A History of Maine Women and War

A History of Maine Women and War

This article is reprinted with much appreciation to the Maine Historical Society. The segment originally appeared as part of a larger article, Mainers Go to War, on the Maine Historical Society’s website, www.mainememory.net 

Because the military did not accept women until World War I, and then on a very limited basis, Maine women had other roles during wartime. 

Maine soldiers and their officers were the farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, and civic leaders of their communities, ordinary folks whose sisters, wives, and mothers knit stockings, rolled bandages, and raised money for the war effort and support services for soldiers. 

They gathered food and clothing for soldiers. They kept farms and homesteads operating while soldiers were gone. By the 20th century, they worked in war industries, taking the place of absent men. They wound bandages, wrote letters, raised children, and operated businesses. 

The Machias chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution calls itself the Hannah Weston Chapter in honor of the young wife, then a pregnant 17-year-old, who struggled, along with her sister-in-law, Rebecca, 16 miles through the woods to take much needed lead and powder to the fledgling local militia in Machias. The town was being threatened with attack from the English Captain Moore and his ship, the Margaretta. 

Women throughout the area had spent hours melting lead and casting musket balls while their men harassed the British. Hannah Weston’s resourcefulness, in tandem with Machias’ belligerence, indicates in microcosm just how enmeshed were civilian and military affairs, and men’s and women’s contributions, within the colonial resistance of the period. 

In the Civil War, Dorothea Dix, a native of Hampden who grew up largely in Vermont and Massachusetts, was perhaps the most famous of a well-organized brigade of women who contributed needed supplies, and nursed the Union’s wounded soldiers. Most distressing for these women, the men they tended were more likely to die from infection and disease than from their wounds. 

On April 10, 1863, the exact midpoint of the war, four Mainers from four different units died in Union hospitals. Each succumbed to a different illness: small pox, diphtheria, typhoid, and diarrhea. 

Some women’s actions took a different form. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly in 1852 while living in Brunswick. Her husband, Calvin, taught at Bowdoin College and the couple only spent a few years in Maine. The book is the most famous abolitionist book of its day and has left a legacy of archetypes – Uncle Tom, Little Eva, Simon Legree – that demonized southern slaveholders and humanized the millions of people held captive by the nation’s most egregious institution. 

After the Civil War, Sara Sampson, a returned nurse, responded to the needs of the many orphans and began the Bath Military and Naval Orphan Asylum in 1864. In 1866, the facility was incorporated and became a state institution to serve orphans and “half orphans.” 

In World War II, the direct involvement of women increased. For instance, Martha Phillips of Southwest Harbor ferried bombers, freeing male pilots for combat. Ruth and Virginia Morin of East Millinocket joined SPARS, the special Coast Guard reserves unit for women that the U.S. Congress created in 1942. Their stories, like dozens of others, are archived in the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine. 

Many women served in the Women’s Army Corps, which had a presence at Dow Field in Bangor and at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. In addition, WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services), a branch of the Naval Reserves, were stationed at Brunswick Naval Air Station. 

Edna Dickey worked as a “farmerette” with the Women’s Land Army, a federally sponsored civilian organization that recruited American women for agricultural labor beginning in 1943. Similar organizations had been used in Britain in World War I and were quickly mobilized throughout Allied nations for the Second World War. 

Ethel Linscott and Jackie McCarthy worked in war industries at the Saco-Lowell Foundry and South Portland Shipyard respectively. Nearly everyone donated dimes, dollars, and time to the myriad civilian activities of war. 

Women’s direct involvement in the military has increased since World War II and, with the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many women are on the front lines. 

Reprinted from Maine Memory Network’s Maine History Online www.mainememory.net/mho. To read Mainers Go to War in its entirety, visit https://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/887/page/1298/display?page=6.  

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