Here’s the front-page photo from the May 17, 1920 edition of The Red Cross Bulletin. It shows members of the San Francisco chapter of the newly organized Women’s Life Saving Corps of the American Red Cross in training as they lower a lifeboat into San Francisco Bay. Among the bulletin’s articles about local catastrophes and European refugees from World War I was an article about “plans that will lessen the dangers of boating.” The increased interest in pleasure boating, it stated, was bringing boating safety to the public’s attention for the first time. While men were still manning coastal stations for commercial traffic, the “growing popularity of all manner of water pastimes” required the help of a new generation of lifesavers, those who could dedicate their efforts to people who were boating for fun.
Women, according to the Red Cross, could fill that lifesaving role. After all, they were already becoming athletes and boaters themselves. In 1920, “the charm of motor boating, the lure of the water” required that the “water sportswoman, as well as the sportsman, be trained in self-help and the helping of others when need arises.” Women no longer had to depend on “some male hero” to rescue them.
The Women’s Life Saving Corps was modeled after the United States Life-Saving Service, which formed in 1848. Training would be similar, with the women learning swimming and life-saving techniques, small-boat handling and accident prevention—such as wearing a life jacket, which was made of kapok or cork in those days. Also included in the curriculum were basic and advanced first-aid techniques, and resuscitation methods for “the apparently drowned.” Graduates would earn a Red Cross certificate, a badge and a bathing suit patch.
Trained members could serve at women’s camps, local beaches, lakes and rivers, “wherever people are boating,” the article stated. They also were expected to teach their skills to new members. Competitions and demonstrations for the public were organized, offering members cash prizes for the “best instances of life saving.”
The spirit of these women lives on today in the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The building that is used as its headquarters is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.