"We are doing everything we can here at home, but we want to get closer to where they are fighting," she said.

Patriotic as they were, most Yeomanettes stayed on the homefront.

They had agreed to serve four years or for the duration of the war, and though they could have transferred to civil service jobs, most returned to civilian life.

"It's a fine life," Greaves said of the Navy, "and it's wonderful to know that you are serving your country."

You may recall our story (Oct. 11, 2009) of the Union soldier named Peter Knapp, whose bullet was lodged in a Confederate soldier's throat for 58 years.

Alice Knapp, a distant relative, discovered that Peter's ashes have been sitting on a shelf in a Portland crematorium since he died in 1924.

After nearly a year's worth of effort, Alice Knapp has arranged for Peter's remains to be interred with honors and a memorial service at the Willamette National Cemetery near Portland on April 13, 2012.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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