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Women in World War 1

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Library of Congress

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 labour 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 defenceless victims, needing to be saved and avenged. One poster used in Ireland featured a women 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 in the front lines fighting, but there were exceptions: Flora Sands was a British woman who fought with Serbian forces, attaining the rank of Captain by the war’s end, while Ecaterina Teodoroiv 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.

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