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Women in World War 1

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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 women 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 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.

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