“I … yearn once more for the strenuous life”: Mary Helen Fee, teacher, writer, WWI canteen worker.

Published: 18 March 2024

By Elizabeth Foxwell
via the American Women in World War I website

Mary Helen Fee

Mary Helen Fee, from her 1916 passport application

Mary Helen Fee was born in October 1864 in Quincy, IL, to John Fee—city physician for Kansas City and an army surgeon in the Civil War—and his wife, Louisa Wilcox Fee. Fee was an English and history instructor at the Normal School (now Southeast Missouri State University) in Cape Girardeau, MO. She earned a teaching credential from the University of Chicago in 1901 and joined the “Thomasites” (a nickname deriving from their ship the Thomas)—a group that traveled to the Philippines to take up teaching duties in August 1901. Her book, A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines (1910), discusses her experiences there.

As Sarah Steinbock-Pratt notes in Educating the Empire: American Teachers and Contested Colonization in the Philippines, although Fee’s desire to serve her pupils may have been sincere (e.g., developing a text [1906] with coauthors to assist in teaching reading to Filipino children), she seems to have had blind spots when it came to race, class, and colonialist issues (e.g., not understanding that the visual representations of Filipino children in the text could offend them).

In 1917, she sailed for France to take up canteen work. Some excerpts from her letters appeared in the 13 March 1918 St. Joseph [MO] Gazette (although readers may be amused to see the 53-year-old Fee referred to as “a girl”); this article stated that she was assigned to Chalons (near Reims) with 14 other women, where they served “repas complet” (complete meals) from 5 am to 7 am, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm, and 10:30 pm to 1:30 am. In this account, she also provided the following details on a German air raid:

The first alert (danger signal) came about 9; we obeyed it, waited a half hour and then came home. We had just crawled back under the warm blankets when the alert sounded again, but before we could get on our dressing gowns and great coats, “all hell broke loose,” as the soldiers say. Every once in a while there would come the terrific sound of a bomb—bomb!—t-r-r-r-. say bomb and trill on r against your teeth, and you will get an idea of it, and between times it was like a terrific thunder storm with lightening [sic] crashes every second as the 75s … and the machine guns kept up a special racket of their own. (18)

In a letter to her brother Frederick published in the 7 Aug. 1918 News Letter of the Red Cross’ Atlantic Division, Fee notes that the canteen workers also served tirelessly in other roles:

We feel rather complimented that the evacuation hospital sent for us when they found themselves swamped. There were four women there last night till after midnight, and all the women not on duty have been there today. Two of the women who are on duty at the canteen from seven till midnight go on over to the hospital and finish the night till 7 a.m. (some shift), while those who came off duty tonight at 7 p.m. (having been on since 1 p.m.) go on duty at the hospital at 7 a.m. tomorrow, work there till nearly noon, and go on duty again at the canteen at 1. I am a free lance, but expect to serve every night after 4.30 till 8 or 9. My day hours are longer than those of the canteen workers. [5]

Fee provided another story in “Under the Hun’s Bombing Planes” (The Forum, Nov. 1918; Fee’s reference to the location as “E———” may mean Étaples):

Read the entire article on the American Women in World War I website here:

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