Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Contributions of Women During World War I

Liberty's calling, what's your response?
The progression of women’s roles drastically transformed from the pre-1914 era and blossomed into a period of liberation after the conclusion of World War I. Prior to the Great War, women either lived and worked within the home, served as domestic hands, taught as educators or where trained to assist editorial or administrative offices as secretaries. However, once war sparked in August 1914, the traditionally confiding “woman’s place within the home” altered radically along with the subsequent innovations and societal shifts emerging from the span of World War I.

In the Edwardian era, a woman’s duty consisted primarily of taking care of the home, raising children and participating in the community. Yet, it was rather common for middle-class women to work in factories or on the farm. The Great War demanded an extravagant toll of men, creating an economic gap which women began to fill. As women assumed roles traditionally barred to their gender, their career opportunities and political influence held considerable sway. Many transformed from into fully fledged nurses, journalists and public speakers who rallied unions, political parties and crowds to bring a solution to the needless bloodshed. An example of Edwardian literature and a product of pre-war mentalities, Anne of Green Gables, a piece of literature written by L.M. Montgomery has been adapted to the screen. Within the film, Anne shines as a confident and capable woman working as an author and teacher in the WWI era who ends up serving as a Red Cross volunteer, journalist and pacifistic advocate while seeking to reunite with her fiancé, Gilbert Blythe, a doctor stationed on the Western Front.

A clip detailing Anne's role as a journalist in Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story

Anne's video reveals how journalism and the power of female speakers lead to organized protests which impacted the suffragette movement and added validity to the public opinion of women in the realm of politics and social affairs. 
Propaganda showing women in different sectors of the war effort
 As the government hired and recruited women to partner alongside male soldiers, a significant force of women joined agricultural, industrial and fiscal ventures in order to support the war effort from home. Though women began to replace men in hard labor, such as in the mining, farming and factory industries, most appeared eager to engage in the conflict by enrolling as nurses and war correspondents, using their words and compassion to aid the bleeding and broken hearted.

The practice of “total war” demanded a mobilization of a nation’s entire resources, a financial method of funding the war which allowed for women to adopt economic positions previously limiting female access. For example, The Land Army took thousands of women from the cities and put them to work as “farmerettes” who worked and were paid equally as farmers, wore pants and proved to be such a successful development that the WLA was resurrected during World War II. The war’s impact on their lives most visibly is seen through the absence of male citizens. With the lack of this labor force, national organizations launched to which women clamored in the hopes of serving alongside their male counterparts in order to support their nation by front-line work and through non-combative vantage points.

With the introduction of conscription in 1916, women joined the labor force while others stayed domestic; instead opting to knit socks, raise money by buying war bonds, practicing frugality and through charitable activities. Wealthy women began to run their estates in place of their husband which led to estates being opened as hospitals or orphanages.
Happy Farmerettes of the WLA

In early 1915, women that went abroad to serve worked slightly removed from combat yet still in orderly positions such as medical, police and firefighting task forces. However, their capabilities and the demands of war increased their abilities to serve as ambulance drivers, convoys, medical personnel in the actual trenches and journalist correspondents. Seen as the angels of the battlefield, thousands of women served as nurses and bravely faced bombardments, disease and enemy attacks while aiding their distressed patients. As well as becoming nurses, laborers & members of the Land Army, women even volunteered as air force pilots and surgeons!

Nurses fought not only to save lives but surely saw their service as a means to establish a sense of independence and professionalism. The creation of the Woman’s Armed Forces formed specific roles for women to perform in war zones, such as driving vehicles, providing medical aid, entertaining soldiers through song and dance, serving as base staff and cooks, waitresses, clerks, and journalists; each embracing the innovation to utilize their new found skills. By 1918, millions of women were involved in the war effort.

On November 11, 1918, Armistice Day concluded the tremors initiated by ethnic turmoil in Austria-Hungary four years prior. The war greatly elevated a woman’s station in life yet women were expected to return to the domestic sphere so as to return men’s rightful positions in the work force. Yet the effects of World War I could not be so easily undone. Many young women continued work in male-oriented sectors - secretarial work being the one in which women came to dominate. Fashion changed too due to fabric shortages, which hiked women’s dresses up from their ankles and inspired the wearing of trousers and the trend of short hair just in time for the Jazz Age. However, the most profound impact of WWI for women was in the form of a piece of 1919 legislation which forbid employment discrimination upon the basis of gender as well as the powerful legacy heralded by the Suffragette movement. The organized masses of seasoned women, young and old, having served faithfully out of nationalistic pride and morality, now sought their own liberation. The feminist movement had built momentum and the international conflict poised Europe as well as America for radical change. With the US Constitution's implementation of the 19th Amendment, women’s suffrage triumphed in the form of the right to vote in 1920.

Conclusively, women performed a variety of diverse services throughout World War I and their involvement gleaned much reward. Despite prejudice and difficulty, many women saw wage increase, access to a wider pool of occupations and education which greatly increased their own societal independence and financial stability. The endeavors of the Suffragist movement fostered Edwardian women to throw off repressive patriarchal structures and societal norms in favor of pursuing equality before the law in the realms of political and economic reform. Feminism, existing prior to WWI, was immensely enhanced by the 1914 conflict which, without the intention of doing so, shaped and cultivated gender equality and further established the authentic upholding of Classical Liberalism which validates the intrinsic value and sociopolitical rights of the individual.

Suggested Reading:

Adie, Katie. Fighting on the Home Front: The Legacy of Women in World War One. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013.

Atwood, Kathryn J. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics (Women of Action). Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Hallett, Christine E. Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Macdonald, Lyn. The Roses of No Man's Land. London: Joseph, 1980.

Newman, Vivien. We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History, 2014.

Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Zeinert, Karen. Those Extraordinary Women: WWI. Brookfield, Connecticut: Millbrook Press, 2001.