women who rebuilt France

This little girl clutching the loaf of bread, her toe poking out through worn shoes, is a highlight of the “American Women Rebuilding France” traveling exhibit. Photo courtesy of the Franco American Museum

Women who rebuilt france

This poster is included in the “American Women Rebuilding France” exhibit at Chicago’s Newberry Library. Photo courtesy of the Newberry LIbrary.

Women traveling the world might be a common sight today, but following the end of World War I, it was a real rarity. Few women had the financial resources or moxie to make the trek across the ocean and then spend their days driving around the war-ravaged French countryside and their nights sleeping in wooden barracks. But 350 or so women of privilege did just that when they headed to Europe to rebuild France in the aftermath of the Great War. The heroics of the women who rebuilt France are celebrated in an exhibit making its way across America: “American Women Rebuilding France, 1917-1924.”

Anne Morgan, the socialite daughter of legendary financier J.P. Morgan, was the catalyst for the women’s post-war efforts to help rebuild the Picardy section of northern France from 1917-1924. Her legacy includes founding the Franco American Museum, the only museum in France dedicated to French-American relations.

The museum is currently closed for construction and is expected to reopen in 2016. Meanwhile, the photos and memorabilia that form the “American Women Rebuilding France 1917-1924” are on tour in America. The dramatic photos are on display at the renowned Newberry Library in Chicago through Jan. 3, 2015.

Unfortunately, there is nothing interactive about this exhibit to keep kids entertained. There are, however, plenty of cool posters and photos. Besides, the exhibit is small and free, so if your kids are quickly bored, you’ll still be able to get a feel for the challenges faced by Anne Morgan and her army of women volunteers.

Chicago’s Role in the War Effort

The Newberry Library put its own spin on the exhibit by adding a section showcasing the war at home–“Chicago, Europe, and the Great War.”

The section features photos, posters, and documents from the renowned library’s own vast collection, including the typewriter used by Paul Scott Mowrer, Paris Bureau Chief for the Chicago Daily News and one of the original “embedded” journalists. The exhibit includes a missive from him complaining about war censors getting in the way of his reporting the news in a timely manner.

While there is nothing interactive to entice a child, this exhibit is intriguing for anyone interested in women’s history or the dramatic challenge of rebuilding a country devastated by war.

Gripping Photos

Led by Anne Morgan, the American Committee for Devastated France raised money for relief. Her primary tools were photographs of the devastation, reflected not in the crumbling buildings and barren fields, but in the faces of the women and children left to pick up the pieces. Those moving photographs form the heart of this exhibit:

  • The grimy little girl (seen in the photo at the top of this post), the big toe of her right foot peeking out of worn shoes while she clutches one of the first post-war loaves of bread to come from her family’s bakery
  • The grandmother who stands on barren ground, a few stalks of asparagus in her hand and defiance on her face
  • The doctor caring for her patient in a makeshift facility
  • The family that carved out a home from the ruins of an old quarry
Women who rebuilt france

Photo courtesy of the Newberry Library

The exhibit is the brainchild of curator Anne Dopffer of the Franco American Museum, Chateau de Blerancourt, and Elaine Uzan Leary, executive director of the American Friends of Blerancourt. The museum is in Picardy, a lush section of France 70 miles north of Paris. Because it occupies a strategic location between Paris and Belgium, the region bore some of the heaviest fighting during the war.

Exhibit details

American Women Rebuilding France 1917-1924” is at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton, Chicago, through Jan. 3, 2015. The free exhibit is sponsored by the Alliance Francaise of Chicago and Atout France, the French Tourism Development Agency.

Other stops for the traveling exhibit this year and next are:

  • 7-26, 2014, in conjunction with the Alliance Francaise of Minneapolis/St Paul and Atout France
  • March 1-April 10, 2015, at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio
  • May 2015 at the Indianapolis Public Library with the Alliance Francaise of Indianapolis
  • Sept 4-Nov 26, 2015, at Coral Gables Museum in Miami