Washington State Council of Defense

Minute Women of Washington

by Shanna Stevenson

Washington State Council of Defense

The Washington State Council of Defense was organized June 1917, headed by Henry Suzzallo, the then President of the University of Washington. He was appointed to the Council by Governor Ernest Lister and elected chairman by his peers on the Council. Because the group formed outside of a legislative session, they operated without legislative direction, accountability or funding. However, the Washington group was described as a “first class” operation.14

A former President of the Washington General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Ruth Karr McKee was chosen as only woman member of the state board. Mrs. McKee was a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Washington and well-known to Henry Suzzallo.

Mrs. McKee undertook the work to organize a Woman’s Work Committee within the State Council. It is unknown if Suzzallo distrusted Mrs. Smith or merely knew Mrs. McKee, as one of the University of Washington Regents better.15

To begin her state-wide work, Mrs. McKee set out to survey the work that was being done by women in the war in England and France. Mrs. McKee stated that the decision was made not to divert women to “men’s work” unless the war lasted from three to five years, despite what she called a “mania in the nation for registration.” She noted that it was difficult in some instances to convince women the woman’s work was important war work.16

Club women played important part in both the Washington and National Councils of Defense. Club women were well trained organizationally and could draw upon the existing clubs for woman-power. By July, 1918 the Washington Federation of Women’s Clubs had inaugurated a campaign to raise funds for the War Victory Commission of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Margaret McCready was the State Federation of Women’s Clubs President in Washington and served in both the Minute Women and Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense for the state. Federation clubwomen helped in food conservation and “Americanization” in Washington.17


Jennie Overton Ellis.

The Washington Woman’s Work Committee of the State Council was dubbed the “Minute Women.” Mrs. Jennie Overton Ellis said she and Mrs. McKee formulated the idea at her home in Olympia—“I do not recall which of us thought of the name “Minute Women” but both being descendants of Revolutionary Minute Men it was natural that we should think of it.”18

They recalled that the group was known as the Minute Women because “they, like the men of old, were to be ready at a minute’s notice to carry messages for the government.” They said “America’s business requireth haste.” Henry Suzzallo designed a special insignia pin for the women—it featured Washington’s Coat of Arms with “Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense,” with red, white and blue enameling.19

One of the controversial aspects of the Washington State Council of Defense was their role in suppressing the radical International Workers of the World union (IWW) and mediating lumber camp strikes. The State also organized a volunteer Intelligence Bureau “to concentrate on ferreting out slackers and seditious people."20 It is unknown to what extent the Minute Women aided in these efforts of the State Council. Another spy group with a similar name organized in Seattle as the “The Seattle Minute Men” during World War I and included some University of Washington professors.21 The Minute Women forcefully opposed radicalism and were integral to the “Americanization” efforts of the State Council.

Mrs. McKee set out to organize the state by appointing a councilor in each county who would become a member of the County Council, part of the organization of the men’s organization of the Council of Defense. There would also be a councilor in each “considerable” town. A representative was selected for every ward in a town and for each school district in the county. A Minute Woman captain was established for each ward. Further down the chain, the Ward Captain appointed a precinct Lieutenant who in turn appointed sufficient Minute Women to carry out house-to-house canvass of the precinct. The rural communities were organized on the basis of voting precinct or school district with a Minute Woman Captain appointing women for house-to-house canvass.

In fall and winter of 1917 and 1918 State Chairman McKee visited 26 of the 39 counties of the state, working with “patriotic” women to survey the work done there.22 The Minute Women organized their work around five areas:

    1. Gathering and dissemination of information that would lead to understanding and support of the war and counter-acting enemy propaganda.
    2. Aid to Red Cross by securing memberships and selling Red Cross seals for Anti-tuberculosis Association.
    3. Liberty Loan and War Savings.
    4. Food Administration.
    5. Training Camp activities - generally providing hospitality to soldiers.

Because of their organizational prowess, the group was often called upon for all sorts of work and had to limit local work to carry out work of the State Council of Defense. By end of 1917 work was organized in all but one county of Washington and included 5,000 women in the state.

Certificate naming Mrs. Harry Westfall as a charter member of the Minute Women.

Late in 1917, the members of Washington Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense tendered their resignations. The National Committee also asked Mrs. McKee to undertake re-organization of the state division. The Minute Women constituted the state-wide membership and the national group merged with the state body by January 1918, at the request of Mrs. McKee. This merger was not without controversy. Mrs. McKee told Suzzallo in a December, 1917 letter that she did not think Mrs. Smith wanted to resign her position with the State branch of the National Council.23

The National Committee had adopted a broader agenda than the State Minute Women - Americanization, Child Welfare, Educational Propaganda, Food Administration, Food Production, Foreign and Allied Relief, Heath and Recreation, Registration, Women in Industry, and Maintenance of Existing Social Agencies. Mrs. McKee and the Minute Women deemed that this agenda seemed “more comprehensive than conditions demanded or warranted in this state.”24

The Minute Women directors excluded the work of Registration and rejected Maintenance of Existing Social agencies as not being part of their program. They detailed Foreign and Allied Relief to the Red Cross and Women in Industry to the Federal Employment Service. After the merger of the two groups these efforts were eliminated from the purview of the Minute Women. Mrs. McKee organized working committees around the remaining subjects. The Minute Women also had a Central Committee which met with all state women’s organizations - lodges, churches, as well as unorganized women monthly to coordinate war work.25

Americanization work was done with the general State Council’s Educational Propaganda Department. The women distributed, for instance, an outline study of the war prepared by Committee on Public Information of the state body.

The Minute Women organized classes and institutes — including conferences at Rolling Bay and the University of Washington in Seattle and also at Yakima at State Fair.

Their work in child welfare was performed under the direction of Children’s Bureau at Washington, D. C. Some of their work was to implement the Federal Child Labor Law which went into effect on September 1, 1917 and to work with schools to help with keeping children under 14 in school and healthy. This was part of the National Committee directive.

In 1918, the Minute Women registered children below school age and recorded their weights and heights. There was also a back-to-school drive in 1918 to get children back to school after harvest.

Food Administration Committee

The idea and slogan of the Food Administration Committee was “Food Will Win the War.” Because of the devastation to European crops because of the war, there was a tremendous need to supply food from the United States. Women were approached as helping the war effort in their own kitchen through thriftiness and substitution of foods. Herbert Hoover was appointed as the National Food Supervisor and made his first appeal in June, 1917 asking women to sign a food pledge card. In Washington, the State Council of Defense printed and distributed cards through county councils. The term “Hooverizing” came to mean economizing for the war effort. Even before this official food program, Mrs. McKee issued suggestions about saving of wheat, meat, fats, and sugar.

The Federal Food Administration issued bulletins and war cook books. Because the first food pledge drive was not successful in Washington under the auspices of the Council of National Defense, the Minute Women were detailed by State Food Administrator (Mr. Charles Hebberd) to conduct a house-to-house canvass to talk to women about the seriousness of the need for conservation. The Home Economics Departments of the University of Washington and Washington State College helped with the efforts as did the corps of home demonstration agents.26 Hoover started a second food campaign for food conservation in November, 1917. In Washington, this later effort was under the direction of Miss Agnes Craig, a home economist at Washington State College in Pullman, who was the State Chairman of the Food Administration of Minute Women.27

The Minute Women also participated in the campaign for war gardens, canning and conserving of foods. In the summer of 1918 they participated in the “no-wheat until harvest” pledge which secured signatures pledging that the families would use no wheat except for children and invalids until harvest of 1918. Nationally some women objected to this call because grains were still being used in alcohol which was generally served to men, although in Washington, prohibition had been enacted in 1915, effective January 1, 1916.

Committee on Health and Recreation:

The work of this committee was to provide hostessing for military camps and a wholesome environment in the areas surrounding the camps. In Washington, the Minute Women worked with the State Board of Health and Commission on Training Camp Activities. They worked with the Army, Navy and Civilian Heath officers.

Committee on Women In Industry:

At the request of State Council, Dr. William Fielding Ogburn at the University of Washington made a survey on the war's impact on working conditions of women to determine if there was a shortage of labor that would require women to join war work. The results of the survey determined that there was no need for intervention in work, except for women working in section gangs and trucking in freight sheds. “Condition later remedied.”28 It is not clear what the outcome of this remedy was.

It was determined that there may have been a need for women to work in fruit crops but there was already a State Harvesters’ League. The Harvesters’ League was established in the summer of 1917 by the state council. The idea was to encourage urban residents to help on farms as part of their summer vacation. A movie was prepared for propaganda and Mrs. Katherine Blackall traveled the state helping to set up the labor camps. Registration for harvesting work was done in Seattle. Eventually the program came under the auspices of the U.S. Employment Service—it is unknown how many women participated in this effort. The state report is vague on whether or not it was used extensively.29

The Minute Women through their field work helped to raise $100,000.00 for YWCA. In May, 1918 the Minute Women assisted the Red Cross. They conducted conference and programs in Seattle and Spokane Conferences on Americanization and Child Welfare. In 1918, the Minute Women set up booths at the State Fair at Yakima focusing on child welfare where they weighed and measured children. They also distributed literature for Americanization; participated in food demonstrations and publicized the upcoming Liberty Loan drive.30

Liberty and Victory Loan Activities:

To lead the effort of Washington women in selling Liberty Loans, Mrs. O. G. (Jennie Wilhite) Ellis was appointed July 28, 1917 by the Secretary of Treasury, William McAdoo as the State Chairman for Washington of the National Woman’s Liberty Loan Committee. This was a nationally organized group chaired by Mrs. Eleanor Wilson McAdoo, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury and daughter of President Wilson.

During World War I, Secretary William McAdoo conceived of the idea of “capitalizing patriotism,” through bond sales. People from all walks of life from boy scouts to movie stars were part of the effort which was publicized through posters, drawn by well-known artists. The effort in hindsight was not successful because the yield on the bonds was low, but during the war, it was considered part of citizens’ patriotic duty to purchase them.

Mrs. Ellis had been a prominent clubwoman in Tacoma, leading the pure food efforts there. She was the wife of Washington Supreme Court Justice, Overton Ellis. Unlike other states, in Washington, the Liberty Loan and the State Woman’s Work group joined forces and were basically the same organization. The war bond work in Washington State was substantial.

With the weakness, according to Mrs. McKee, of the National Woman’s Committee in the state for the Second Liberty Loan drive, Mrs. Ellis asked for and was given authority to use the state Woman’s Work Committee for campaign. It was at that juncture, according to Mrs. Ellis, that the joint organization of the Women’s Work Committee and the Liberty Loan Committee, was dubbed the “Minute Women.”31 Mrs. Ellis and Mrs. McKee appointed the Minute Women County Chairwomen to lead the bond sales in each county as well. This arrangement differed from other states since the work of Washington’s women for war bond sales was consolidated under the Minute Women, without conflict.

Mr. J. A. Swalwell of Seattle was State Chairman of Second Liberty Loan and he organized the state into six districts—Seattle, Tacoma, Wenatchee, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla. Additionally, Mrs. Ellis appointed a District Chairman for each district and together they became the executive Committee of the State Woman’s Liberty Loan Committee — many of these women represented existing women’s organizations.

Sometimes the women sold bonds but generally promoted the Liberty Loan plans during the Second Liberty Loan drive which started Oct 1, 1917. (The organization was not in effect during the first drive starting April 24, 1917 which was called the “Emergency Loan Act.”) Mrs. Josephine Corliss Preston, the State Superintendent of Schools, collaborated with the women to bring in the school children as part of the organization.

During the Third Liberty Loan (starting April 5, 1918), there was more organization of Minute Women and more cooperation between the state men’s and women’s bond committees. Generally, the chairman of Woman’s Loan Committee for each county was also a member of the County Liberty Loan Committee—cooperating with the men. In 25 counties women were made salesmen and all but two counties took active part. Separate sales of men and women were not tabulated except in Spokane where Mrs. Herbert Witherspoon was chairman. In Washington, 1200 committee members sold $1.3 million worth of bonds and women sold $2,474,300 or about 43% of bonds.

By the Fourth Liberty Loan (September 28, 1918), the Minute Women had strengthened their organization by adding Finance Committee Chairman and a Publicity Committee Chairman. The women worked in concert with the men of the State Liberty Loan Committee. Again the women who were on the county committees were also members of Liberty Loan Committee in 37 out of 39 counties. The women sold $10,741,207.50 worth of bonds, which was 18.4% of state quota.

The summary report submitted by Mrs. Ellis credited the bond sale experience with increasing the activities of women into the field of finance and enhancing their knowledge of war finance as well as strengthening the bonds between men and women in the counties.32

One of the outstanding bond speakers was Mrs. Grace Manners Brougham who spoke throughout the state starting April 7 to May 10 addressing loggers, shipyards, farmers, churches in 115 meetings which drew 50,000 people.

A fifth campaign Victory Liberty Loan Campaign from April 7 to May 10, 1919 resulted in the sale of bonds totaling $29, 902 442.00 credited to Woman’s Victory Loan Committee which was 67.4% of state quota. The printed report from the campaign shows the well-organized nature of the campaign after the other three loan drives. By the time of this campaign in 38 counties, there were 8000 Minute Women in state.34

The women cooperated with men’s committee which operated under the Washington Liberty Loan State Central Committee for both Liberty Loan and Victory Loan campaigns. To promote the sales, the Minute Women organized children’s parades and held “Liberty Fires” throughout the state under auspices of Women’s Liberty Loan Committee.35

By late 1918, the men’s and women’s committees of the Council of Defense in Washington and nationally were joined into a Field Division of both sexes but the impact of that re-organization was negated by the end of the war.

The final assigned task to the Minute Women was during Christmas 1918 “of helping Red Cross place on its Christmas Roll the name of every loyal American.”

Individual counties conducted various activities aside from the prescribed state roles of the Minute Women. In Pacific county, the women collected sphagnum moss for bandage dressings from Raymond, South Center, Tokeland and then transported it to South Bend to be dried and baled.36

In Thurston County the women were headed by the formidable Ada Sprague Mowell. A former teacher and prominent clubwoman, Mrs. Mowell headed an organization of 140 women. Despite their worthy work, they met with some opposition as the March 18, 1918, Olympia Morning Recorder newspaper reported on page 1:

There is a mistaken idea in some districts about the Minute Women. The women are thoroughly loyal and the work they are doing for the government is of exceptional value. They are not secret service operatives. They are not engaged in any campaign to run down slackers or to get information as to the loyalty of Thurston county citizens. They are taking it for granted that everybody is loyal and true. They work on that principle. Of course sometimes they find outright disloyalty and they report such cases directly. But these cases are few. I believe that if everybody understood the work of the Minute Women the workers would have not difficulty.

The pledge card drive in Thurston County required all residents over the age of 15 contribute 10 cents or more per month (towards war bonds). The women handed out information about the pledge drive and then followed up on the collections. Evidently, this was quite onerous task—“The collection of these subscriptions meant continual work. Every month the rounds were made of practically every house in the county and too much praise cannot be bestowed upon the rank and file for the faithful performance of this disagreeable duty, for insult was often the portion given.”37

Although the weighing and measuring of children was touted in the official reports, in Thurston County’s summary, Mrs. Mowell descried it as “An instance of wasted effort, for many [reports] never were filed in Washington [D. C.]”

Mrs. Mowell summarized her work in Thurston County — “About 300 letters are on file all of which were answered and many more written. Over nine hundred personal calls were made by the County Councilor in forty districts—several times to many districts. She spoke at 26 gatherings as well as to many small groups. She spoke for the Liberty Loan, and other campaigns." Multiply this work by the 39 counties in Washington and it was indeed an enormous undertaking.38

It appears that the Minute Women had really only just gained significant momentum when the war ended in November, 1918.

Whether because they had the vote since 1910 or because of their organization incorporated already-existing women’s clubs, Washington women were more collaborative and achieved more cooperation from the state Council of Defense than in other states. Although, there were two state organizations affiliated with the State Council of Defense program in early 1917, by the end of the year, the Minute Women had taken over both state and national roles.

Women in Washington, like in other parts of the country, were anxious to contribute to the war effort and were equally anxious to receive recognition for their work. Unlike other states where women did not vote and nationally, Washington women had already achieved that status which may have influenced how the state was organized and its success. Additionally, the federal work and the war bond sales were consolidated under the auspices of the Minute Women which made the work is Washington less fragmented. Many of the same women were involved in the NLWS and the Minute Women, obviating the competition in some other states.39


    1. Breen, W. J. "Uncle Sam at Home: Civilian Mobilization, Wartime Federalism and the Council of National Defense, 1917-1919." Contributions in American Studies, Number 70. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984, pg. 71.
    2. Breen says on page 134 that “Only in two states, Utah and Washington, was it impossible to reach a working agreement between the two state organizations. In both cased, the chairman [Mrs Smith] of the state division was unacceptable to the state council.”
    3. McKee, Ruth Karr, “Woman’s Work in Connection With War Activities” in Report of the State Council of Defense Covering Its Activities During the War, June 16, 1917 to January 9, 1919, Washington State Legislature, 1919, pg.110.
    4. General Federation of Women’s Clubs, The First Hundred Years, Margaret McCready, President. Accessed at [need link replacement].
    5. Jennie Wilhite Ellis letter to Mrs. W. N. Hunt, September 22, 1928, Minute Women Association of Washington Records, WSHS, MSSC72, Box 2, Folder 25.
    6. MSSC72, Box 1, Folder 1.
    7. Hall, pg. 43. Washington’s labor situation was very confrontational at this time and the IWW was a major force in labor disruption. Coupled with the federal Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, the environment was decidedly anti-radical in Washington during the period.
    8. Newsome, Susan, “The Seattle Minute Men: Amateur Spies, Gossip and Lies,” accessed at; Farrell, Patrick, “The Campus Kaiser” accessed at
    9. McKee Report, pg. 111.
    10. Letter to Henry Suzzallo from Ruth Karr McKee, Henry Suzzallo papers. Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington, Box 4, Folder 38.
    11. McKee Report, Pg. 113.
    12. Ibid.
    13. McKee, Ruth Karr, “Woman’s Work in Connection With War Activities” in Report of the State Council of Defense Covering Its Activities During the War, June 16, 1917 to January 9, 1919, Washington State Legislature, 1919, pg.114-115.
    14. Clarke, Ida Clyde, American Women and the World War, D. Appleton and Company, New York, London, 1918. Accessed at
    15. McKee Report, pg. 115. The author has been able to find this report by the noted sociologist Ogburn.
    16. Report of the State Council of Defense, pp. 47-50.
    17. McKee Report, pg. 116.
    18. Ellis, Jennie Wilhite, “A Report of the Women’s Liberty Loan Committee of the State of Washington for the Second, Third, and Fourth Liberty Loans,” in Report of the State Council of Defense Covering Its Activities During the War, June 16, 1917 to January 9, 1919, Washington State Legislature, 1919, pg.122.
    19. Ellis, pg. 125.
    20. Counties were assigned quotas for bonds based upon average percentage of assessed valuation, bank deposits, and school population for each county in proportion to those of the state at large. (Hall, pg.52)
    21. Ellis, Mrs. Overton, “Report of the Women’s Committee of the State of Washington for the Victory Liberty Loan Campaign, April 7, to May 10th, 1919,” in MSSC72, Box 1 Folder 3.
    22. McKee Report, pg. 112.
    23. MSSC72, Box 2, Folder 22 Pacific County.
    24. Thurston County — Olympia Division Records Minute Women, T-59/6 SCM Collection, Washington State Historical Society, Ada Sprague Mowell, Final Report, pg. 2.
    25. Mowell, Final Report, pg. 3 and 4.
    26. Both Breen and Steinson detail conflicts in their accounts of the state efforts during this period. It is unknown whether or not the NLWS and Minute Women were in conflict in Washington State but many of the same women served in both groups.

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Washington State Council of Defense

Minute Women after WWI