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Role is quite often associated with weeping waiting and working as wives mothers and sweethearts. Sweethearts. But i think were all aware that women were not the simple or dumb creatures theyre sometimes portrayed simply waiting at home blind to the real horrors of the war.
And we should acknowledge that women were an important part of the war effort in all of the warring nations. Im indy neidell welcome to a great war special episode about the role of women in the first world war. They served as nurses munitions factory workers they sewed bandages.
They sold war bonds they worked in shipyards. They were spies and much more in britain. The womens royal air force was created with women working as airplane mechanics as you may imagine the traditional family structure was very often completely changed by the war as many women were forced into the workplace by the death of their husbands.
Other women were drafted into industry. If we look at britain for a. Minute we see that during the war 200000.
Women. Took up posts in government departments. Half a million in private clerical.
Positions. And another quarter of a million in. Agriculture this pales in comparison to the 700000.
Women who worked in the munitions industry. Which lets be clear was dangerous work. There were five million women working in britain by january 1918.
Actually in britain during the war. Roughly two million women replaced men at their jobs. And just a quick look around europe you see that in russia the.
Percentage of women in the workforce jumped from a quarter to 43 a million women joined the workforce in austria and in france. Where women were already a relatively large proportion of the workforce female employment jumped 20 . Germany.
Though saw fewer women join the workplace than other belligerents largely due to pressure from trade unions. This meant that all female labor had to come from volunteers and it has been suggested that one contributing factor in germanys loss in the war was their failure to maximize their potential workforce by ignoring women although they did force women in occupied areas into manual labor. Now when you picture an image of women from the war.
Especially if youre a native english speaker. Its really the women employed in munitions factories. The munitionettes you probably picture first and indeed they are the most visible faces of women workers from the first world war munitionettes produced 80 of the weapons and shells used by the british army and daily risked their lives working with poisonous substances.
Without adequate protective clothing or proper safety measures. Although this can be seen as a gauge of their will to sacrifice everything for britain. It should be read rather that they were seen as cheap easily replaceable labor.
They were sometimes known as canaries for the yellow tint their skin acquired from working with sulfur and even public sympathy couldnt help their working situation. They only got roughly half mens wages for the same work. Now during the war women were to be found mostly at the home front.
While a small minority went close to the actual battlefronts and a few even saw combat to many though. The idea of women in combat was abhorrent. This was a traditionalist attitude.
But even feminists argued that womens job was to not to bear arms. But to bear armies and that engaging in combat would undermine their. Argument that is was not only those who fought for their.
Nation ie men. Who had a right to vote remember at this point women could not vote in most of the world. The only woman soldier who enlisted in the british army managed it by passing herself off as a man dorothy lawrence a 20 year old journalist joined the bef.
Tunneling company in 1915 using the alias denis smith she revealed herself after only 10. Days. And had to endure a somewhat comical questioning as the authorities assumed.
She was acamp follower a prostitute. A term. She misunderstood.
She was forced to keep her adventure silent since the british army feared ridicule. But another englishwoman flora sandes published a book on her experiences as a soldier in the serbian army with a view to raising funds for her brothers in arms sandes was initially an ambulance driver on the eastern front. But managed to enlist with the serbs who by 1916 had already promoted her to sergeant major.
She stayed on after the war with the serbian army eventually becoming a major and how about the russian maria bochkareva. A soldier in the army since 1914 wounded and decorated several times bochkareva convinced the revolutionary leader. Alexander kerensky.
In 1917 that a battalion made exclusively of women would shame men who refused to fight into joining the armed forces so she recruited 2000. Women out of which about 250 saw actual combat on the austrian front fighting together with units of male soldiers. There are actually stories of women in the russian army throughout the war.
But in the aftermath of the february revolution in 1917. An all female unit formed with government support the russian womens battalion of death fantastic name actual combat may have been generally restricted for women in all the warring nations. But women were at the front.
Often as nurses or as drivers particularly of. Ambulances many of these women were killed by enemy fire in. Britain 80000.
Women served in the three armed forces in organizations. Such as the womens royal air force. Service but were largely refused training with weapons in the us over 30000.
Worked in the military mostly in nursing corps army signal corps or as naval and marine yeoman actually when the united states entered the war it marked the first time in the history of that country that regular army and navy military nurses served overseas. Although without rank and the first time that women not as nurses were allowed to enlist in the navy and marine corps. A handful of women also served in the coast guard women were also vital to war propaganda.
Portraying victims in posters and later films. But also for recruiting purposes. One poster used in ireland featured a women standing with a rifle in front of a burning belgium with the heading will you go or must i this was a common theme applying pressure on men to fight or else be unmanly.
There were also britains white feather campaigns. Where women gave feathers as symbols of cowardice to non uniformed men. The idea being to shame them into going to war and go they did and as men left their jobs to fight a vast new range of occupations opened up for the women left behind the extent to which these new opportunities.
Survived. The war is debatable. Though and its now generally believed that the war.
Didnt have a huge lasting effect on womens employment. Still though taking on a number of traditionally male roles led to some big changes in attitude and in a lot of places was the final push toward giving. Women the right to vote in britain at the end of the war 84.
Million were given the vote these were women over the age of 30. The eligibility of women act was also passed at this time. Meaning that some women could now be elected to parliament.
It would not be for another ten years. Though that voting rights would be on equal terms with british men with an age of 21 germany. Russia and the new republic of poland.
All gave women suffrage in 1918. Austria. In 1919 and the usa in 1920.
Women in france would have to wait until 1944 in general postwar european women. Gained new social and economic options and stronger political voices. Even if they were still viewed by most governments as mothers first cultural change is a bit harder to gauge.
But still certain norms of western middle class femininity all but disappeared and womens appearances before 1914 and after 1918 were quite different with many women now having shorter hair and wearing shorter skirts or even trousers new forms of social interaction between the sexes and across class lines became possible. But expectations about family and domestic life. As the main concern of women remained unaltered so even with limitations.
There was still in many ways. A brave new world opened up for women by the first world war. But it came at an immense cost im gonna actually wrap this up here.
This special episode could have been hours long and with immense detail. But what i think well do is in future have separate special episodes about more specific roles women played in the war. The nursing.
The munitions work and of course the struggle for suffrage to really put it all together and paint the big picture with the detail that it deserves since the role of women in the war. Is under appreciated serving and working and dying in dangerous conditions. Often without any acknowledgment turning their lives inside out.
And becoming bread winners in their own right and of course grieving for the millions of lost husbands fathers and sons this special episode of the great war was possible partly with your support on patreon. A platform that lets you support your favorite creators like us and their work. If you want to find out more check out our patreon page here for our special episode about poland in the first world war click.
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