La Mirada Bob’s voluminous archives contained many memories, lots of Inexplicable Stuff, and some surprises for his daughters as we sorted through it all. One of these was the military veteran headstone order for my grandmother, based on her honorable service as a Yeoman 3rd Class in the United States Navy reserve during World War I. Really? Well, the evidence was plain. (These are selected excerpts from the form. If I showed you the part with my grandmother’s birthdate, her spirit would return with a vengeance. We wouldn’t want that.)
You had to know my paternal grandmother to appreciate my surprise. She was a Southern Belle for heaven’s sake. Oh, not FFV or anything like that, but still . . . not a woman to rock the boat, let alone serve on one.
I had never heard this part of her story-and I am the person who listened to all the family stories no matter how often they were trotted out for the express purpose of boring the children. I didn’t even know that women served in the Navy during World War I. More information was required. I did some research. It turns out that Grandma was one of 30 women from Georgia who enlisted in the Navy Reserve, and one of thousands overall.
The first really large-scale employment of women as Naval personnel took place to meet the severe clerical shortages of the World War I era. The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 had conspicuously omitted mention of gender as a condition for service, leading to formal permission to begin enlisting women in mid-March 1917, shortly before the United States entered the “Great War”. Nearly six hundred Yeomen (Female) were on duty by the end of April 1917, a number that had grown to over eleven thousand in December 1918, shortly after the Armistice.
The Yeomen (F), or “Yeomanettes” as they were popularly known, primarily served in secretarial and clerical positions, though some were translators, draftsmen, fingerprint experts, ship camouflage designers and recruiting agents. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
All of this leads me to question not so much what I thought I knew about my grandmother, but what I thought I knew about the times she lived in. Everything turns out to be more complicated than I thought it was.
You expect the past to stand still to be examined, like a butterfly on a pin. You expect that if you look at it carefully enough, you will know it, but no. It flies about the room like an irritated robin, settling here and there, fighting with its own image in the window, morphing into something else entirely – a bluejay maybe, or a barred owl . . . or even a yeomanette.
Note: If you have a grandmother, or great-grandmother, who served in the Navy Reserve during World War I, you might like to read The Story of the Female Yeomen of the First World War, Prologue Magazine (Fall, 2006, Vol 38, No 3) posted on the National Archives site.