Women in World War 1

World War 1 Recruiting Poster
World War 1 Recruiting Poster. Library of Congress

World War 1 had a massive effect on all facets of human life and almost everyone in Europe felt some change as a consequence. One group for whom it is often described as a true turning point, largely in employment and enfranchisement (voting), were women.

Women’s Reactions to World War 1

Women, like men, were divided in their reactions to war, with some championing the cause and others worried by it.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, a spearhead for women’s right in Britain, put political activity largely on hold for the duration of the war, and the more militant WSPU did likewise after speaking with the government, although in 1915 they did demonstrate publicly, demanding that women be given a ‘right to serve’. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, perhaps the most famous Suffragettes, turned to recruiting soldiers for the war effort, actions echoed across Europe.

On the other hand, Sylvia Pankhurst remained opposed to the war and refused to help, as did other suffrage groups; in Germany, socialist thinker and later revolutionary Rosa Luxembourg was imprisoned for much of the war because of her opposition to it. In 1915 an international meeting of anti-war women met in Holland, campaigning for a negotiated peace; the press of Europe reacted with scorn. Women continued to speak out as the war progressed, being treated with suspicion and sometimes imprisoned, even in countries supposedly guaranteeing free speech.

Women and Employment

“Total war” demanded the mobilization of entire nations: the drain on the labor pool when millions of men were sent into the military created a need for new workers, a need which could be filled by women. Truly significant numbers started work, but the impact of war on women’s employment wasn’t just about doing work, for suddenly women were able to break into jobs they had previously been frozen out of, like heavy industry, munitions, and police work.

This opportunity was not sustained when the war came to a close – women were frequently forced out of jobs being given to returning soldiers – and the wages were low when compared to men.

Women and Work in Depth

Women and Propaganda

The use of women in propaganda was established early in the war, when posters (and later cinema) became vital state tools in promoting a vision of the war as one where soldiers defended women, as well as children and their homeland. The British and French response to the alleged German “Rape of Belgium”, when reports of German atrocities were highlighted, was to cast Belgian women in the role of defenseless victims, needing to be saved and avenged. One poster used in Ireland featured a woman standing with a rifle in front of a burning Belgium with the heading “Will you go or must I?”

Indeed, women were present on recruiting posters throughout the war, applying moral and sexual pressure on men to join up or else be diminished. This, along with Britain’s white feather campaigns, where women were encouraged to give the feathers as symbols of cowardice to non-uniformed men, as well as women’s involvement as recruiters for the armed forces, was designed to “persuade” men into the armed forces.

Furthermore, some posters presented young and sexually attractive women as rewards for soldiers.

Women were also the targets of propaganda. At the start of the war, posters encouraged them to remain calm, content and proud while their menfolk went off to fight; this later turned into showing the same obedience that was expected of men, to do what was necessary and support the nation. Women also became a representation of the nation: Britain and France had characters known as Britannia and Marianne respectively, appearing in propaganda as symbols of the country, an easy political shorthand.

Women in the Armed Forces and the Front Line

Few women served on the front lines fighting, but there were exceptions: Flora Sandes was a British woman who fought with Serbian forces, attaining the rank of Captain by the war’s end, while Ecaterina Teodoroiu fought in the Romanian army.

There are stories of women in the Russian army throughout the war but in the aftermath of the February Revolution of 1917 an all female unit formed with government support: the Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. While there were several battalions, only one fought in the war, but fight they did, capturing enemy soldiers.

Combat may have been restricted, but women were near, sometimes on, the front lines, often as nurses caring for the considerable number of wounded, or as drivers, particularly of ambulances. While Russian nurses were supposed to have been kept away from the front line, a significant number died from enemy fire, a problem nurses of all nationalities sometimes faced.

While the role of women in nursing didn’t break as many boundaries as in other professions – there was still a general feeling that nurses were subservient to doctors and playing out the era’s perceived gender roles – nursing did see a major growth in numbers, and allowed many women from lower classes to receive a medical education, albeit a quick one, and contribute to the war effort on a much closer basis. These nurses saw the horrors of war firsthand and were able to return to their normal lives with this information.

Non-Combatant Military Roles

Women also worked in non-combatant roles in several militaries, filling positions which allowed more men to go to the front line. In Britain, 80,000 women served in the three armed forces (army, navy, air) in forms such as the Women’s Royal Air Force Service, but were largely refused training with weapons. In the US over 30,000 worked in the military, mostly in nursing corps, US Army Signal Corps and as naval and marine yeoman. In contrast, women worked a vast variety of positions supporting the French military, but a distinction was made by the government which refused to recognize their contribution as military service. There were also many more volunteer groups, some

The Tensions of War

There is a tendency in the discussions of women in World War 1 to ignore the effects of loss and worry felt by the tens of millions of women who saw family members – men and women - travel abroad to fight and get close to the combat.

By the war’s close in 1918, France had 600,000 war widows, Germany half a million.

Women also came under suspicion from more conservative elements of society and government, who worried that being left without a male presence, and experiencing changing jobs and more freedom, would lead to a moral decay among women, such as drinking/smoking more and in public, per-marital or adulterous sex, use of “male” language and more provocative dress. Indeed, women were sometimes treated harshly and bluntly by governments paranoid about the spread of venereal disease, which they feared would undermine the troops. While men were only subjected to media campaigns about avoiding “immorality”, in Britain regulation 40D of the Defence of the Realm Act made it illegal for a woman with a venereal disease to have, or try to have, sex with a soldier; a small number of women were actually imprisoned as a result.

Many women were refugees who fled ahead of invading armies, or who remained in their homes and found themselves in occupied territories, where they almost always suffered reduced living conditions. Germany may not have used much formalized female labor, but they did force occupied men and women into laboring jobs as the war progressed. In France the fear of German soldiers raping French women – and rapes did occur – stimulated an argument over loosening abortion laws to deal with any resultant offspring; in the end no action was taken.

Post-War Effects and the Vote

In general - with variation by class, nation, color and age – European women gained new social and economic options, and stronger political voices, even if they were still viewed by most governments as mothers first. Perhaps the most famous consequence of wider women’s employment and involvement in World War 1, in​ the popular imagination as well as in history books, is the widening enfranchisement of women as a direct result of recognizing their wartime contribution. This is most apparent in Britain, whereby the vote was given to property owning women over the age of 30 years in 1918, the year the war ended; women in Germany got the vote shortly after. All the newly created central and eastern European nations gave women the vote except Yugoslavia, and of the major Allied nations only France didn’t extend women’s enfranchisement.

Clearly the wartime role of women, which advanced their cause to a great extent, coupled with the pressure exerted by Suffrage groups who could point to the war when dealing with politicians, had a major effect on this, as did a fear that millions of empowered women would all subscribe to the more militant branch of women’s rights if ignored. As Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS said of World War 1 and women "it found them serfs and left them free."

Professor Joanna Bourke has, however, sounded a warning note on Britain. In 1917 it became apparent to the British government that a change in the laws governing elections was needed: the law, as it stood, only allowed men who had been resident in England for the previous twelve months to vote, ruling out a large group of soldiers. This wasn’t acceptable, so the law had to be changed; it was in this atmosphere of rewriting that Millicent Fawcett and other Suffrage leaders were able to apply their pressure and have some women brought into the system. Women under 30, who Professor Burke identifies as taking much of the wartime employment, still had to wait longer for the vote. By contrast, in Germany wartime conditions are often described as having helped radicalize women, as they took roles in food riots which turned into broader demonstrations, contributing to the political upheavals which occurred at the end, and after, the war, leading to a German republic.