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The mighty women of World War I

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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
Courtesy of 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 legacy

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.