Closer Readings Commentary

Women in War

Women have made valuable contributions during wartime, both in the civilian and military realm. No matter what the role—military personnel, pilots, nurses, journalists, or factory workers—women’s experience of war remains an important and sometimes overlooked aspect of U.S. history. EDSITEment invites students and teachers to examine “American Women in Wartime” with the following resources.

The American Revolution

I have acted many roles in my life … —Elizabeth Murray, April 1775

Elizabeth Murray was at once both an ordinary and an extraordinary individual caught up in the Revolution. Torn by conflicting loyalties, she came to understand political and personal dangers of war only too well. Her varied experiences and adventures are documented within this NEH funded resource site for early American history, which features a host of K–12 teaching resources including a timeline, and primary sources from the 18th century.

Another resource allows students to virtually enter into the experience of the American Revolution. NEH-funded Mission US: For Crown or Colony? is an educational game in which students walk in the shoes of Nat Wheeler, a printer’s apprentice in 1770s Boston, encounters both Patriots and Loyalists. Rising tensions culminate in the Boston Massacre, where players must choose where their loyalties lie. Female characters include Martha Edes, a Daughter of Liberty, Constance Lillie, the niece of a Loyalist, and Phillis Wheatley, a purchased West African slave, now a servant and writer of poetry.

The War of 1812

And now, dear sister, I must leave this house or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. —Dolley Madison, August 1814

NEH-funded War of 1812, a PBS documentary film website, includes resources to use in the classroom along with the personal journals of some of the participants in the War of 1812. In addition to a number of accounts from young soldiers, there are links to several from women. The writings of these women reflect how the war was a test of their fortitude and resourcefulness and is a window into a struggle that took place two centuries ago. The most notable contribution is Mrs. Josiah (Lydia) B. Bacon’s graphic description of the assault on Fort Detroit, which is featured in the documentary. First lady Dolley Madison’s letter to her sister forms the basis for her well-known account of the burning of Washington and is couched in a lesson posing the question: What Would You Save?

Speaking of Dolley Madison, NEH has a funded a film available online through EDSITEment-reviewed American Experience, which brings her extraordinary story to life. The companion website includes teacher resources with lessons such as “Were there Two Wars of Independence?” where students will learn about this first lady who lived through the wars that established the United States, who made friends with the first 12 Presidents, and who witnessed America’s evolution from a struggling young republic to the first modern democracy in the world. 

— Back to Top —

The American Civil War

I know what liberty is because I know what slavery was. —Elizabeth Keckley

Women’s Lives Before The Civil War gives students insight into what lifelike for American women in the first half of the 19th-century and an understanding of the influence women had in shaping the attitudes towards slaves and their suffrage.

Literature of the Civil War offers resources on Emily Dickinson’s experience of the war as an “oblique place” along with the experiences of other women of that era. Civil War in Literature, part of the EDSITEment-reviewed Documenting the American South, links to two personal diaries of Southern women who survived the war: Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut’s A Diary from Dixie and Sarah Morgan Dawson’s A Confederate Girl's Diary.

The experience of “Love and Hate during Wartime” is conveyed through a new digital archive devoted to life in the Ozarks during the Civil War, where the formalities of correspondence were all-important. The letters in this collection, written mainly by women, are full of accounts of passing troops commandeering food and shelter, alternating with local gossip and heartfelt wishes that none should taste “the bitter cup of separation of Husbands and Brothers.”

From the NEH-funded Crafting Freedom website comes the story of Elizabeth Keckly. Follow Elizabeth’s remarkable life journey from Virginia slave, to expert seamstress who purchased her freedom, to friend and confidante of none other than first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

In the second Mission US: Flight to Freedom, students assume the role of Lucy, a 14-year-old slave in Kentucky during the antebellum era. In navigating a daring escape, students travel to Ohio, where they discover that life in the “free” North is dangerous and difficult. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act brings disaster. Students are faced with the question: Will Lucy ever truly be free?


— Back to Top —

World War I

He is dead that was alive.
How shall friendship understand?
Lavish heart and tireless hand
Bidden not to give or strive,
Eager brain and questing eye
Like a broken lens laid by…

— Edith Wharton, November 1918

A number of women writers covered World War I in both fiction and nonfiction accounts. Point students to the EDSITEment-reviewed website, the First World War, for background on women at the front and women on the home front. Women and World War I catalogs women’s unique experiences during this war, including feminist/non-feminist perspectives and women’s service in the workforce as temporary men! Learn how women contributing to the war effort had a “genuinely liberating experience" that made them not only feel useful as citizens, but also gave them a taste of the freedom and the wages only enjoyed by men up till that time.

In Edith Wharton: War Correspondent students investigate the evolution of a woman journalist succeeding in a traditionally “classic male endeavor” as they read chapters of her book Fighting France, From Dunkerque to Belfort. Edith Wharton's observations rendered as wartime poetry in Poetry of the Great War brings students greater insights of the wartime exploits that she observed firsthand.

History Matters provides two firsthand accounts of war from a service woman’s perspective. “This Is How It Was”: An American Nurse in France during World War I” is Ellen La Motte’s reflection, which appeared in a series of vignettes later published as The Backwash of War. “Hot Chocolate: A World War I ‘Canteen Girl’ Writes Home” is Kathleen Morse’s description of how she boosted soldiers’ morale by providing them with the comforts of home and by representing the sweethearts, sisters, and mothers they left behind.

World War II

First of all, I took the test and I had a very high mechanical ability which I’ve always loved. Tinkering, tinkering with mechanics. So they put me in a school to learn airplane accessories—that was starters, generators, alternators and some other things. —Emma Belle Petcher

In World War II, women’s careers and mobility both as journalists and aviators literally “took off.” Fly Girls: Women Aviators in World War II explores the contributions that the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) made during the war and how the WASP program enhanced careers for women in aviation.

American female reporters had to fight and win access to cover the war, but even then they were largely banned from the frontlines and assigned “woman’s angle” stories. The NEH-funded film No Job for a Woman”: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII tells how these journalists spun their second class assignment into a new kind of war story—one that was more intimate yet more revealing.

The NEH-funded PBS documentary by Ken Burns, The War, includes resources for educators that bring World War II into your classroom. It also relates the effects of this war on women at home and on the family.

The Cold War and War in the 21st century 

Mine was a lowly job. I held the lofty title of Assistant Director for the American Friends Service Committee's Viet Nam program, but in truth, I was merely a glorified errand-runner…I saw crucial details that American military leaders, G.I.s, and journalists failed to grasp. I became aware of hidden roles Vietnamese women played in the war…Strange to say, as a woman and a foreigner, I never felt afraid in a land at war. Unarmed, I knew I posed no threat. But I also knew to be watchful.—Lady Borton

The Library of Congress’s Veterans’ History Project identifies two pairs of major wars in which American women served after World War II:

  • Korea and Vietnam—Asian countries divided by the politics of the Cold War
  • Persian Gulf Afghanistan/Iraq—Middle Eastern conflicts which grew out of tensions over aggression and the 9/11 attacks

Rich in detail, photographs, and historic reference, the Women of Four Wars website covers nearly 60 years and documents the changing role of American women in wartime service.  


Police Action: The Korean War, 1950–1953 introduces students to the conflict by having them read important administration documents related to it. Currently in production, NEH-funded Geographies of Kinship (scheduled release: May 2016) is a film that follows individual Korean adoptees who are each on a unique journey related to their adoptions.


Vietnam Online is the companion website of the award-winning NEH-funded documentary Vietnam: A Television History, which contains reflections on war by two female aid workers: American writer and charity activist Lady Borton and Red-Cross worker Terry Farish.

The Vietnam Veterans War Memorial from NEH-funded American Icons: a radio series from Studio 360 considers the difficulty architect Maya Lin faced designing a monument to a war that was more tragic than triumphant, and how her singular work of architecture has influenced our nation.

Afghanistan and Iraq

Director Julie Hera DeStefano’s film, Journey to Normalexplores the world of more than a hundred recent women veterans. Through their personal accounts, this NEH-supported project aims to “turn the film over to the true storytellers, the women themselves.”

— Back to Top —

EDSITEment Lessons and Resources


EDSITEment-Reviewed Websites


— Back to Top —