Women in World War I On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austrian-Hungarian and his wife Sophie were assassinated. A month later World War I was declared, which changed women’s lives forever. Most of Europe became involved right away, sending soldiers to battle for their country. When the men left for the war, they left their families and the jobs they served behind. World War I was a total war because all of the nation’s resources were used. This meant everyone who could work was needed even if it was the women. Women took new roles outside of the house, but still kept their roles at home.
Women had to go through many changes to become successful working women. The first world war provided many women with the opportunity to have an important role in the success of the war, impacting them and their families, and changing their lives forever. The roles of women were immediately changed by the war. Women were placed in the jobs that all the men left behind when they left for the war. This marked the beginning of a new era in the history of women. Before World War I, middle-class or bourgeois women’s jobs consisted of the role of mother, wife, and housekeeper.
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By remaining at home, women could be protected from the problems of the outside world. The peasant women usually worked with men in fields, coal mines, factories, and as servants in other’s homes. Society discouraged women from gaining high positions in the workforce. This all changed when men left to fight in the war, leaving jobs in the factories, schoolrooms, banks, postal service, and farms which were now filled by women. Women had to take over every job they could manage with the men gone. In France, the number of employees in metal industries rose from 17,731 in 1914 to 104,641 in July 1916.
The war shell output with women working reached 100,000 per day in autumn of 1915. Between August and December 1915, daily production of field guns rose from 300 to 600. In addition, daily production of rifles in that month totaled 1,500. In France, the overall industry workforce consisted of 25 percent women. By 1917, 50 percent of the women in Great Britain held jobs outside their home. Working in factories was not new for some women, but the number of women that worked in factories rose tremendously. In fact, some women took jobs in the armed forces.
These women served as ambulance drivers, paramedics, nurses, and resistance fighters. In Europe during 1918, 23,000 women served as nurses, most from the middle and upper class. Most served 12 hour shifts with less then ideal living conditions which included living in unpleasant barracks. In Russia, many women dressed as men to try to get in the army and many succeeded in combat. These women proved to be adventurous and capable in their new jobs. Although many women received jobs from the war, their working conditions were horrific. Many safety regulations were brushed aside to produce more arms for the war.
Everyday women were exposed to toxic chemicals, dangerous machinery, and explosives. They worked twelve-hours days with exposure to life threatening diseases as well as high explosive power cause pernicious anemia. The women in National Shell Filling Factories in Europe were called “canaries” because of the yellow tone in their faces resulting from the TNT manufacturing process. Many unsafe manufacturing processes existed such as beater – “beater” was a process which packed TNT into shell cases and if something went wrong they could easily explode.
A single accidental explosion in a Paris factory killed over one hundred women. The conditions in Germany were not only bad in the factories but the war also brought on poverty, hunger, anxiety, and exhaustion. These condition were a result of women being overworked, under paid, and worried about the men in the war. Women working impacted both the war and their families. Women’s contributions were required and vital to the war efforts. German diplomat, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, expressed this in his statement, ” it is the nation with the best women that’s going to win the war. During the war, most women worked long days outside their home as well as caring for their house and children. Women stepped up and accepted both roles, wanting to participate in the war effort. The Women’s Peace Party said ” As women we are particularly charged with the future of childhood and with the care of the helpless and the unfortunate. We will no longer endure without protest that added burden of maimed and invalid men and poverty-stricken widows and orphan. We demand that women be given a share in deciding between war and peace”.
Society requested that women produce more children to fill the population gap because of the large number of people killed in the war. Mothers described the wartime motherhood of pregnancy and childbirth as the female equivalent of soldier’s service at the front. Working women faced many situations that were unhealthy for the unborn baby and the mother. Conditions improved a little in France in the factories where they set up private rooms where women could nurse their children. Women had many challenges to face in World War I with taking care of their household, children, and keeping their jobs.
When the war ended, women were expected to leave their jobs and return to their former roles. But the war changed their lives with some men not returning home. This left some women widowed and the sole supporter of their families. Seeking jobs once again, women wanted to continue proving they were hardworking. However, most women were sent back to their prior domestic positions when men returned to the workforce. Some women said that life was harder than it had been during the war, when work was easy to find.
Although women resisted returning to a domestic role, opportunities to return to workforce never materialized. Finally, women endured inequalities while working. They fought to be equal and in some cases they succeeded but some were unsuccessful. Both during and after the war, women faced discrimination such as men and women having separate working areas. Men were paid higher wages claiming they had to support their households and thus required more money. Women were thought to be unskilled rather than skilled members of the work force. They faced long hours and low wages.
A women wrote to the French paper La Vague, “My husband has been in the army for the last six years. I have worked like a slave at Citroen [armaments manufacturer] during the war. I sweated blood there, losing my youth and my health. In January, I was fired, and since then have been poverty-stricken. ” This is just one of the many injustices that women faced making their lives difficult and complex. Many women’s accomplishments and skills were overlooked because of society’s focus on the men fighting the war. Furthermore, these injustices laid the foundations for political rights such as suffrage.
Many organizations were created to empower women as well as work to get women the right to vote. These women were very determined, one group even went on a hunger strike, and officials had to force-feed the women. Female revolutionary groups were organized in 30 cities in Europe. The question of voting rights for women emerged, and in some countries women were granted vote in 1918. This right was a “thanks” for their contribution in the war effort. In France, the measure to grant women the right to vote was blocked by the senate in 1919, but in 1944, women finally received the right to vote.
Another positive that resulted from the war was that women’s pay increased nearly five times compared to what they earned before the war. Women’s attitudes changed towards life as they demanded more rights, wanted more respect, and experienced empowerment. Women’s lives changed from working at home to working in a variety of places. Women had to learn to live without men around. They took the men’s jobs and were determined to show they could support their family. During the war, they endured jobs and a lifestyle that few women had experienced before.
After the war, many women were happy to return to motherhood , but some continued to fight for equal opportunity. These women did not give up as they fought for their rights. Without this period in history, many women’s rights would not be the same today. Not only did this experience change women’s jobs in society, it also changed how they viewed life and gave many women a different purpose. World War I resulted in the change of women’s rights, jobs, outlooks on life, and families. Ultimately, the war gave many women important opportunities, an opening to help their counties, and a chance to support and fight for themselves.
These resulted in life changing experiences for women. Bibliography Cook, Bernard. Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present. Santa Barbara; ABC-CLIO, 2006. Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War I. Colorado; The University Press, 1997. Gilbert, Martin. The First World War. New York; Holt, 1994. Heyman, Neil. Daily Life During World War I. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Keegan, John. The First World War. New York; Routledge, 1999. Kramer, Alan. Dynamic of Destruction. New York; Oxford University Press, 2007.
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