“I have never had a sheet of paper mussed, a chair put out of place or lost the slightest object,” said Tama, Iowa, native Helen Jackson as she spoke about the women she oversaw at a munitions factory near Bourges, France, in 1918. A 1917 graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Jackson held a degree in oratory and was working as a playground director in St. Louis when the director of the YWCA offered her a position in France.
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The wartime munitions plant was located in a dreary suburb of Bourges in a walled cantonment. Jackson had been warned that the women who worked at the plant charging shells and making gun powder were of the “roughest lot,” some having been released from a prison to take the jobs. A newspaper reporter described them as “demoralized or else terrorized and melancholy.” The French government had asked the YWCA to help with the project. The work was tedious and very dangerous. The women were paid by the piece; some earned as little as $1.40 per day and others as much as $3.50 per day. Living expenses at Bourges were high—a dollar for a dozen eggs and $1.20 for a pound of butter.
Jackson wanted the world to see a different side to the women who were considered a rough lot. She told a newspaper reporter about a 21-year-old woman who worked at the plant. She had been married for about four years, but her husband had been at the front all those years. At one point he was one of only two men surviving in their regiment. The young woman’s parents had been victims of the war—her mother having starved to death. She had seven brothers, all of whom were in the military. Two had been killed on the same day.
Jackson taught English classes for the women four nights a week, as well as music and gymnasium courses. She also arranged performances by famous opera singers who were serving in the army nearby. During the women’s free time they sometimes put on their own theatrical performances, designing and sewing their costumes with sewing machines provided by the YWCA.
When Jackson’s pet canary died, three of the women traveled to Paris on their day off to find another bird to replace the beloved pet. The women rode a dusty, sweltering train for 11 hours with their newly purchased yellow canary in its gilded cage. They had given up a relaxing, fun visit to the city in order to find the new pet which they knew would cheer their grieving supervisor.
Jackson admitted problems sometimes erupted among the workers who lived at the site, but they always were respectful to their supervisor and other YWCA staff. “They have fights in the dormitories,” she said. “They beat each other up, but never a word with us!” The women’s name for Jackson illustrated their high opinion of the woman from Iowa—Mademoiselle Miss.
And Jackson had this to say about the brave women who risked their lives every day to ensure soldiers of World War I were supplied with ammunition, “They are bearing the burden of the war. If they stop filling shells the war stops.”
- Cornell Countryman, vol. 16-17, p.170, 1919.
- No title. Des Moines Register, Oct. 10, 1917.
- Heilig, Sterling. “The Work of Two Y.W.C.A. Secretaries in France,” Evening Star, Oct. 20, 1918.