Rheba Sherman Peckham

Rheba Sherman Peckham

1886-1942

A Very Modern Girl: Essay by Marjory Gomez O’Toole

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Rheba Peckham, Red Cross Nurse, 1918. Courtesy of her niece Virginia Peckham.

A Very Modern Girl: Essay by Marjory Gomez O’Toole

Rheba Peckham was one of only two women from Little Compton, RI to serve in World War I.  A contemporary described her as a “very modern girl.”

What was it that made Rheba so modern?

Was it her education, her ability to earn her own living, her decision to leave Little Compton, or her choice not to marry and have children?

At a time when very few local girls were educated beyond the eighth grade, Rheba left home for Newport Hospital to train as a registered nurse. She graduated just as Little Compton’s young men were volunteering to fight with the English and French oversees.

Rheba volunteered too, immediately after her brother Howard was called to serve. She went to Providence to appear before the board of men responsible for recruiting Red Cross Army Nurses. The interview went very well until Rheba asked to be stationed with her brother at Camp Gordon in Georgia.  One of the men sneered at her, “What, can’t be without your brother?” Rheba was furious.  She rose, reprimanded the man for his rudeness, and left. Within a week the recruiting board had called her, apologized and begged her to reconsider.

Rheba did serve at Camp Gordon with her brother and at military hospitals in New York City, Connecticut and as far away as Colorado. Her niece Virginia Peckham says she was a vivacious woman and a dedicated nurse, whose patients loved her. She changed jobs often, sometimes every year, but returned to the family home in Little Compton each summer to tell her nieces and nephews that she wanted to go where she could do the most good. 

Marjory O’Toole, based on an interview with Virginia Peckham.

2012

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Rheba Peckham was one of only two women from Little Compton to serve in World War I. She went to Providence to appear before the board of men responsible for recruiting Red Cross Army Nurses. The interview went very well until Rheba asked to be stationed with her brother at Camp Gordon in Georgia. One of the men sneered at her, “What, can’t be without your brother?” Rheba was furious. She rose, reprimanded the man for his rudeness, and left. Within a week the recruiting board had called her, apologized, and begged her to reconsider.

Rheba did serve at Camp Gordon with her brother and at military hospitals in New York City, Connecticut, and as far away as Colorado. Her niece Virginia Peckham says she was a vivacious woman and a dedicated nurse whose patients loved her. She changed jobs often, sometimes every year, but returned to the family home in Little Compton each summer to tell her nieces and nephews that she wanted to go where she could do the most good. Local historian Carlton Brownell called her “a very modern girl.”

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