Assess the impact that World War One had on the position and role of women in society.
The role and position of women in society has always been a changing fragment of history. Since the beginning of time, it has been seen how women gain and lose power and equality and how this process has been repeated throughout the centuries. However, it was World War One that had the most impact on the role and position of women in society. Since the outbreak of the war in 1914, women have become a more prominent part of society as they were given more equal opportunities to their male counterparts in the workforce and political endeavours.
Prior to World War One, the role of women was limited to domestic work, where they were to care for their family and keep the house in order. In cases where a woman was not yet married, they would work as domestic servants in other households. However there were women that were able to find employment outside of the home. For example, in Britain, of the 24 million women, 260,000 worked in local and national government roles, which were mainly teaching jobs. It would be several years before women were able to hold a position in public office. Of the remaining, 6.7 million women were employed in commerce, clothing trades and textile manufacturing, leaving 1.7 million working in domestic service. These occupations were referred to as ‘women’s work’ as it was thought too menial for men to do. However, overall, they were expected to primarily be involved in ‘duties of the home.’
Before 1914, women also had very little say in government policies. Only four countries in the entire world had allowed women to vote – New Zealand (1893), Australia (1901), Finland (1906) and Norway (1913). The rest of the world was experiencing ‘women’s suffrage’ and ‘women’s movements’ for the right to vote, as well as to bring about equality in the workforce. These movements began in the United States and Europe during the mid-1800s and soon spread across the world. This ‘first wave of feminism’ called on the government to allow women to vote in elections and referendums. However, the main issue was convincing the male population, the voters, that women deserved to have a voice in a male-dominated world.
During The Great War, however, the role and position of women in society drastically changed. With most of the male population conscripted for the war efforts, women had to take over their jobs to keep the economy running and provide soldiers with much needed supplies. Over 1.6 million British women were soon members of the workforce and took over jobs in public transport, agriculture, business, mining, and most importantly in munitions factories. These factories manufactured the much needed war supplies, from the dangerous chemicals and explosives to the hosiery and foods. On the most part, the experience of being a big part of the workforce and society was welcomed by the female population. Gail Braybon concluded that “many women did find the war a genuinely liberating experience.”
However, working during the war wasn’t an entirely liberating experience for some women. Those who worked in the munitions factories were subject to extreme danger. Working with explosives meant that the possibility of an explosion within the factory was immense. Braybon describes how several factories throughout England experienced explosions, with one in Silvertown resulting in the death of a number of women – “It’s very difficult to know quite how many women were killed because this was all subject to censorship during the war.” Yet, the most dangerous aspect of the job had long-lasting affects – TNT. Working with TNT all day, every day meant that women were soon suffering the poisonous affects, “you went yellow and you’re hair went orange,” which lead to women working in the factories being known as ‘canaries’. While death was not always the result of TNT poisoning, those who worked with it constantly became seriously ill, and for a very long time. Over 950,000 women were employed in the factories by 1918 and, unfortunately, had been told that the TNT wasn’t dangerous.
By undertaking male-dominated jobs, women showed their willingness and ability to work under the tough conditions of hard labour occupations. This surprised the male population who had always seen women as housewives and domestic servants, unable to withstand the manual labour involved in their jobs. The working women, especially those in the munitions factories, became a powerful force that Britain was extremely proud of. In spite of all this, sexism was still a major issue within the workforce. Apart from the usual sexist hostility, men were afraid of losing their jobs as women, who had proved they could work just as well as any man, accepted working for less pay.
The huge positive of women working in previously male-dominated jobs, was that it proved to the male population and government how important they were to society and how effective their contributions and voices could be. In a bid to increase agricultural production, as well as prove to the farmers that a working woman was an asset to society, the British government formed the Women’s Land Army. The organisation would boost agricultural production, as well as offer cheap labour to farmers, especially to those who were against a woman working in such a role. Over 260,000 women joined the organisation, purely to help in the war effort, since they “were given little more than a uniform and orders to work hard.” The shortage of fuel also meant that manual agriculture was the only option. However, Michael Duffy hints that the government may have used this as an excuse “to make working the land as cheap as possible.”
However, once the Treaty of Versailles was signed and the surviving soldiers returned home at the end of 1918, many women were forced out of their jobs so that the men could return to the workforce. Some women were lucky enough to retain their jobs as the casualties from war were significant. For the first time in four years, the unemployment rate for women, and even Britain, was extremely low. However, prior to the war’s end in November 1918, women were granted the right to vote in February. Any woman over the age of thirty now had the ability to vote in elections and referendums. Many historians believe that this was in recognition and thanks for the remarkable effort of working women during the war. Martin Pugh though, believes that while the war effort was a vital impact, the passing of the bill was “simply a continuation” of the female suffrage issue that was significant prior to the war. Pugh states that is was simply the next step for the government in relation to the women’s movement. Other countries soon followed suit, with eight more granting women the right to vote before World War Two – Canada, Ireland, Poland (1918), Luxemburg, Netherlands, Germany (191), America (1920), and Brazil (1932).
While Britain and the rest of Europe mended their economy, country and social structure that had been upended during the war, new opportunities opened up for not only women but also the whole of society. During the 1920s, which were to be known in America as ‘the roaring 20s’, the economy boomed as new industries were created and older industries got a much needed facelift. New job opportunities opened up, many that were perfect for women. These included retail and secretarial work, as well as telephone operators. Women began to return to a similar state of employment to the war effort and society was moving into a new era. Women’s Movements now centred on equal pay and employment opportunities, as well as issues regarding divorce, birth control and abortion. The first European birth control clinic opened in London in 1921 while in 1928, track and field events for women were added to the Olympic Games. The United States also saw its first female state governor in Wyoming in 1925 and the first woman elected to Senate in 1932.
Since the Word Wars, women have continued with women’s movements in order to gain equality with their male counterparts, especially when it came to equal pay. Over the past seventy years, women have become an influential part of society, with the majority of women in developed nations now working in full-time and high-paying jobs. It is especially important to note how many countries have had female leaders – Australia, United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Brazil and the Philippines, just to name a small selection.
World War One had a huge impact on the role and position of women in society. Over the past century, women have gained not only the right to vote, but also the right to equal pay and equal employment opportunities, all of which spawned from the efforts and results of the First World War. Without the social and economic influences as a result of the war, women would not have had the opportunity to become a more prominent sector of society, and the history of the past one hundred years would have been completely different.
 Abbott, E. 1917. “The War and Women’s Work in England.” The Journals of Political Economy. 25 (7): 641-678
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 Duffy, M. 2009. Women and WWI – Women in the Workforce: Temporary Men.
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 Wikipedia. 2014. List of Elected or Appointed Female Heads of Government.
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