Since Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, women have played an important role in advancing the organization’s programs and services. Below is a look at three Red Cross programs fulfilled by women.
THE GRAY LADIES The Red Cross Hospital and Recreation Corps, whose members were affectionately known as “the gray ladies,” began in 1918 at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. There, female volunteers provided recreational services to patients, most of whom were war veterans. During World War I, the service quickly spread beyond Walter Reed to both military and civilian hospitals throughout the United States.
The women wore gray dresses and veils as uniforms and the soldiers affectionately called them "the gray ladies." The name stuck although the service did not become officially known as the Gray Lady Service until after World War II.
The "Gray Ladies" for many years provided services of a non-medical nature to sick, injured, and disabled patients, including thousands of wounded American servicemen. During World War I, World War II and the Korean War, the gray ladies wrote letters and read to wounded soldiers, helped them get involved in crafts and other activities and did much to ease the loneliness and boredom of long hospital stays. They also provided hospitality services in Red Cross blood centers and helped care for disaster victims.
Nationwide, during World War II, the service reached its peak with almost 50,000 women serving as Gray Ladies in military and other hospitals across the U.S. The Gray Ladies continued to maintain a distinctive presence in American hospitals until the late 1960s when the different volunteer branches of the Red Cross were discontinued in favor of a unified concept of the Red Cross volunteer. The Gray Lady Service, as such, disappeared, and volunteers who performed its traditional functions were simply called members of the Red Cross Volunteer Services.
AMERICAN RED CROSS MOTOR CORPS The motor service was established in February 1918 to transport the sick and wounded from troop trains to local hospitals, deliver supplies to and from warehouses and take canteen workers or nurses to their posts. By the end of WWI, women of the motor corps had driven more than 35,000 miles. The motor service operated in 300 cities, with 12,000 volunteer drivers on call.
The motor corps continued to be an active and vital service of the American Red Cross during World War II. Members of the Honolulu chapter motor corps immediately responded following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They evacuated some 3,000 civilians, mainly women and children, from the bombed-out areas. In spite of the blackout, they continued this dangerous task until 3:00 am, when the last families in need of lodging had been taken to designated evacuation centers.
Enrollment in the Red Cross motor corps required extensive training, members were expected to supply their own cars and gasoline and had to remain on call. Drivers transported Red Cross personnel and supplies, provided messenger and delivery service, took hospital patients on outings, and helped out in the functioning of blood donor centers.
Motor corps volunteers also provided driving for the armed forces in military cars, and sometimes served as an auxiliary to Army and Navy transportation. During World War II, 45,000 women enrolled in the motor corps. The motor corps volunteers were a group of dedicated and passionate women who managed to drive more than 8,000,000 miles from 1946-1947.
AMERICAN RED CROSS CANTEEN SERVICE During World War I, transportation difficulties and congestion at important railroad junctions often made it impossible for soldiers to receive adequate meals prior to boarding and disembarking. The United States government requested the American Red Cross provide refreshments at railroad junctions, both at home and abroad, for the military on troop trains. As a result, the canteen service was founded and grew quickly. By the end of 1917, there were 85 canteen depots, 15 station restaurants and 430 smaller canteens.
The American Red Cross Canteen Service also served allied soldiers from France, Italy, and Great Britain. In France, American Red Cross canteens were serving meals every month to nearly a million men in transit or on leave in Paris.
By the end of the war, the Red Cross was operating 700 fixed canteens. Refreshments were served to nearly 40 million members of the armed forces. The canteen service distributed 1.5 million gallons of coffee, 15 million sandwiches, and 11 million cookies, doughnuts and pies. This work was accomplished due to the sheer number of women — some 55,000 — who volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I.
During the twenty months ending February 28, 1919, more than 587,000 men who were ill or injured were given medical aid that enabled them to proceed on their journey, while 9,700 men who were too ill to travel were transferred to hospitals
In the same period, refreshments were served 40,000,000 times. In other words, each of the US soldiers, sailors and marines was served with free refreshments by the Red Cross canteen workers on an average of eight times.
This is story is part of a special historical series marking the 140th anniversary of the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org/RedCross140 to learn more.