Citi Turns 200: The impact of World War I
June 01, 2012 09:00 AM
In celebration of Citigroup's 200th Anniversary, we are sharing stories from our rich history here on this blog. The 11th installation below covers how World War I created career opportunities for women. Read the tenth installment on how National City Bank expanded their staff education to accommodate employees abroad, here.
The impact of World War I
World War I broke out in 1914. The United States, after initial efforts by the government to resist involvement, entered the fray in 1917 following a sea-change in U.S. public opinion. While banking operations in combatant countries were adversely affected, in the early years of the war National City Bank managers focused their attention on the commercial opportunities presented by the disruption of European trade and its likely impact on the bank's overseas competitors, notably those in Britain.
In 1914, chairman James Stillman offered his Paris residence to the French government for use as a hospital. He also offered 500,000 francs ($200,000) to French president Raymond Poincaré to support orphans of those admitted to the Légion d'Honneur, the nation's premier official decoration.
After America declared war on Germany, many male employees signed up for military service. Consequently, the bank started hiring female clerks in large numbers. Over six weeks in 1917, former librarian Florence Spencer and another assistant chief clerk interviewed more than 1,000 candidates. About 10 percent were accepted, given a week's training, and placed in various departments. Notably, the foreign exchange department received 45 women and the check desk 40.
F.C. Schwedtman, the vice president who oversaw the bank's educational activities at the time, urged women working at the bank to be assertive. "From time immemorial, it has been man's place to go out into the world to hunt and collect and women's place to stay at home and prepare and take care of the things which the man has brought in," he told the women's association of the bank in May 1918. "The same policy, however, carried out in business, will not work. To be specific, the business woman must not let the man do all the acquiring of information and knowledge. She must not passively accept information which someone else gives her," Schwedtman said. "When some point comes up in connection with your job that is not clear, ask about it, study it until it is clear."
Overall, 518 bank staff entered military service, nearly a third of the total. One of them was Katherine Hay Robinson of the foreign department, who was attached to the Army Signal Corps in France as a telephone operator. She was stationed at the Paris residence of President Woodrow Wilson during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
Eight employees lost their lives in the war, as did 11 of the 78 men from the International Banking Corporation who saw military service.