On October 1, 1917 state and county officials held a dinner at the Olympia Elks’ Club to celebrate the opening of the Second Liberty Loan campaign. After enjoying a three course chicken dinner, the guests listened to several speakers. But there was one speaker they might not have expected: Ada Mowell, leader of the Thurston County Minute Women. Before the assembled guests she encouraged women to actively participate in the campaign, encouraging their neighbors (and husbands) to buy bonds—and to buy them for themselves.
During World War I, Washington women participated in homefront activities through many different organizations. Perhaps one of the busiest organizations was the Minute Women. This organization traced its origins to the Council of National Defense, created by Congress to coordinate war-related activities inside and outside the government.
Governor Lister appointed the Washington State Council of Defense on May 2, 1917. County and local councils followed. The Thurston County Council of Defense was created on July 13, 1917 and community councils formed later that month. Each council had a female member that chaired her area’s Woman’s Work Committee. These voluntary committee members were nicknamed the “Minute Women” after the Revolutionary War Minute Men. They were to be ready at a moment’s notice to aid the war effort.
Ruby E. Fromme first led the Minute Women as Thurston County Councillor, but resigned within a month. Ada Sprague Mowell, a local club leader, took Fromme’s place for the rest of the war. As councillor Mowell oversaw the County’s over 300 Minute Women in 53 communities. Rural members were organized by school district while Olympia was divided by ward and precinct.
Shortly after being organized, the Minute Women held a food conservation pledge drive, recruiting women to sign cards pledging to voluntarily observe rationing guidelines. While that first campaign met with little success, they were able to reach more women in October and the following January. Although they did not meet their goals, they did sign up thousands of women throughout the county.
The Minute Women’s second area of focus was assisting the Red Cross to aid soldiers and refugees. The women enlisted members and sold Anti-Tuberculosis Association seals at Christmas. They also collected donations and held benefit dances. For example, in May 1918 the Chambers Junction group netted $25 at one dance.
Promoting the Liberty Loan, the government bonds that partially financed the war, was the third major task of the Minute Women in Thurston County. While the actual transactions were handled in area banks, the Minute Women were prominent in promoting the bonds, canvassing door to door and to nearby lumber camps.
Perhaps the most unusual thing the Minute Women did was participating in the “baby weighing” project, part of the United States Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau “Children’s Year” program. This program was intended to improve child welfare throughout the country. One of its projects was weighing and measuring young children to gain knowledge of national health. Across the nation five million children were examined. Locally, parents were encouraged to bring their children (under age five) to the Olympia Chamber of Commerce in July 1918 to be examined by the Minute Women.
Lastly, the Minute Women raised money for a central Thurston County Council of Defense fund. This fund financed all war-related charity drives except the Liberty Loan and Red Cross drives, so the public would not have to be solicited for each drive. People were encouraged to pledge 10 cents per month and the Minute Women served as collection agents. By early fall 1918 these funds were proving insufficient, so the Council planned to create a $5,000 “war chest.” But the Armistice on November 11, 1918, ended the war soon after. The Council and the Minute Women had been on a hiatus during the time, as the county banned most public gatherings during the deadly influenza pandemic.
The Thurston County Council of Defense disbanded on January 1, 1919. With the encouragement of the Woman’s Committee of the National Council of Defense, the “Minute Woman Association of Washington” formed in 1920 to carry on the work of the Minute Women into a new era. A branch of the group, the “Thurston County Association of Minute Women” formed in March. Membership was restricted to Minute Women who received their captain and county councilor’s recommendations for faithful work during the war. After the charter roll closed on Armistice Day, only the female lineal descendents of charter members could join.
The Thurston County Association of Minute Women concentrated on a new set of projects: increasing patriotism and aiding veterans and immigrants. They also raised money for a Minute Woman Association of Washington sponsored marker at the battlefield of Chateau-Thierry in France, to honor Washington soldiers who had died there.
But without the motivation of wartime urgency, the Minute Women became a small woman’s club, meeting infrequently. Other patriotic and veterans groups, with comparatively more open membership, were also doing similar work.
World War II brought new life to the group and members regularly volunteered as hostesses at Olympia’s USO Club. They also started a “cookie jar” project for soldiers, enlisting the aid of local woman’s clubs and published cookie recipes in the Daily Olympian newspaper.
The Minute Women state organization met until 1943 and the Thurston County Minute Women kept going until 1956. While the Minute Women group in our area is long gone, the important work of helping veterans and the community is carried on by many other organizations.