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Women's Lifestyle Magazine

Her Legacy: Women, WWI and the Red Cross

Jun 30, 2020 09:48AM ● By by Katlyn Bosch VerMerris for the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council | Illustration by VanderPloeg

“The Red Cross is the heart of America, a heart full of devotion and love and sacrifice” -- Grand Rapids Herald, 1918. Famed nurse Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881, in time to offer disaster relief after the Michigan Thumb Fire in September. But upon U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, the American branch focused its efforts away from domestic relief and onto overseas civilian aid. 

The work of the Red Cross extended from training nurses to coordinating knitting campaigns. While its national leadership was largely male, the business of its local auxiliaries was almost universally conducted by women. In Grand Rapids and across the nation, women truly kept the light of life burning during and after the war. 

The Grand Rapids Red Cross headquarters were in the Klingman Building on Ionia. It was open daily for drop-in war work rolling bandages or wrapping Christmas packages, but the city’s numerous auxiliaries had their own workrooms and leaders. Often neighborhoods had auxiliaries; but institutions like the Grand Rapids Herald also sponsored workrooms, and Herpolsheimer’s department store had workers on every floor of its building. 


Long-time clubwoman Etta Van Norman ran the Herald auxiliary. She had the advantage of a built-in work force, and the newspaper’s famous Santa Claus Girls “proved as efficient in rolling and folding bandages . . . as they were filling bags of cheer for children.” The Herald’s pages promoted Red Cross efforts and reported on working conditions and results. Its own workroom offered new, blue “daylight” bulbs for evening work; and, during March 1918 alone, over 1700 volunteers and store clerks at Herpolsheimer’s created 22,355 wound dressings.

Mass participation in this war effort brought together elite philanthropists, middle-class clubwomen, and factory workers who could all aid the Red Cross while still caring for their families. Children could be engaged in a prominent Junior Red Cross program, which featured its own auxiliaries and projects knitting together yarn scraps, collecting rubber, etc; and the Red Cross provided training classes for women, including first aid, home nursing, surgical dressings, and even dancing--skills that women could continue to develop after the war. 

Some Red Cross efforts overlapped with those sponsored by the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. In fact, the latter’s massive registration campaign in Kent County, collecting nearly 23,000 surveys of women’s skills, interests, and time, was undertaken partially to connect volunteers to the Red Cross for best placement. Herald auxiliary leader Etta Van Norman also promoted the CND registration campaign. 

During the course of the war, over one third of the U.S. population worked for the Red Cross and raised money to address humanitarian needs. But not everyone was enamored. When Grand Rapids attempted to raise $500,000 for overseas relief, 75 local manufacturers pledged $6 per employee; but $3 was to come out of employee paychecks. One man refused to attend a Red Cross meeting saying, “To hell with the Red Cross!” He was fired from Luce Furniture factory.

Finally, the mobilization of American women during WWI demonstrated their collective power and left them with new experience to carry into the future.