Spanish-American War, Women and the

Role of women in the Spanish-American War. Men and masculinity dominate popular conceptions of the Spanish-American War (April to December 1898). Popular culture idolized women almost exclusively as sweethearts and mothers. Nevertheless, women played significant roles both on the home front and in the war zones. Their most crucial direct contributions to the war effort were as nurses and as relief workers. Women also helped to document and commemorate the war and were symbolically important to propaganda and mobilization.

Between 1895 and 1898 increasing calls for the United States to aid Cuba in its revolt against Spanish rule came from both women and men. Public support for intervention was aroused by newspaper reports of the brutal treatment of Cuban women by Spanish authorities. Women and children were featured prominently as victims of starvation caused by Spain’s military policies. The fact that Spain had a queen regent—Mana Cristina, mother of the underage Alfonso XIII—who seemingly allowed such atrocities, made the situation appear all the worse to U.S. readers, who believed in women’s superior morality. The U.S. press also publicized and sometimes exaggerated moral outrages such as the Olivette incident, during which Spanish officials in February 1897 strip-searched three Cuban women passengers aboard a U.S. ship. The Spanish press responded in kind, with cartoons of a lascivious Uncle Sam pursing the lovely maiden Spain. Meanwhile, some Cuban women, such as Rosa Castellanos, Josefa Agueros, and Luz Noriega, served as mambisas (insurgents) against Spanish forces. So did Filipinas, such as Segunda Puentes Santiago and Gregoria de Jesus y Alvarez, in what would become the Pacific front of the Spanish-American War.

Eventually, the momentum of public opinion, pressure from U.S. officials including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, and events such as the explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana’s harbor propelled the United States into war against Spain. Several women’s groups immediately stepped forward to offer their services to the federal government when Congress declared war on April 25, 1898. Existing women’s organizations, from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to the Catholic Sisterhoods, mobilized their members while new women’s groups formed specifically for war relief.

The most prominent of the new groups, the Women’s National War Relief Association (WNWRA), was formed in New York in May 1898 largely under the impetus of Ellen Hardin Walworth, previously a founder of the DAR. The WNWRA’s leadership brought together socially prominent, wealthy women such as Helen Gould, daughter of financier Jay Gould and heir to his fortune, with the wives of influential politicians from across the country. The association followed the model of the U.S. Sanitary Commission from the American Civil War. Its mission was to collect monetary donations and to provide material aid to U.S. troops, especially to the sick and wounded. Its nationwide network of auxiliaries raised over $50,000 to equip hospital ships, among other projects. The WNWRA also collected donations of food staples and "delicacies," established rest homes for convalescent veterans, and produced thousands of articles of clothing and linens for the soldiers. Other local groups engaged in similar work—fund-raising, sewing, collecting supplies—without necessarily affiliating with any national associations. Similar to these organizations, the Spanish Red Cross and the Cuban White Cross balanced relief efforts with a nationalistic agenda.

The American Red Cross, by contrast, aided not only U.S. troops but also Cuban troops and refugees and Spanish prisoners of war. It engaged in relief work in Cuba and, to a lesser extent, in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, as well as in U.S. military camps. Like the WNWRA and other groups of women volunteers, it sometimes had difficulty in its relations with federal government agencies. As the public became aware of the lamentably unsanitary conditions at some military camps, women began to demand a larger part in what they called the housekeeping side of war: providing and managing food, caring for the sick and wounded, and nurturing the convalescent. Red Cross president Clara Barton, already beloved for her efforts during the American Civil War, became a revered public icon, the single figure who best represented what women could and should do to alleviate suffering during wartime.

Spanish-American War

"[After being assigned to the army hospital at Montauk Point, Long Island, New York] we had to hustle to . . . get into uniform then we returned to the Colonel’s tent and were ordered to line up outside and a group of doctors were told to choose the nurse each wanted. It was positively funny and yet humiliating to stand there and wonder who would choose you. I don’t know how they sized us up. . . . We worked from 5 o’clock until about 8 o’clock without food of any kind, and when we went to breakfast we would get black coffee and some kind of mush, Indian meal or oat meal, then back to work [until 8 P.M.]. I remember one dinner I went to where there was nothing but boiled cabbage and black coffee."

—Rose M. Heavren, speech given at Spanish-American War Nurses (SAWN) meeting,
Pratt High School, March 28, 1950.
SAWN Collection no. 317, Rose M. Heavren Collection,
Gift of Mary (Heavren) Budds,
Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc.,
Archives, Arlington, VA.

The U.S. military’s search for nurses to meet its escalating needs was coordinated by Anita Newcomb McGee. As chair of the Hospital Corps Committee of the DAR, she gained a commission from the surgeon general of the army, George M. Sternberg, to screen thousands of applications from aspiring nurses. McGee later became acting assistant surgeon general in charge of the Nurse Corps Division. The army began hiring nurses under contract in March 1898, offering compensation of $30 per month and one daily ration. The surgeon general’s initial restriction on women serving either in camps or overseas proved unsustainable in the face of disease, particularly the waves of typhoid and yellow fever that swept through army camps. Thus female contract nurses ended up playing a much more prominent role in the Spanish-American War than anyone had expected. Over 1,700 women, compared with only about a dozen men, served as contract nurses by the war’s end.

Nurses aboard an Army hospital ship doing medical work in Cuba during Spanish-American War.

Nurses aboard an Army hospital ship doing medical work in Cuba during Spanish-American War.

Among the many who reported on the war were several women journalists, the best known being Anna Northend Benjamin and Teresa Howard Dean for Leslie’s and Canadian Kathleen Blake Coleman for the Toronto Mail and Express. Coleman is believed to be the first accredited female war correspondent in the world. The New York Journal, Chicago Record, New Orleans Picayune, and McClure’s also offered women’s stories on the war with some regularity. Acclaimed photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston took pictures of war heroes such as the Rough Riders and Admiral George Dewey. The conflict and its imperialist aftermath became a potent theme for women writers, including Spanish authors Eva Canel and Emilia Pardo Bazan and American poets Frances E. W. Harper and Katherine Lee Bates. The most enduring U.S. image of the war, the public monument at Arlington National Cemetery called The Hiker, is the work of a woman: sculptor Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson, who created numerous other war memorials.

Lastly, women participated in public discussions. Although most women categorically supported the war as a humanitarian cause or a defense of national honor, others disagreed. Spanish women had staged a large antiwar demonstration in Zaragoza in the summer of 1896, demanding an end to poor men’s conscription to put down the Cuban revolt. Women also led a firestorm of riots across Spain in May 1898 when the war drove up bread and flour prices. As vocal members of the peace movement and afterward of the Anti-imperialist League, U.S. women criticized the militaristic values and imperialist aggression that they believed the war enshrined. This too became a legacy of the Spanish-American War and laid the groundwork for more widespread dissent during World War I.

Next post:

Previous post: