Title: Chief Yeoman (F), Naval Reserve Forces
Birthdate: September 4, 1897
Death Date: September 14, 1944
Plot Location: Section 155, Lot 211

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Both of Margaret’s parents were born in Ireland, both of their families arrived in the mid-1880s, and Robert and Elizabeth were married in Philadelphia in 1894. They settled in a very Irish neighborhood in Point Breeze, a section of South Philly where Robert was a milk dealer. 

Their first child was Margaret, and in 1899 Lizzie was about to have their second. Suddenly, at age 28, Robert died from peritonitis (abdominal inflammation). There was barely enough time for burial in Mount Moriah before Robert Thomas Paul was born two weeks later.  

The 1900 census captured what family life now looked like. Helping support the young widow and two little ones were two of Lizzie’s brothers and a brother-in-law, all in their 20s. Lizzie’s mother wasn’t there to help, having died in 1893, but she may have had help from one of her sisters.

Margaret’s world changed again in 1908 when the uncles moved out and a step-father moved in. Her mother married another son of Ireland, Robert White, who was a chauffeur. They moved to North Sydenham Street and then to North Carlisle Street, both very close to what is now Temple University Hospital.

A few years later it was Margaret’s turn to step out and find her first and only career. It happened as countries in Europe were embroiled in a bloody war. The sinking of merchant vessels by German U-boats was a key provocation in bringing America into the first World War. Anticipating that move, the Navy Department realized it was critically understaffed.

War in Europe erupted in 1914, causing disruptions in trans-Atlantic trade. The Secretary of the Navy knew how understaffed his department was and looked carefully at the wording of the U.S. Naval Reserve Act of 1916. It permitted the enlistment of qualified “persons” for service, and he realized that word could mean women as well as men. At that time the rank of Yeoman was primarily an administrative position, so replacing those jobs with women meant more men could be assigned to duties at sea.

The first enlistment of a woman in any of the armed forces in a non-nurse occupation occurred on March 17, 1917 and she happened to be from Philadelphia. It wasn’t Margaret, but the recruiting drive started right away, and Margaret actually was one of the first from Philly when she enlisted on June 20. 

By war’s end there were more than 11,000 of them in the Naval Reserve, all with the same responsibilities and entitled to receive the same benefits as their male counterparts, including identical pay. The rank was modified to “Yeoman (F)” to indicate they were female.

There was training for those who didn’t already have administrative skills like typing and shorthand. Margaret apparently had previous experience and showed evidence of leadership ability since she was given the rank of Chief Yeoman (F). That was considered the equivalent of the Chief Petty Officer rating.

The Navy faced unchartered waters when it came to uniforms and housing. Eventually they came up with a dress code to include summer and winter versions. If the women were assigned to duty away from home they had to make their own living arrangements and eventually received a small stipend. Otherwise, many of them who were close enough could commute to work at nearby Naval installations. Margaret took the trolley all the way down Broad Street to the Navy Yard.

Her brother, meanwhile, was a student at Ursinus College in Montgomery County and wrote sports stories for Philly’s Public Ledger newspaper. He signed up for the Student Army Training Corps to take military training while also completing classes. It was short-lived, however, since it started in the fall of 1918 and was disbanded that December after the Armistice was signed.

While that event on November 11, 1918 put an end to the fighting, the paperwork would seemingly never end. Most of the Yeomen (F)  were placed on inactive duty in 1919, but various administrative positions were opened to the reservists as temporary appointments. The women kept their same rate of pay, so many of them stayed on as long as they could. They could then take the civil service exam to become permanent federal employees.

That’s exactly what Margaret did, listing her occupation in the next three census reports as either a stenographer or a secretary at the Navy Yard. She remained single and remained at home on Carlisle Street for the rest of her days. Robert did too, until he married in 1933. Their step-father died in 1936.

Margaret was a charter member of Yeoman Post 50 of the American Legion, and remained loyal to her job, the Navy, and her country. Although it was a brief time of service, she did more than simply replace a man. The Yeoman (F) program helped move the country’s mindset about women, who would soon win the right to vote. They set the precedent for the WAVES in World War II and for women in other branches of the service.

After all those years at the Navy Yard, the time came when she was admitted to the Naval Hospital in September of 1944. She was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer and lost that fight eight days later. Robert ordered a military headstone for her, and after his mother died he purchased this new stone to list each of the other family members. He died in Florida in 1988 and was buried there.

Japanese maple tree in front of a monument at Mount Moriah Cemetery

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