Theta and World War I

Category: Heritage

Noraleen DuVall Young

Alpha Chi, Purdue

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I. The war years were a significant time of change for college women, offering opportunities not traditionally open to them. The war also provided motivation for U.S. and Canadian Thetas to work toward a common goal.

By April 1917, our Canadian sisters had been impacted by the war for several years. (There are several blog posts and articles about our Canadian chapters’ experiences.) Additionally, college chapters had already raised funds for Belgium war relief and to assist women and children caught up in the war.

But with the official entry of the U.S. into the war in April 1917, Americans everywhere had renewed interest in doing their part to help the war effort. Theta’s leaders initially thought to cancel the scheduled 1917 Grand Convention in Charlevoix, Michigan, in June, but they decided to have it and to focus on what the Fraternity could do to help. Convention attendees decided to present the Red Cross with “funds sufficient to outfit the nurses of one base hospital,” which was determined to be $3,800 ($47,300 in today’s dollars). College and alumnae chapters quickly donated the necessary funds. After outfitting the nurses’ unit, over $1,670 remained and funds continued to come in.

So Grand Council voted to use that money to pay all the expenses of a Theta Red Cross worker. Ruth Townley, Mu/Allegheny, wrote letters describing her experiences in France; many of these were printed in the Theta magazine. Ruth wrote, “The Red Cross took over the Casino and Follies for a matinee for convalescent soldiers … the boys were so cheerful, except one lad who cried all the time – nerve shock.” She later recounted that “It is enough to know we have helped the boys … already I have looked at hundreds of pictures of sweethearts, wives and babies and heard all about the homes back in the U.S. It is a wonderful experience.”

Beyond the national effort, members of local Theta chapters rolled bandages, knitted for soldiers, and made clothes for refugees. The Stanford Thetas raised funds for the Stanford Women’s Red Cross unit in France. Several Thetas, including Dr. Placida Gardner, Omicron/USC, served in the unit. More than 90 Thetas served overseas as Red Cross workers, nurses, physicians, and YWCA workers. Here in the states, as men left to fight, Thetas filled positions in business and government that previously had been closed to them because they were women.

Collegians not only helped with fundraising but also assisted with war relief efforts on their campuses. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Psi/Wisconsin, wrote of the war, “Its influence was seen in rushing this fall, not only in the Red Cross luncheons, war dinners, and the omnipresent knitting … we are looking forward to a busy season of larger service and deeper purpose.” Rawlings later won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Yearling.

The war left its impact on many Thetas. Many of those who served in government went on to have long careers in public service. Funds donated to Theta’s relief efforts remained after the war’s end, and Theta established at DePauw a book collection focused on women in the professions. It makes me proud to look at the contributions of these leading women.