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World War I Special Collections Resources

Guide to resources related to World War I in Smith College Special Collections


Smith During World War I

From Smithpedia

Smith at War

The Smith community contributed to World War I in a substantial way. Although many Smith students helped the war through prescribed female activities, early Smithies proved that women could significantly influence domestic and international affairs and expectations. Smithies participated in traditional efforts like rationing food, working for the Hampshire County Red Cross, and knitting garments (Smithies began knitting in class during the Great War, and many students have continued the practice, as knitting during lectures proves a popular activity even today). The students engaged in less conventional activities as well. Many students assisted at the college’s School of Psychiatric Work, which focused on assisting traumatized soldiers. Smith’s efforts reached as far as China. The college had a sister school, Ginling College, a Christian institution for women in Nanjing, China. Some students felt a Christian duty to help with the war; others saw the effort as an opportunity to demonstrate patriotism. Despite the various motivations, Smith College and its students expressed an enthusiasm for the Great War.

Food Rationing/Curriculum

Smith students sent to President Wilson offering “loyal service.” Smithies alluded to a belief that the “settlement of international difficulties by war is fundamentally wrong,” but also recognized “that in a world crisis such as this it may become our highest duty to defend by force the principles upon which Christian civilization is founded.” Rationing became a way in which Smith could assist America in the war. In a letter addressed to all House Presidents, President Neilson announced, “Care must, of course be taken to see that the meals served in our houses are abundantly nourishing; but with this proviso in mind, we ought to devote ourselves to carrying out [the Board of Food Administration of Massachusetts’] food conservation program.” Vegetables soon replaced sugary treats (students desperate for sugar opted instead for maple-flavored candies). One student wrote, “ingenuity is still a faculty of which American housekeepers may well boast; but the fact remains that when [vegetables] do appear they are received with more courtesy and even actual enjoyment by many who before the exigencies of war would have preferred to eat nothing at the dinner table.” Classes began to reflect these changes; many were offered to help students endure the rationing. Courses with titles like “Scientific Principles of Cookery” and “Food and Nutrition in Relation to the Great War,” as well as lectures in food conservation by Professor Henderson of Department of Biochemistry at Harvard, were popular options in 1917. Other courses related to the war concerned the Red Cross in home nursing, and in 1918 “Individual and Abnormal Psychology in Relation to the Mental Reconstruction,” “Economic Aspects of the War,” “French Literature of the Great War.”

Students rationed not only food, but also fuel. They gave up their Junior Frolic at the gym. Administration encouraged students to take turns rising early in order to close windows at six o’clock when the radiators began to warm.

School of Psychiatric Work

The School of Social Work, formerly known as the School of Psychiatric Work, is a graduate professional school offering instruction in areas concerning social work. The school was created as a war emergency course. President Neilson explained the purpose of the emergency course was “to educate women so that they might help in…mental and nervous disorders resulting from the war, but this class of disorders was by no means confined to war conditions that the profession for which they proposed to train would be a permanent one.” The courses placed special emphasis on “war neuroses” and employed “newer methods” of training for social work, including a psychological approach, scientific method, and continuous practice. In 1918, a New York Times article reported Smith College opened a school through which graduate students could be trained “to help specialists in the reconstruction of those men nervously deranged by shell shock.” The article alluded to the opportunity to work in military hospitals as the most interesting opportunity offered to college women. The school also seems to have been intended to respond to fears of chaos abroad and moral and domestic social and moral decay. A newspaper article from June 9, 1919 applauds the efforts of Smith to provide graduate students with an “intensely practical” method to address the “major problems of today, community problems, exceedingly complex, and comprehensible only to the well instructed.” Graduates found (and continue to find) positions in mental health hospitals, child guidance clinics, and other agencies, as visiting teachers and probation officers and also in the field of social work, family casework, and children’s work. As an early prospect for women to engage in higher education and professional work, the School of Psychiatric Work allowed early Smith students a way to assist the war effort and expand the definition of “women’s work.”


(from Yale University Divinity Library)

Ginling College opened in 1915 with six faculty and eleven students, the product of the imagination of a group of American women educators stranded in Shanghai in 1911, all refugees from the revolutionary turmoil in central China. One was Matilda Thurston, who became the first president of the College. She graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1896, and went to China in 1913 to find a location for Ginling, hire faculty, and recruit students. It was only in 1907 that the Chinese emperor issued an edict favoring education for women in China. The Revolution of 1911 marked a new beginning, and Ginling College was ultimately founded by five mission boards – Northern Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Northern and Southern Methodists, and Northern Presbyterians. Each board pledged US$10,000 for buildings and equipment, the support of a representative on the teaching staff, and a contribution of US$600 toward current expenses.

Ginling graduated its first class in 1919; thus Wu Yi-fang, who would later become President of the College in 1928, and four other women became the first women in China to receive fully accredited Bachelor of Arts degrees. All subjects were taught in English except for the Chinese classics.

Smith’s relationship with Ginling began in 1916. Through the enthusiasm of Delia Leavens ’01 and Frederica Mead ’11, both of whom had spent considerable time in China, the Smith College Association for Christian Work adopted Ginling as its foreign project. Their first campus contribution in 1916 amounted to $1,000 and was made annually until 1921, when it was raised to $2,500, due to increasing interest in Ginling. It was also in 1921 that Smith officially recognized Ginling as its little sister in the Orient. During the difficult period of war, the contribution reached $4,000 a year. The Smith Alumnae Committee for Ginling was started in 1923, and Smith alumnae donated $50,000 for the construction of a recreation building in Ginling. Also, annual contributions to the current expenses of the College gradually increased until it reached a maximum of $5,500 a year.

Throughout the increasing turmoil in China, the relationship between Smith and Ginling flourished. The Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, and in 1938 Ginling College decided to go into exile in West China Union University in Chengtu. Smith raised almost $2,500 as a gift to Ginling to celebrate its twenty-fifth birthday in 1940, and this money was used for repairs after the war. The Smith College Alumnae Committee for Ginling was expanded in 1941 to include students and faculty. By 1942, fifteen Smith alumnae had taught at Ginling.

In 1943, Dr. Wu Yi-fang visited Smith to receive an honorary LLD. She brought the gift of a satin scarf bearing the signatures of all the Ginling seniors and an accompanying letter from them to Smith’s 1943 graduating class, expressing their gratitude for their concern and help. After the new People’s government was established on October 1, 1949, Dr. Wu was recognized as a leader in China and was asked to serve on various committees for education, women’s rights, and community service. She began working to change the curriculum and the administration of Ginling so it would be acceptable to the new government.

The new government pushed for self-support and Chinese leadership in all its institutions, especially those connected with overseas schools and religious groups. In 1950, the U.S. and China cut off all financial transactions with each other. In 1951, Ginling was combined with the University of Nanking to become National Ginling University under government control. Smith was greatly troubled by these changes, and many Smith students and faculty wanted to transfer the Ginling support to Tunghai University in Taiwan, to which a number of Ginling College supporters had gone. Smith was frustrated by the confusion of the situation, so alumnae groups were notified not to collect funds for Ginling and by March 1954 most local Ginling committees had disbanded.

Ginling College re-opened in 1987 with sixteen students in a two-year course in Applied English in Nanking Normal University. In order for the government to permit it to re-open, Ginling had to provide courses that were unique, different from the others offered in Nanjing Normal University. In 1995, Ginling had 300 students in three programs – Applied English, Nutrition and Food Sciences, and International Accounting. Ginling is also developing a year-long training program for around 100 women teaching in rural middle schools. The College is funded mainly by the government, although it does receive some private donations from Ginling alumnae and the Wu Yi-fang Memorial Foundation.