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Monday, August 17, 2015

Grace Phelps and Women Veterans: Some Men Were Nervous About an All Female Veteran Organization in Portland

Grace Phelps, who had served as chief nurse of Base Hospital 46 in France and then in the same capacity for Base Hospital 81 after the close of the war, was a leader of women veterans in Portland.

Grace Phelps. from "Grace Phelps, R.N.: A Portrait in Sepia," online exhibit from the Historical Collections & Archives, OSHU
As we've seen, some Base Hospital 46 nurses joined the mostly male American Legion veteran organization after their service, Phelps included. But many women who had served overseas during the war began to work for an all-female organization that would represent women veterans. Significantly, many wished to organize a group that would represent not just women who had served with the armed forces abroad, but women who had worked with voluntary organizations like the Red Cross and the Jewish Welfare League.

In 1921, women organized a national Women's Overseas Service League to fulfill this need. Portland women, led by Grace Phelps, took steps to organize a local branch in the spring of 1922.

"The Citizen Veteran," Oregonian, February 12, 1922, Section 2: 22.
In an Oregonian column dedicated to veteran affairs titled "The Citizen Veteran" for February 12, 1922, we learn that Base Hospital 46 nurses met in Portland that month "as the guests of Miss Grace Phelps" and at that meeting they talked about forming a Portland branch of the Women's Overseas Service League (WOSL), which would also include women from voluntary branches.

The column suggests that there were tensions and opposition from some male veterans about the formation of an all female  group. "Most of the women who are back of the organization already are members of the American Legion, so it is not an attempt on their part to form a veteran organization not in harmony with those already in existence." Local American Legion leaders "declared that the clubrooms [of the Legion] should be thrown open to the women for their meetings."

Grace Phelps addressed the opposition head on:  "We are not attempting to break away from the American Legion," she insisted. "With the nurses and other women war workers in an organization of their own we will probably be able to render valuable assistance to the legion."

The column listed those "aiding Miss Phelps in plans for the local organization" as Miss Jane Doyle, Miss Marjorie MacEwan, Miss Ann Steward and Mrs. Merle Campbell. More on these plans in the next posts.