To begin her state-wide work, Mrs. McKee set out to survey the work that was being done by women in the war in England and France. Mrs. McKee stated that the decision was made not to divert women to “men’s work” unless the war lasted from three to five years, despite what she called a “mania in the nation for registration.” She noted that it was difficult in some instances to convince women the woman’s work was important war work.16
Club women played important part in both the Washington and National Councils of Defense. Club women were well trained organizationally and could draw upon the existing clubs for woman-power. By July, 1918 the Washington Federation of Women’s Clubs had inaugurated a campaign to raise funds for the War Victory Commission of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Margaret McCready was the State Federation of Women’s Clubs President in Washington and served in both the Minute Women and Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense for the state. Federation clubwomen helped in food conservation and “Americanization” in Washington.17
Jennie Overton Ellis.
The Washington Woman’s Work Committee of the State Council was dubbed the “Minute Women.” Mrs. Jennie Overton Ellis said she and Mrs. McKee formulated the idea at her home in Olympia—“I do not recall which of us thought of the name “Minute Women” but both being descendants of Revolutionary Minute Men it was natural that we should think of it.”18
They recalled that the group was known as the Minute Women because “they, like the men of old, were to be ready at a minute’s notice to carry messages for the government.” They said “America’s business requireth haste.” Henry Suzzallo designed a special insignia pin for the women—it featured Washington’s Coat of Arms with “Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense,” with red, white and blue enameling.19
One of the controversial aspects of the Washington State Council of Defense was their role in suppressing the radical International Workers of the World union (IWW) and mediating lumber camp strikes. The State also organized a volunteer Intelligence Bureau “to concentrate on ferreting out slackers and seditious people."20 It is unknown to what extent the Minute Women aided in these efforts of the State Council. Another spy group with a similar name organized in Seattle as the “The Seattle Minute Men” during World War I and included some University of Washington professors.21 The Minute Women forcefully opposed radicalism and were integral to the “Americanization” efforts of the State Council.
Mrs. McKee set out to organize the state by appointing a councilor in each county who would become a member of the County Council, part of the organization of the men’s organization of the Council of Defense. There would also be a councilor in each “considerable” town. A representative was selected for every ward in a town and for each school district in the county. A Minute Woman captain was established for each ward. Further down the chain, the Ward Captain appointed a precinct Lieutenant who in turn appointed sufficient Minute Women to carry out house-to-house canvass of the precinct. The rural communities were organized on the basis of voting precinct or school district with a Minute Woman Captain appointing women for house-to-house canvass.
In fall and winter of 1917 and 1918 State Chairman McKee visited 26 of the 39 counties of the state, working with “patriotic” women to survey the work done there.22 The Minute Women organized their work around five areas:
- Gathering and dissemination of information that would lead to understanding and support of the war and counter-acting enemy propaganda.
- Aid to Red Cross by securing memberships and selling Red Cross seals for Anti-tuberculosis Association.
- Liberty Loan and War Savings.
- Food Administration.
- Training Camp activities - generally providing hospitality to soldiers.
Because of their organizational prowess, the group was often called upon for all sorts of work and had to limit local work to carry out work of the State Council of Defense. By end of 1917 work was organized in all but one county of Washington and included 5,000 women in the state.
Certificate naming Mrs. Harry Westfall as a charter member of the Minute Women.
Late in 1917, the members of Washington Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense tendered their resignations. The National Committee also asked Mrs. McKee to undertake re-organization of the state division. The Minute Women constituted the state-wide membership and the national group merged with the state body by January 1918, at the request of Mrs. McKee. This merger was not without controversy. Mrs. McKee told Suzzallo in a December, 1917 letter that she did not think Mrs. Smith wanted to resign her position with the State branch of the National Council.23
The National Committee had adopted a broader agenda than the State Minute Women - Americanization, Child Welfare, Educational Propaganda, Food Administration, Food Production, Foreign and Allied Relief, Heath and Recreation, Registration, Women in Industry, and Maintenance of Existing Social Agencies. Mrs. McKee and the Minute Women deemed that this agenda seemed “more comprehensive than conditions demanded or warranted in this state.”24
The Minute Women directors excluded the work of Registration and rejected Maintenance of Existing Social agencies as not being part of their program. They detailed Foreign and Allied Relief to the Red Cross and Women in Industry to the Federal Employment Service. After the merger of the two groups these efforts were eliminated from the purview of the Minute Women. Mrs. McKee organized working committees around the remaining subjects. The Minute Women also had a Central Committee which met with all state women’s organizations - lodges, churches, as well as unorganized women monthly to coordinate war work.25
Americanization work was done with the general State Council’s Educational Propaganda Department. The women distributed, for instance, an outline study of the war prepared by Committee on Public Information of the state body.
The Minute Women organized classes and institutes — including conferences at Rolling Bay and the University of Washington in Seattle and also at Yakima at State Fair.
Their work in child welfare was performed under the direction of Children’s Bureau at Washington, D. C. Some of their work was to implement the Federal Child Labor Law which went into effect on September 1, 1917 and to work with schools to help with keeping children under 14 in school and healthy. This was part of the National Committee directive.
In 1918, the Minute Women registered children below school age and recorded their weights and heights. There was also a back-to-school drive in 1918 to get children back to school after harvest.
For descriptions of committee work, read:
Food Administration Committee
Committee on Health and Recreation
Committee on Women In Industry
Liberty and Victory Loan Activities
By late 1918, the men’s and women’s committees of the Council of Defense in Washington and nationally were joined into a Field Division of both sexes but the impact of that re-organization was negated by the end of the war.
The final assigned task to the Minute Women was during Christmas 1918 “of helping Red Cross place on its Christmas Roll the name of every loyal American.”
Individual counties conducted various activities aside from the prescribed state roles of the Minute Women. In Pacific county, the women collected sphagnum moss for bandage dressings from Raymond, South Center, Tokeland and then transported it to South Bend to be dried and baled.36
In Thurston County the women were headed by the formidable Ada Sprague Mowell. A former teacher and prominent clubwoman, Mrs. Mowell headed an organization of 140 women. Despite their worthy work, they met with some opposition as the March 18, 1918, Olympia Morning Recorder newspaper reported on page 1:
There is a mistaken idea in some districts about the Minute Women. The women are thoroughly loyal and the work they are doing for the government is of exceptional value. They are not secret service operatives. They are not engaged in any campaign to run down slackers or to get information as to the loyalty of Thurston county citizens. They are taking it for granted that everybody is loyal and true. They work on that principle. Of course sometimes they find outright disloyalty and they report such cases directly. But these cases are few. I believe that if everybody understood the work of the Minute Women the workers would have not difficulty.
The pledge card drive in Thurston County required all residents over the age of 15 contribute 10 cents or more per month (towards war bonds). The women handed out information about the pledge drive and then followed up on the collections. Evidently, this was quite onerous task—“The collection of these subscriptions meant continual work. Every month the rounds were made of practically every house in the county and too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the rank and file for the faithful performance of this disagreeable duty, for insult was often the portion given.”37
Although the weighing and measuring of children was touted in the official reports, in Thurston County’s summary, Mrs. Mowell descried it as “An instance of wasted effort, for many [reports] never were filed in Washington [D. C.]”
Mrs. Mowell summarized her work in Thurston County — “About 300 letters are on file all of which were answered and many more written. Over nine hundred personal calls were made by the County Councilor in forty districts—several times to many districts. She spoke at 26 gatherings as well as to many small groups. She spoke for the Liberty Loan, and other campaigns." Multiply this work by the 39 counties in Washington and it was indeed an enormous undertaking.38
It appears that the Minute Women had really only just gained significant momentum when the war ended in November, 1918.
Whether because they had the vote since 1910 or because of their organization incorporated already-existing women’s clubs, Washington women were more collaborative and achieved more cooperation from the state Council of Defense than in other states. Although, there were two state organizations affiliated with the State Council of Defense program in early 1917, by the end of the year, the Minute Women had taken over both state and national roles.
Women in Washington, like in other parts of the country, were anxious to contribute to the war effort and were equally anxious to receive recognition for their work. Unlike other states where women did not vote and nationally, Washington women had already achieved that status which may have influenced how the state was organized and its success. Additionally, the federal work and the war bond sales were consolidated under the auspices of the Minute Women which made the work is Washington less fragmented. Many of the same women were involved in the NLWS and the Minute Women, obviating the competition in some other states.39