Staff of Military Unit of Women's Oversea Hospitals U.S.A. Nurses and Doctors left to right. Dr. Mary Lee Edwards. Mrs. Raymond Brown, in civilian dress in doorway. Dr. Caroline Finley. Dr. Anna Shally

The untold story of women who risked their lives to do good -- and get their rights

Updated 6:28 AM ET, Sun August 16, 2020

Kate Clarke Lemay is a historian with the National Portrait Gallery, where her projects included "Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence" (2019). She is the author of "Triumph of the Dead: American WWII Cemeteries, Monuments and Diplomacy in France" and was the founding coordinating curator for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Today, women are fighting in combat and earning the title of Green Beret alongside men. It is not uncommon to see a woman soldier cited for valor in the military or otherwise recognized as civilians who demonstrated courage by the American government or other organizations. But a century ago, during World War I, women mostly were limited from the theatre of war, even as medical professionals.

Kate Clarke Lemay
Suffragists, however, seized on the war as an opportunity to bolster their cause, and in 1918, organized the Women's Oversea Hospitals Unit to serve in France. They were responding to the powerful antisuffragist argument that declared that women should not have the right to vote because they could not prove themselves as full citizens -- by fighting for their country.
Yet who knows their story? It may surprise many to find out that more than 100 American women during World War I were decorated by foreign governments -- yet none were recognized by the United States, even when they were operating within American-sponsored volunteer groups. Why is it that we are still contending with women being left out of American history, especially military history? Historians must remove women's history from the margins and place it prominently as American history.
As in 2020, the year 1918, was shaped both by global pandemic and protest. As Americans today process a momentous anniversary -- the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment recognizing women's right to vote -- against the current backdrop of Covid-19's devastating effects, the story of the suffragist doctors is a timely reminder of the honor and respect still due to too many forgotten American women.
Cover of Women's Oversea Hospitals, U.S.A., a pamphlet produced by the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1919
Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), sent the first group of the 78 American women physicians and nurses to France in February 1918. These women, working under the auspices of the newly formed Women's Oversea Hospitals Unit, were led by Dr. Caroline Sandford Finley. A graduate of Cornell Medical College, Finley was in the top 10 of her class and had worked her way up to lead the department of obstetrics at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Despite having no military training, the suffragist physicians and nurses felt that if they proved themselves in war, it would be impossible to