Skip to main content

The mighty women of World War I

By Belinda Davis
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Female army recruits from the United Kingdom are seen during drills in May 1917. World War I broke down barriers between military and civilian life. With the men away in battle, women took on an extraordinary role in support of the war, whether it was on the front lines or at home in factories and farms. Female army recruits from the United Kingdom are seen during drills in May 1917. World War I broke down barriers between military and civilian life. With the men away in battle, women took on an extraordinary role in support of the war, whether it was on the front lines or at home in factories and farms.
HIDE CAPTION
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
Women during World War I
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Belinda Davis: World War I changed women across globe in ways that affect us today
  • She says they took up "men's work," supported home front and raised kids in privation
  • She says male society struggled with how to acknowledge women after war
  • Davis: Family tensions returned with soldiers, still women got vote in many nations

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series on the legacies of World War I. It will appear on CNN.com/Opinion in the weeks leading up to the 100-year anniversary of the war's outbreak in August. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is guest editor for the series. Belinda Davis is professor and vice chair for graduate studies in the Department of History at Rutgers University. She is author of "Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin" (Chapel Hill 2000); and co-editor of "Changing the World, Changing Oneself: Political Protest and Transnational Identities in 1960s/70s, West Germany and the U.S." (New York 2012).

(CNN) -- Some 100 years ago, a woman in Pittsburgh or St. Denis in France or Petrograd, Russia, might have awakened at dawn, while her young children slept, to prepare for her first shift at a nearby munitions factory. Her husband, off fighting in World War I, had left her to test the limits of her own physical ability, as she provided food, shelter, warmth for her family, sometimes confronting great physical danger at work -- perhaps, for example, hanging suspended to load powerful explosives into the shells that other women had produced.

Belinda Davis
Belinda Davis

When her work day was done, she went looking for food to buy, often standing in line for hours for scarce basic goods, scrounged for hard-to-come-by fuel to feed the furnace and cooked dinner. She washed the children, put them to bed, cleaned up and wrote a letter to her husband, keeping her worry off the page, before sleeping a few hours. And then she got up and did it again.

A century ago, as nations and empires began mobilizing to send 65 million men to war, millions of women across the globe moved to fill in the holes created in civilian society. From Britain to Bosnia to Baghdad, across the United States and Europe and India and Africa, women would become single heads of household in unprecedented numbers.

WAR'S LASTING LEGACY

The first World War began August 4, 1914, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28 of that year. In the next two months, CNN.com/Opinion will feature articles on the weapons of war, its language, the role of women, battlefield injuries and the rise of aerial surveillance.

They would serve directly on the battlefields as nurses and ambulance drivers and cooks. Yet they also had to keep their nations' home fronts running, moving into "men's" jobs, from smelting iron, to driving streetcars, to plowing fields -- as well as working to administer new public and private organizations in support of the war.

How a century-old war affects you

The war changed life for women, and it changed the women themselves. When men returned from war, they inevitably tried to reassert their dominance in family and society. But their own broken conditions and circumstances at home challenged these attempts.

Women once again had to navigate a tricky terrain laid by men. Yet women had displayed to the world and to themselves their competence in "total war." Indeed, the war created a lasting legacy for women, marked by new political rights in many countries -- and marked also by widespread and enduring anxiety over rising feminine power.

Three unexpected things from WWI

In 1914, women were not new to the paid workforce. Individual industrial jobs were often considered as specifically for women or for men; entire industries, such as textiles, were "women's industries," while men dominated in metal forges and machine factories. While wealthier women continued to shun paid work, by the turn of the century, lower-middle-class women had begun moving heavily into positions as clerks and secretaries, and women remained central to farming labor.

But with the declaration of war, economic shifts and official pressure pushed them increasingly into war production and into "men's" jobs (even as, in France, authorities contradicted themselves and confused women by urging them rather to stay at home and have more babies). If only 170,000 women in Britain worked in metal factories on the eve of war, by its end in 1918, there were nearly 600,000.

In the United States and Great Britain, women confronted wartime shortages of food and housing.

As they took on jobs outside the home, many relied on irregular child care or were forced to leave children without care. While, as in other combatant countries, American women generally strove to "do their part" for the war effort and accepted official assignments of war-related work, from factory work to food distribution, some balked at having to "register" with authorities.

How World War I gave us 'cooties'

"The war created a lasting legacy for women, marked by new political rights in many countries—and marked also by widespread and enduring anxiety over rising feminine power."

British propaganda posters declaring soldiers' dependence on female munitions workers gave women a sense that their labor contributions would be important and acknowledged.

Yet, even as women munitions workers faced heavy labor and harsh conditions -- along with danger such as in the Barnbow National Factory explosion of 1916 near Leeds, England, that killed 35 -- others condemned them for the relatively high wages they earned. It was a reflection of class tensions raised by the restructured wartime economy and women's role in it.

British authorities offered small "separation allowances," subsidies to soldiers' families based on the loss of income, and in turn assumed the right to check up on soldiers' wives, to make sure they were not drinking or sleeping with other men.

A woman who followed her own factory shift with dancing or a quick drink at the pub confronted public accusations of being a "flaunting flapper" or an "amateur girl" -- effectively a prostitute -- even as fellow male workers and soldiers on leave might proposition and harass her.

Some women felt new "freedom" during the war; others saw changing "moral standards" as the result of women who had seen their men "swallowed up in that ever-increasing wave of death ..."

French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events. French soldiers sing the national anthem at the beginning of World War I in August 1914. This "war to end all wars" might seem like ancient history, but it changed the world forever. It transformed the way war was fought, upended cultures and home life and stimulated innovations that affect us today. With more than 30 combatant nations and nearly 70 million men mobilized, World War I profoundly destabilized the international order. Look back at some of the war's key events.
World War I: A time of upheaval
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: World War I Photos: World War I

In continental Europe, where the war was actually fought, conditions on the home front were even more challenging. Many women took on "men's work" to support the war effort and to ensure their families' survival but also found themselves subject to still more controlling government policies that came with "total war." Women living in captured territories suffered added misery, billeting and serving often abusive foreign soldiers.

The 'bionic men' of World War I

In Italy, urban women were effectively drafted into agricultural labor. Women farmers were, however, little mollified by this motley work force intended to substitute for missing men and draught animals. In European cities, women often stood in line for hours for a chance to purchase spoiled potatoes; together with barefoot children, they tried to scavenge food and fuel from public parks, a practice that had become a full-time job in itself

"A woman who followed her own factory shift with dancing or a quick drink at the pub confronted public accusations of being a "flaunting flapper" or an "amateur girl"—effectively a prostitute--even as fellow male workers and soldiers on leave might proposition and harass her. "

In Germany, a 1916 policy reserved scarce food supplies only for women who worked in munitions factories, as officials announced that "the entire remaining civilian population, including women, were to be militarized through this plan." In the extraordinarily frigid winter of 1916-17, as schools shut down for lack of heat, the policy left few adults available to care for children.

By the end of hostilities, the war had transformed women's lives.

In many warring nations, acknowledging women's contributions became critical to warding off challenges to politicians' own power in the tumultuous postwar conditions, across Europe especially. Women won voting rights during hostilities or soon after in the United States, Canada and Great Britain; in the German Republic and the new Soviet republics; and in the new states of Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Economic rights were a different matter.

Demobilizing soldiers and groups claiming to represent them pressured officials and factory owners alike to "make room" in the workforce for returning men by laying off all women although women frequently remained the only potential earners in their households. This was one manifestation of powerful and contentious culture wars over the desirability and even possibility of returning to some halcyon past -- one that, like today, was in part imagined.

Battles ensued across European and North American societies over how to otherwise recognize women's work during the war.

Should newly impoverished women receive government assistance on the basis of their wartime contributions or only as dependents of wounded or fallen soldiers -- or perhaps not at all?

In Britain, authorities shunned the arguments of women's groups and deferred rather to claims of the need to put men back in their "proper" role of economic power, by retaining the wartime notion of benefits deriving only through the husband.

In Germany and Russia, conversely, women were now in principle to have equal status, though the practice did not always follow the principle. The divided attitudes about the value of female work that informed these debates lingers today.

The flood of some 50,000,000 men back home at war's end in 1918 and 1919 also brought new tensions into family life. Returning soldiers imagined home as a refuge of normality after the nightmare of war. Yet men's physical and psychological injuries often precluded any return to their prewar existences, as did the social and economic upheaval of these years.

What was "normal" had of course changed for the women left behind. With their new roles and autonomy, they were often blamed for this world turned upside down. Such gender conflicts lasted through the 20th century and beyond, like many other legacies of World War I.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
World War I
updated 10:00 AM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
On June 28, 1914 a European nobleman was assassinated, sparking WWI. Is there a new shift in global power that could lead to another conflict?
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
CNN's Erin McLaughlin visits the home of Emperor Franz Joseph to see the place where he signed the declaration that began World War I.
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Sun June 29, 2014
Gavrilo Princip fired the shot that started World War I. What do we know about history's greatest teenage troublemaker?
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Paul Schulte says World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that lingers, lethally, into the present day.
updated 3:09 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Chemical weapons inflicted some 1 million casualties in the Great War and 90,000 were killed. A look at the use of chemical warfare
updated 6:01 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
Belinda Davis says "total war" plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs" even as they kept home and hearth running under huge privation. The legacy of that moment endures today.
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
With the men away in battle during World War I, women took on extraordinary roles, whether it was on the front lines or at home in factories and farms. A look at their lives.
updated 1:56 PM EDT, Sun June 15, 2014
It began 100 years ago, but World War I is no remote event. Its carnage and tumult changed our world, shifting borders, upending culture, home life, language and spurring a raft of innovation, says Ruth Ben-Ghiat
updated 9:29 PM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
Learn why gas masks, aircraft carriers and prosthetics have their roots in WWI.
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Although it seems like ancient history, World War I changed the world forever. Look back at some of the war's key events.
In an era when the telephone was not widely used, soldiers turned to picture postcards, then in their heyday, to send word home to loved ones.
updated 3:48 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Jonathan Lighter says when World War I was over, the English language had hundreds of new words. They're still with us today
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
The vast numbers of veterans left mutilated in World War I led to major improvements in the technology of prosthetic limbs.
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
The injuries endured by soldiers in World War One challenged the ingenuity of prosthesis designers. Look back at some of their innovations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT