From satin to khaki: Women join the Military Preparedness Movement of 1916

By Katie Wu
Black and white photo of women in uniforms (pants, ties, hats, boots) lined up looking at a woman who appears to be in charge.

6:00 a.m. June 16, 1916. Nestled in the Ramapo Mountains of Passaic County, New Jersey, lay an orderly row of cream-colored tents. At the early cry of the first reveille, several dozen women rise from their canvas cots. They have 15 minutes to don their handsome uniform: a neatly-pressed shirt with a red tie, leather gaiters, and billowing khaki breeches. On this morning, the women—many of them daughters of New York City millionaires—trade satin and lace for military khaki. And in the name of military preparedness, the Emergency Services Corps is born.

Black and white photo of women in uniform in a line with trees in background

Why did so many women eagerly forgo the luxuries of modern life, choosing instead to don uniforms and train in military camps throughout the U.S., before the U.S. had even entered the war? In 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated, the ethnically divided "powder-keg" of Europe exploded into war. However, nearly 5,000 miles away, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would remain neutral.

When a German U-boat sank the British oceanliner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 123 Americans, a movement of military preparedness gained traction in the United States. Led by Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood, the Preparedness Movement mobilized citizens to prepare for war and stressed the importance of strengthening the country at home as battle raged in Europe. By 1916, with the passage of the National Defense Act, Wood spearheaded a movement to open military training camps for young men.

Color poster with text "Are you trained to defend your country? Plattsburg." Uniformed soldier with gun and camp tents.

The Military Training Camps Association (MTCA) formed a summer training camp in Plattsburg, New York. Many of the trainees were businessmen and college students—hence the nickname the Businessman's Camp or, less flatteringly, the Tired Businessman's Camp. Here, wealthy, educated men demonstrated, as stated in a 1918 Vanity Fair article, that "men of high standing in business, professional and social affairs are willing to make personal sacrifices for the country's good." Men who had never carried a gun were preparing for a time that might come when Americans would fight in Europe. While it would not be until April of 1917 that the U.S. would declare war on Germany, the rigorous propaganda effort wafted through the air, and soon women too began to be swept up in the military preparedness movement.

Black and white photo of four people sitting in front of canvas camp tents: three women, one man. They wear military-style uniforms and boots. All are wearing hats. One woman holds a trumpet/bugle.

Enter Candace Hewitt: daughter of wealthy Edward Hewitt, granddaughter of presidential candidate Peter Cooper, and graduate of Bryn Mawr College. Modeling a military training camp on Plattsburg, Hewitt organized the Emergency Services Corps advisory board in June 1916, consisting of retired officers, the ex-Secretary of War H. L. Stimson, and society women, such as Anne Morgan, who were eager to mobilize women for wartime service.

Black and white photo of two young women outdoors in uniforms and military-style hats. One uses signal flags, arms raised aloft, while the other takes notes, looking down at notepad.

Hewitt's 19,000-acre summer estate known as "Wewappo Farm" served as the site for this training camp, championing the importance of military preparedness for women. Under the guidance of "Captain Hewitt," the young campers abandoned the luxuries of upper-class city life, starting their days with a plain breakfast of scrambled eggs, marmalade toast, and coffee. Throughout the day they trained rigorously and attended lectures offered by prominent military officers.

They learned to shoot rifles, ride horses, practice flag signaling, hike for 30 miles at a time, and preform first aid procedures. Each recreation activity, lecture, and drill was executed with military precision and campers were disciplined for tardiness and lethargy. The day of marching, drilling, and instruction concluded with the return to a soldierly row of tents. At the end of the day, the women ate another simple meal of canned fruit and boiled potatoes. The next morning, the women of the Emergency Services Corps rose from their tents, ready to drill like soldiers all over again.

Photo of tan colored jacket with three buttons, navy colored arm bands, and a wheel-shaped insignia on left shoulder.

Just 300 miles south of Hewitt's camp, women in Chevy Chase, Maryland, trained with the same militaristic fervor: practicing calisthenics, drilling, marching, and learning to signal through heliography (using sunlight reflections on a mirror) and "wig-wagging" (using flags). They were members of the First National Service School.

The First National Service School was founded in early 1916 by Elizabeth Elcott Poe and Vylla Poe Wilson in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The camp opened in May 1916 to great fanfare; President Wilson and high-ranking officials in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army attended the opening ceremony. For the next three years, the First National Service School held four two- to three-week camps and trained uniformed women, offering classes including "national defense," "good citizenship," and "American history." By the spring of 1919, nearly 4,000 women representing 43 states had graduated from the First National Service School. The large-scale encampments were referred to as the "female Plattsburg" movement.

Black and white photo of woman in military attire next to a car. Camp tents in background. Dusty road.

While both camps focused on military preparedness training for women, life was somewhat different between the two camps. The Washington Post noted that Hewitt's camp cultivated "the sincerity, the practicality, the real spirit of self-sacrifice which seemed…conspicuously lacking" at the Chevy Chase camp. While Hewitt may have created a more severe environment at her training camp, perhaps the most conspicuous difference between the two camps was the uniform. While the vast majority of civilian and military uniforms for women at the time, including Army and Navy uniforms, consisted of ankle-length skirts, the motto at Hewitt's camp was "no skirts allowed." Hewitt's campers trained in military-style breeches while women at the Chevy Chase camp wore the standard, more socially-acceptable, long skirts.

Color photo of two small insignia: anchors with twisted rope

The women who joined the Emergency Services Corps and First National Service School carved out a place in the preparedness movement alongside the men at Plattsburg. Yet in joining the "female Plattsburg" movement, they were being tested. The urgency for these women to use their newly cultivated skills and prove that women were capable of this kind of work is perhaps best captured in a Washington Times article published on July 26, 1916: "The eyes of the entire country are upon them to see if they are going to put the training they received into practical use, and they must not fail, lest the work of the school will be unjustly criticized."

Five women in uniforms (with pants and aprons) stand at an outdoor table, washing dishes in a line.

Though Hewitt proclaimed that she felt women did not belong in the trenches, it was her hope that should the U.S. enter war, her campers would know how to better serve the war effort. And serve they did. Hewitt worked for the Ordnance Department in Washington, D.C., and in Anatolia with the Near East Relief in Turkey after the Armistice. Hewitt's younger sister, Lucy, worked overseas in France as a nurse with the American Committee for Devastated France. The campers, and hundreds of other American women, went on to serve at home and overseas, both as civilian volunteers and members of the military. They were nurses, motor drivers, telephone operators, reconstruction aides, office workers, farmers, and countless other jobs that supported the war effort and redefined women's place in society.

As Margaret Vining, Curator of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History, notes: "Of the many ways the Great War divided the past from the future, none was more significant than the reordered place of women in society." While camps like Hewit's Emergency Services Corps prepared women for life at war, they were perhaps ultimately preparing them for life in a new age.

Katie Wu is an undergraduate at Harvard University studying American History and Literature. She recommends learning more about women who served in uniform in World War I and the Hewitt Family's Ringwood Estate, now a museum in New Jersey.