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News & Features » January 2014 » Laurie Loewenstein on the Smith College Relief Unit

Laurie Loewenstein on the Smith College Relief Unit

To celebrate the release of Unmentionables by Laurie Loewenstein, we’ve invited organizations to share with us history related to aspects incorporated in the novel. Today, Laurie talks about her decision to send her protagonist to volunteer in France with the fictional Fielding College Relief Unit during the Great War. The Fielding College Relief Unit is based on the Smith College Relief Unit, founded in 1917 by Smith College alumna Harriet Boyd Hawes; archivists at Smith College have graciously allowed us to share a photo of and some information about the relief unit.

Laurie Loewenstein, on her decision to send Marian to volunteer in France during World War I:

Once I had decided that in the second half of Unmentionables my main character, Marian Elliot Adams, would join the thousands of American women volunteering in France during The Great War, I researched her options. Much has been written about women ambulance drivers, Red Cross nurses, and Salvation Army canteen workers. When I discovered the vivid writings of Ruth Gaines, a member of the Smith College Relief Unit, I knew that was where Marian belonged. As she delivered supplies to French villagers and labored alongside them to re-plant fields destroyed by the German occupiers, Marian, the eternal outsider, came to understand the true nature of community. And when, in the spring of 1918, the Germans roared west, out of their fortified trenches and again overran the hamlets the relief unit had only recently restored, the actual graduates of Smith College and the fictional Marian revealed their true mettle.

Marian initially signed up for the real-life American Committee for Devastated France, headed by Anne Morgan, J.P. Morgan’s daughter. As Marian was preparing to ship out, I diverted her to the fictitious Fielding College Relief Unit. There she was forced to accommodate to younger women, women who were unconcerned with her passionate stance against corsets. These women, serving only a few miles from the front lines, had larger issues on their minds than dress reform. And Marian’s convictions were already passé, as calf-length skirts, looser waistlines, and other relaxed standards of dress had come into fashion.

Photo: Underwood & Underwood, courtesy of Smith College Archives. Relief Unit, France Front Row L-R (seated): Mather, Lucy; Boyd, Harriet (Hawes); Tallant, Alice; Kelly, Florence Middle Row:  Joslin, Ruth; Ashley, Margaret; Hague, Florence; Carr, Marjorie; Hooper, Catherine; Lewis, Millicent; Wolfs, Marie; Dana, Elizabeth Back Row: Bennett, Marion; Chapin, Anne; Bliss, Elizabeth; Leavens, Alice; Wood, Margaret; Gaines, Ruth

Photo: Underwood & Underwood, courtesy of Smith College Archives.
Relief Unit, France
Front Row L-R (seated):
Mather, Lucy; Boyd, Harriet (Hawes); Tallant, Alice; Kelly, Florence
Middle Row:
Joslin, Ruth; Ashley, Margaret; Hague, Florence; Carr, Marjorie; Hooper, Catherine; Lewis, Millicent; Wolfs, Marie; Dana, Elizabeth
Back Row:
Bennett, Marion; Chapin, Anne; Bliss, Elizabeth; Leavens, Alice; Wood, Margaret; Gaines, Ruth

More about the Smith College Relief Unit (SCRU), courtesy of Smith College and the Smithipedia:

Beginnings:

The Smith College Relief Unit (SCRU) was started in 1917 by Harriet Boyd Hawes, a graduate of the Smith class of 1892. She had done relief work in France before the United States entered the war, but at that point, she returned to Smith to form a relief organization of alumnae. She explained the special call to college women as “a call of need for their steadfastness, their moderation, their good sense, their special proficiency, their ‘esprit de corps’, to help actively in this tremendous conflict for the right”. The response from the college community was immediate and enthusiastic, and an organizing committee and unit were soon formed. The latter consisted of 19 women from fourteen different classes, ranging from 1888 to 1914. Most had done previous relief or nursing work; all spoke French, and their numbers included two doctors, a wireless operator, a cobbler, a carpenter and kindergarten teacher, and a farmer. The plan was much as Hawes had originally outlined it: “…three or four cars, eight chauffeurs, eight social workers, a depot of distribution in touch with the French authorities, affiliation with the American Fund for French Wounded…”. They sailed for France on the 29th of July, 1917, just over a month after Hawes’s initial appeal.

Relief Work:

With the approval of the French authorities, the Unit made its base in Grécourt, a village in the Somme valley recently evacuated by the German army. Their relief work included eleven neighboring villages, later expanded to fifteen. The Unit set up quarters on the grounds of the Grécourt Chateau, and opened a dispensary and store to distribute medical aid and necessary food and supplies. They had two cars and a truck shipped to them, which they used to bring the supplies around to all the villages. They started running games for the children immediately after their arrival, and soon set up schools, the French government supplying teachers. On September 21, St. Matthew’s Day (patron saint of Grécourt), the Unit found a priest to hold the first church service the village had had in three years.

Read more about the SCRU at the Smithipedia or by visiting The Smith College Archives online.

Join us TONIGHT (Wednesday, January 22nd) at Bluestockings Bookstore and Café (172 Allen Street, New York) at 7:oopm to celebrate the launch of Unmentionables and Kaylie Jones Books! Wine and cheese will be provided, and the event is completely free to attend. See more details or RSVP on Facebook.

Posted: Jan 22, 2014

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