Another Noble Cause

Suffragist Knitters of World War I

Susan Strawn Aug 2, 2023 - 14 min read

Another Noble Cause Primary Image

“Win-the-War Women: The Knitter,” June 1, 1918. Illustration by C. D. Batchelor. Odd hand positions for knitters were not unusual in cover illustrations. Images from The Woman Citizen and courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted

“The Knitter” was one of many “Win-the-War Women” featured on covers of The Woman Citizen during World War I (1914–1918). Newspapers, magazines, and textile collections document the extraordinary amount of knitting on the home front during the Great War. The Woman Citizen, however, reveals the specific history of suffragist knitters, their stories told in issues dating from the United States declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 to war’s end on November 11, 1918.

The Woman Citizen was founded by prominent suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947) in 1917 and bankrolled by the million-dollar bequest of Gilded Age tycoon Miriam Folline Leslie (1836–1914). Known professionally as Mrs. Frank Leslie, the legendary New York City editor and publisher willed her entire fortune to Catt to use toward the cause of women’s suffrage. Published weekly in New York from 1917 to 1927, The Woman Citizen was the official organ of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the organization that united and coordinated the national suffrage movement.

The Woman Citizen updated readers on activities at local, state, national, and international levels. Every member of Congress received a free copy. “No suffragist can keep closely in touch with her cause, or with the activities of women in general who does not take the magazine,” advised the Woman Suffrage League of Maryland in the February 9, 1918, issue of The Woman Citizen.

A Call For Aid

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Catt mobilized NAWSA and The Woman Citizen to support the war effort. The magazine praised knitting as patriotic—the knitting bag itself a patriotic symbol—and encouraged suffragists to knit. “Kindly Keep on Knitting” read an eye-catching statement from the general manager of the Red Cross in a December 1917 issue. The army and navy needed sweaters, as did destitute civilians, victims of the war in Europe. “We cannot too strongly urge all women who are now knitting to keep on knitting.”


The call for stockings was equally demanding. “S. O. S. for Socks” headlined a letter sent from a US Army Corps nurse stationed in France. The men in her hospital had scarves and sweaters but not enough woolen socks. “If you have some [woolen socks] and want to send them, I would love to give them to our boys,” she wrote. (She also welcomed homemade fudge.) Another reader sent news of spiral socks, a fresh design without a heel. Attributed to Australian knitters, spiral socks were soft and somewhat shapeless, but soldiers found them comfortable and claimed they outwore styles with turned heels. Knitter Julia E. Deane contributed advice to knitters about the dilemma of uncoordinated pairs of socks: knit the second sock at the same time as the first, a few inches on one, then the other.

Suffragists at the Fore

Suffragist organizations across the nation submitted reports about knitting productivity for publication in The Woman Citizen. Women physicians, busy practitioners in Minnesota, knitted for Belgian and French war relief. Dr. Ethel E. Hurd alone knitted 25 pairs of socks and served as inspector for all knitting donations. In St. Paul, Dr. Edith Fosness devoted her time to the cause and, with other physicians, sent more than four thousand garments—many made from knitting factory remnants—for distribution where needed by the Red Cross and the American Women’s Hospitals.

The Birmingham (Alabama) Equal Suffrage Association responded to the army’s call for twelve thousand knitted garments. Birmingham knitters gathered to ply their “flying needles” while listening to letters written from the front. In Kentucky, the Kenton County Equal Franchise Association reported distribution of free wool for suffragists knitting much-needed garments for sailors on the battleship Kentucky. A report from Maine suggested that all individual suffragists worked for the Red Cross drive, and their suffrage leagues paid for yarn.

Suffragists in Wyoming, the first state to grant voting rights to women, praised Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard (1861–1936) of the University of Wyoming. Dr. Hebard instructed 140 women in knitting while she also tended wartime gardens. She insisted every woman “knit her bit” and “grow her bit” for the war effort. In Baltimore, Maryland, the City Committee of the Woman Suffrage League of Maryland encouraged members to knit and sew garments for the Red Cross. Suffragists in Fargo claimed that nearly every woman in North Dakota was a suffragist and dedicated an entire knitting department to the American Red Cross.

Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard of the University of Wyoming instructed 140 suffragist knitters in her victory garden.

The Atlanta (Georgia) Equal Suffrage Association ran its knitting department—Uncle Sam’s Knitting Camp—on a military model. Mrs. E. N. Gibbs earned the rank of major general, not with weapons but with her knitting expertise. As commanding officer, she had five companies under her charge, each with a captain, two lieutenants, and a squad of enlisted soldier-knitters. The Atlanta suffragists aptly named their five companies the Mufflers, the Wool Sox, the Helmets, the Wristlets, and the Sweaters. A Home Guard unit accommodated knitters who could not attend the camp in person.

Suffragists in New York State, where women had received the vote in 1917, considered their state a key battleground for national suffrage. In May 1918, New York City turned its entire borough organization to war service. Suffragists on the War Service Committee sold $956,600 worth of Liberty Bonds, raised $170,000 for the Red Cross, and donated thousands more dollars directly to the troops. The knitting bureau of the War Service Committee donated 1,219 knitted garments for the Red Cross, and the Naval Unit furnished knitted garments for the men of the battleship Missouri.

An Indomitable Leader

Miss Helen Hill, in charge of the 27th Assembly District of the Woman Suffrage Party in New York City, led the campaign to knit 3,560 garments for the battleship Missouri. The suffragists pledged 73,491,216 stitches based on the estimated numbers of stitches in sweaters, scarves, wristlets, and helmets. Miss Hill commented on their knitting productivity:

“Well, these are the women who helped get the signatures of more than 500,000 women of New York City who want to vote, women who did not let the grass grow under their feet until they had performed that arduous task are not likely to stop at a little thing like knitting winter garments for 712 sailor boys.”


Miss Hill’s knitting squad was said to walk house to house and leave knitting circulars with people gathered during summer on front stoops of their homes. With permission, they also went table to table in restaurants and recruited knitters among the diners. Headquartered near theaters, including the enormous Beaux-Arts Hippodrome, the 27th Assembly encouraged theater employees to stop by and knit. Members of the Knitting Ballet of the Hippodrome posed for a photograph holding their sizable and patriotic knitting bags.


Occasional news about men and wartime knitting appeared in The Woman Citizen. The New York City Woman Suffrage Party welcomed the “best and most even” knitting for the Red Cross contributed by “white-haired elderly” Frank McKee, who also taught many women to knit. Archibald Craig, a reader from Jersey City, took to task a critical letter to the editor about men who knit, dubbed the “knitting question.” Craig claimed he could out-knit his wife in stocking production and called on more men to knit and fill the need for warm garments.

Suffragists also realized that innocent-looking knitting bags could camouflage serious political intent. In the spring of 1918, an estimated two hundred women with knitting bags descended on Albany, New York, to lobby for higher labor standards—an 8-hour workday and a 48-hour workweek. They represented thousands of women back home with knitting bags just like theirs. “Behind the knitting bags were knitters, and behind the knitters were ballots, the reason that legislators saw them for the first time as real people,” reported The Woman Citizen.

The 27th Assembly District of the Suffrage Party in New York City, October 6, 1917

Winning the War and at Home

At the national level, suffragists believed that the importance of winning the vote for women was equal to the importance of winning the war. Both the war and the vote addressed the right to self-governance and democracy. They are “one and the same,” read a December 1917 editorial. At the 49th NAWSA Convention in 1918, suffragists passed a resolution to urge Congress to submit, as a war measure, an amendment to the United States Constitution for the nationwide enfranchisement of women. At the convention, attendees also paid for the privilege of knitting a few rows on a scarf to be sent to the gunner among General Pershing’s men who had fired the first shot in America’s fight for democracy. The knitters raised one hundred dollars in two days and donated the funds to the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association.

Editorials in The Woman Citizen encouraged women to continue their suffrage work alongside their war work and knitting. The war would end but the struggle to win the vote for women would continue. “American suffragists can stand by their country and at the same time give allegiance to the cause of suffrage,” wrote Clara Ueland of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. Another letter addressed those suffragists who believed it was enough to knit socks, grow a war garden, roll bandages, and sell Liberty Bonds. The letter suggested they were fooling themselves. “It doesn’t matter if your hands are full of knitting needles . . . you’ve got to hold up woman suffrage and war work too.”

Additionally, some believed that war work must not blind suffragists to the need to train the upcoming generation. M. Carey Thomas, a dean at Bryn Mawr College, wrote, “It will be a dire loss to the country if young women leave college or let knitting and the rolling of bandages interfere with their studies through a mistaken sense of duty.”

On August 20, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the United States Constitution, enfranchising some 26 million American women, although not all women—and men—were eligible to vote until passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Woman Citizen, renamed The Woman’s Journal in 1927, shifted its editorial agenda to political education for women. The bequest from Mrs. Leslie ran low by the late 1920s, and the Great Depression led to the magazine’s demise in 1931. The Woman Citizen captured the determination and spirit of public service among suffragists who worked for democracy through the cause of woman suffrage and wartime knitting.

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  • Berkeley Library, University of California. “The Nineteenth Amendment: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage as Seen through The Woman Citizen.” /spotlight/women-vote/about/about-this-exhibit.
  • Prioleau, Betsy. Diamonds and Deadlines: A Tale of Greed, Deceit, and a Female Tycoon in the Gilded Age. New York: Abrams, 2022.
  • Strawn, Susan M. “American Women and Wartime Hand Knitting, 1750–1950.” In Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, edited by M. D. Goggin and B. F. Tobin. Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2009.
  • Strawn, Susan. “Patriotic Knitting Bags of World War I.” PieceWork, Spring 2019, 64–67.
  • The Woman Citizen. New York: Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission in New York: 1917–1927. Digitized copies are available online through HathiTrust, a not-for-profit collaboration of North American research libraries.

Susan Strawn, PhD, researches and writes stories found in textiles, with a particular interest in the history of knitting. She is an editorial advisor and contributor to PieceWork and author of Knitting America: A Glorious History from Warm Socks to High Art (Voyageur Press, 2007). She wishes to thank the Seattle Central Library for the privilege of access to bound volumes of The Woman Citizen.