World History 2 183 - 11.4.2 Women’s Work

As the war progressed and more men set off to fight, women in many countries found job opportunities in traditionally male-oriented fields, most notably the defense industries and munitions plants. In Britain, women made up a significant percentage of war workers (Figure 11.16). They were sometimes called “canaries” because of the yellow hue cast on their skin and clothes from the TNT they worked with daily. Women in France were also disproportionately engaged in the manufacture of arms and armaments. In Germany, this pattern continued. While some women had worked in factories before the war, the need for more labor drew those who had worked in domestic service and other capacities, and they often earned more in the factories than in their old jobs.

Women stand in a room full of stacked artillery shells. The women stand on one side of table and assemble the shells.
Figure 11.16 This photo depicts women war workers in Great Britain during the war. They worked in munitions, providing the shells needed by the artillery in the British army. (credit: “Women at work during the First World War” by Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

To read a first-hand description of the work British female war workers undertook and the way munitions are made, read an excerpt from the diary of G.M. West, a Voluntary Aid Detachment cook at a munitions factory in 1916. (There are images from some pages of her diary and a link to a typed transcript.)

Women also did significant work in the medical field during the war. Few were doctors; most served as nurses. Among them were both professional nurses (women who had been nurses before the war) and volunteer nurses who came from both the elite and middle classes. Volunteer nurses from the United States even began to flow into French hospitals in 1915. The Red Cross organized both nursing and hospital building across France and Belgium as the war progressed. Women also served as ambulance drivers and worked in x-ray units, especially mobile ones. French scientist Marie Curie’s daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, worked with and trained others for x-ray units.

Black women who wished to serve found their opportunities limited, just as they were in peacetime. In the United States, the absence of male workers meant that in restricted cases, African American women were hired for factory and office work. Overseas, African American women served with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) to aid U.S. soldiers, but they numbered fewer than twenty-five. Only two African American women served as social workers with the YWCA during the war in France. Black women in Britain were similarly constrained, though a few were nurses and munitions workers.

The sense of independence and the novelty of making their own money spurred many women involved in the war effort to see political reform and voting rights as the next step. For example, many women in Britain viewed the extension of voting rights as a way to reward them for their war work. Suffragists had been protesting for years about the need to include women among the voting population in numerous countries such as Britain, Germany, and the United States. In 1918, Britain extended the right to vote to property-owning women over thirty. Germany gave women the vote in 1918, the first country to grant universal adult female suffrage, as did the United States in 1920.

Another way those on the home front felt the war’s effects was through deprivation and doing without. Shortages and later rationing came about in some countries, targeting a number of different resources but most often food. The idea was that the government would control the allotment of certain food items such as meat and sugar so they would be more equitably distributed among the population. Britain started rationing in 1918. The United States did not mandate food rationing but encouraged people to adopt it voluntarily.

Britain was particularly vulnerable to shortages because it imported approximately 60 percent of its food. Ensuring there was enough to feed the soldiers and the civilian populace was the job of the Women’s Land Army. In this wartime program, nearly 100,000 British women volunteered to move to rural counties and keep farms running after farmers had volunteered or been conscripted into the war. The British government also assisted with moneys for new tractors on many farms whose horses had been requisitioned by the army.

All these changes meant that after the war, women had different expectations for the future and no longer felt as constrained by traditional mores. Even fashion had altered considerably during the war to accommodate the new kinds of work that women did. Long restrictive skirts were no more, and skirts were several inches shorter than in the early 1900s. Many European women also found themselves remaining single. The millions of men lost in the war left many unable to find a mate.

Link to Learning

This episode of the podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion focuses on changes in French fashions during World War I and how keeping the fashion industry healthy during the war was important for the French economy as a whole.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax