There were only 11,275 of them in the whole United States and our own Julia Rhinehart Powell, resident of the Ball-Sellers House [in the Glencarlyn neighborhood] from 1920-1957 was one of them. They are the Navy Yeomen (F) of World War I, the first en listed women ever allowed in the US military. They were popularly referred to as “Yeomanettes.”
In March, 1917, at the direction of the Secretary of War, Josephus Daniels, the US Navy started recruiting women in the Naval Reserve for jobs such as clerks, radio electricians, accountants, and factory workers. This was done primarily to release males for active duty manning warships. Women around the country volunteered but by far the largest force was centered here in the Washington area. It generally took a woman a day to file the applications, take a brief test, pass a cursory physical, and swear to support and defend the Constitution. She was in for a four-year hitch and started work immediately. No formal indoctrination was provided, but night classes were held in naval routine and regulations.
Their uniforms were controversial—described in some cases as “smart” and by some of the women who wore them as “impossible.” They wore blue serge ankle-length skirts and straight jackets in winter, white drill in summer. Their hats were hard, heavy flat dark blue hats for winter and straw sailor hats for summer. Apparently there was no regulation footwear. Heavy navy capes completed the winter costume which were described as “looking like that which George Washington wore when crossing the Delaware.”
The women received the regular pay of a yeoman:
- 3rd class yeoman: $30 per month
- 2nd class yeoman: $35 per month
- 1st class yeoman: $40 per month
- Chief yeoman: $60 per month
They also received a uniform allowance, medical care, and war risk insurance. Because women were not given quarters, they received an allowance of $2 a day. Some of the women teamed up in groups of 4 to 6 and rented houses or apartments together. Some lived with their families and others lodged singularly.
They worked six days a week and often late at night and on Sundays. They were full of patriotic ardor and a sense of responsibility to the war effort. Some worked as switchboard operators, decoded cables, translated foreign documents, became fingerprint experts and draftsmen, or worked on production lines in factories. But most did routine clerical work. Some units, particularly at large stations, had regular drill periods, perhaps three times a week. They were particularly wanted for parades, Liberty bond drives, honor guards, recruiting stations, and war rallies. One yeoman (F) alone recruited 10,000 men for the Army and Navy in New York City.
In some naval districts shore-based personnel were assigned for administrative purposes to a ship. Julia was assigned to the USS Triton, a tugboat. According to naval records, there have been five Tritons; Julia’s was the first, a steam powered, steel hulled tug constructed in 1889 and used by the Navy until it was sold in 1930. This tug operated out of the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. She steamed up and down the Potomac to the Naval Proving Grounds and Powder Factory, pushing barges loaded with materials for producing gunpowder. It is unknown if Julia ever saw or stepped onto her decks but for the sake of local policy, this was her assigned ship.
The career span of the yeomen (F) turned out to be quite brief. They were first recruited in March 191. The war ended November 11, 1918 and the final parade for the women was July 30, 1919, even though they had signed up for four years. They were kept on inactive status until their enlistments expired, receiving a retainer of $1 a month. None of the women ever saw combat and only a few went abroad. Fifty-seven died while in active service—mostly from the deadly influenza epidemic in the fall of 1918. Julia caught the flu at that time and was out on medical leave for two weeks, from October 13 to 28, 1918.
According to Julia’s records, she was inducted into service at the Washington Navy Yard on August 30, 1918. She was one month shy of being 37 years old—which was old by comparison to most of the other women who were 19, 20, 0r 21 years old. She said she was born September 28, 1881 at Linville Depot, Virginia. Her mother was Victoria Elizabeth (Rhinehart) and her father was Isaac Newton Rhinehart. Her occupation was clerk and dressmaker. She was on active duty from September 3, 1918 to July 31, 1919 (the final parade). Her rank at discharge was Yeoman 2nd class. Her address upon entry was 1440 Clifton Street, NW, Washington, DC, but her post office address at discharge was Glencarlyn, Virginia. However, the Navy still paid her travel allowance to her hometown at the time of her enlistment—Linville Depot—the princely sum of $7.55. She was described on her medical record as 5’ 4” and 127 pounds with brown hair, hazel eyes and a “ruddy” complexion.
After being honorably discharged from the military, Julia married another veteran, Army veteran William B. Powell, in 1920 and they bought the old house known today as the Ball-Sellers House [the oldest building in Arlington County today]. The Powells had no children but they did raise her nice—Marian Rhinehart Sellers (Wallace) who inherited the house in 1969 and donated it to the Arlington historical Society.
When Julia died on January 9, 1957, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery under the right of her army veteran husband, William Powell. Their graves are in Section 31, Lot 5703, fittingly behind the Women’s Memorial. Through the persistent efforts of her niece Marian Sellers Wallace and Martha Orth, in 2000, forty-three years after her death, Julia finally received her own recognition and her own gravestone. The stone notes Julia’s own service in the military as a naval Yeoman (F). Through her pioneering military service as a woman, Julia Rhinehart Powell has added a new historic dimension to Arlington and the historic house she lived in.
(This article was written by Martha Beggs Orth and published in the Arlington Historical Magazine in 2000. Mrs. Orth is a long time member of the Arlington Historical Society (AHS) and served as President of the AHS. She currently serves as a member of the Ball-Sellers House Committee and has written a book entitled: The Ball-Sellers House: The House that John Built. She is retired from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and lives in Falls Church.)