VA History: 1923–National Homes Open For Women VeteransPosted: September 14, 2016
Ninety-three years ago today, on September 14, 1923, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA’s origins) approved the first hospital spaces for women veterans.
Hospitalization and medical care for women who served as Army or Navy nurses during World War I were first authorized as part of Public Law 65-326 on March 3, 1919, just a few months after the Armistice. It was the third time in history that federal veterans benefits had been extended to women nurses who served with U.S. military forces as contractors or employees during wartime. The first federal benefit—pensions–was authorized in 1892 for women nurses who provided support to the U.S. military during the Civil War. In 1897 Congress approved the right to burial in national cemeteries for the same group. Although the 1919 law gave women nurses the right to medical care, no facilities were prepared to accept them.
The Women’s Overseas Service League, founded in 1921, took up the cause to force changes so that women veterans could use the benefits they were entitled to. Only after the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers approved dedicated space for women veterans did the War Department take further action. The World War Veterans Act of 1924, as well as several smaller acts afterwards, ensured that accommodations were made to house and provide medical care to women veterans.
At the National Homes, a separate building at the Danville Branch (now VA Illiana HCS) in Danville, Illinois, was authorized for women veterans who required general medical treatment. A floor was reserved for them in the tuberculosis hospital at the Northwestern Branch (now Clement J. Zablocki VAMC) in Milwaukee. Catherine G. Witter, a 39 year old Army nurse who served at Camp Zachary Taylor during World War I, was one of the earliest women veterans admitted. She entered the Danville (IL) Branch on December 19, 1923 and died of stomach cancer on July 14, 1924. She is buried in the Home’s cemetery, now known as Danville National Cemetery.
By the time that the National Homes became part of the Veterans Administration in 1930, more hospitals had been constructed and opened, so women veterans weren’t limited to just one or two facilities.
Roughly 21,500 women served as nurses during World War I, with about 10,000 of them serving overseas.
Photo: American nurse in Paris, France, during World War I, Library of Congress
Links to learn more:
Women’s Overseas Service League: http://www.wosl.org/photo.htm
Story: VA Historian