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Women In War Notes

History Notes > Further Subject: Comparative History of WWI (1914-19) Notes

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Women in War
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Past Paper Questions: Was the war a strongly 'gendered' event?
Was the role of women as consumers the most important aspect of their war experience?
Did the war advance women's liberation? Did it lead to emancipation?
Does viewing women as a resource to be mobilized seriously distort our understanding of women's experience of the war?
Did the war heighten gender differences?
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------General Considerations: To what extent did the war have a lasting and transformative impact on women's roles in all spheres of life? Was it a liberating event, or an inherently conservative one? Was it defined by rigid gender roles, or did it serve to break down barriers?
o Must remember - women were by no means a homogenous entity. Refracted through the prism of nationality, class, etc.John Keegan - 'warfare is...the one human activity from which women, with the most insignificant exceptions, have always and everywhere stood apart.' (4) o A common insignificance? Not so - must always remember that the First World War constituted an unprecedented example of total war. The entire nation and the resources at its disposal, including women, had to be mobilised efficiently in order to support the war effort. This was as true of Germany as it was of England, or France, or Austria-Hungary.What would a woman-centred story tell us about differing experiences of war, identity and society? Persistence of a popular view of the War as 'great' for women - put them in the workplace, rewarded with political enfranchisement. Particular vantage point of a few, but an enduring account. At best simplification, at worst outright misconstruction. o Also equate women with the 'homefront', a separate struggle away from the front lines. These battles consisted of farming, ammunition construction, etc. Women shown as people who could serve the nation. Only recently that historians have been questioning this, assessing its limits. o What did the war mean to women? Cannot understand it without them.


Was it a 'Great' War? Presented women with unmistakable challenges, but also with unique opportunities. Organised charity campaigns, served in a medical capacity, philanthropic, industrial.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Economic RoleEconomies of expedience - in Britain, the increase in domestic food production was achieved largely without additional female labour due to its advanced levels of agricultural mechanisation. In contrast, the peasant farms of mainland Europe were dependent on the contributions of women.Traditionally gendered role in some ways. Providers of food/sustenance: in G, conduct verbal, even physical assaults on shopkeepers. o The most vocal organisation on behalf of female shoppers was the Imperial Organisation of Austrian Housewives. Equated consumers with women, and advocated price controls on essential goods and a press campaign against profiteers: 'Since the outbreak of the war...we women...have seen it as our task to fight against the internal enemies who, in these important and serious times and in most detestable pursuit of personal gain, have an eye only for their own profits.' (Healy) o Protagonist and antagonist. Most consumers were, at the abstract level, women - who stood to gain through collective action. But as a lived experience, consumer solidarity was not synonymous with women's solidarity. Multiple roles played: profiteer, victim, buyer and seller. o One German military commander reflected that such actions were intimately linked with their femininity: 'they are supposed to work and cater for their hungry families and see that they are powerless to do so.' (158)Problems more acute in urban areas of the Central Powers - riots and protest in Vienna. What about the Ottomans? Also suffered female volunteers were the cornerstone of relief efforts. Female volunteerism signified the wellbeing of the state, but also its modernity - the Empire allowed women to participate, but within a strictly defined role. Nevertheless, if food deployed as a weapon of war, women used their restricted power to carve out new areas of influence. o The 'woman of lesser means' arose as the muse of German propaganda as a result - the front-line soldier behind the front, fighting an economic war that would keep the nation afloat. 'She did not fight against her fellow consumers - indeed, she was a symbol of their collective vicitimisation.' (48) The general experiences of German women, though not without variation,

were sufficient to lend legitimacy to fear-reaching demands for market intervention and welfare provisions by spring 1915. o Class attachments could lead to tension. Frustrated Berliners believed some wives of soldiers', as dependents, offered no special services and should not be rewarded as such. Rather than being upheld for their position as mothers and wives, they were disdained - they did not deserve their honoured position. Mothers of many children were 'bad mothers', not interested in propagating young Germans but instead in securing as much food for themselves as possible.Poor working-class women, protesting and queuing for food, became seen as representatives for the interests of larger urban communities. By 1915, those of 'lesser means' were officially accorded the right to use special municipal sale outlets offering goods - if there were any - at 'reasonable prices.' In this, 'a formally doubly disenfranchised population, composed predominantly of poorer women, secured a remarkable amount of societal power.' (64) Failed to transform the miserable economic plight of the poor.When economic conditions became sufficiently dire, women displayed their frustration through protest, resistance and even revolution. This eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution lends credence to such a belief. o 'The Russian Revolution was begun by hungry women and children demanding bread and herrings. They started by wrecking tram cars and looting a few small shops. Only later did they, together with workmen and politicians, become ambitious to wreck that mighty edifice, the Russian autocracy.' (2)
? Did women revolt over mere 'bread and herrings'?
Were the questions of food and the nourishment of the family the only ones women felt able, or even desired, to respond to?
? Entered into the political arena within a definitively gendered paradigm, but entered it nonetheless. Their actions, whether in protest, in the factory or elsewhere, blurred the lines between public and private.
? Cannot dismiss material concerns as somehow apolitical. Even those who were motivated to action by economic circumstance and expedience did not operate apart from the political narrative of revolution. o Not initially political - but in the context of total war, subversive enough to have a considerable impact on the direction of events. o But this same spontaneity implied that women could not act in a concerted and long-term political manner - which is why the events of 1917 came as such a surprise.


'Their persistence, resourcefulness, and success in surviving were not as spectacular as dying with a weapon in one's hand but, arguably, just as remarkable.' (11)

Work1916, Mrs. Churchill in her book 'Women's War Work' - 'It is one of the virtues of war that it puts the light which in peacetime is hid under a bushel in such prominence that all can see it.' (297)High level of female participation before 1914. More a question of transferring skills. o In France: , a large section of the female population - those living on the land - were participants in the war effort from the very beginning, and were so at the government's request. Dependent on them even before the war - agricultural economy, subsistence for peasantry. On 3rd August an appeal was issued telling women to continue harvesting the fields despite the fighting.Whilst the number of women in full-time employment did increase, overall gains were not as substantial and across Europe were seen as a temporary wartime expedient. To quote a French metalworker's words of 1917, that would undoubtedly have held resonance elsewhere: 'the systematic introduction of women into workshops is entirely at odds with the establishment and maintenance of homes and family life.' (155)Russia - the metal industry; by the eve of the revolution, that percentage had risen to 18. (7) o Still seen as part of the mass of unskilled labour, unable to articulate political grievances. o 'In a patriarchal and economically underdeveloped society and an absolutist political system, the inequality to which women were subjected in the former seemed balanced in the latter by their equality with men in the general lack of civil and political rights. One result was that the women's movement concentrated on social and economic issues, and did not take up the demand for female suffrage until the 1905 Revolution.' (Belinda Davis)Britain - systematic addressing of women's involvement, recognised in official capacity. Had fewer inhibitions about putting women in uniform; more progressive in their approach?
o Women's Land Army - economic involvement even in the more technologically advanced/agriculturally proficient nations. o State regulation - in Britain female protest forces rent control, bringing state into ever closer contact with the lives of those it presided over. Welfare and warfare state develop in tandem. o Williams: "perhaps the most far-reaching social change caused by the war [was] the emancipation of women from

o o

otheir traditional status of inferiority, the result of their mobilisation for the war-effort and assumption of tasks hitherto the province of men." Britain - munitions drive of March 1915 that the government began to actively look for women workers. Almost immediately, 124,000 women signed up. 1915 seen as a year when women moved "into the free-andeasy and often rough atmosphere of wartime employment." And, just as with British women, they too supposedly "threw aside the traditional restraints of their sex and embraced a new freedom and independence." Germany's enlistment of women was the furthest reaching of all the three nations. Having anticipated their labour shortage, the government hired the head of one of the largest women's rights organisations in Germany, Dr Gertrude Baumer, to organise women to work.
? As early as September, workrooms had been set up and thousands of women assigned roles in agriculture or industry. As one visitor to Berlin in March 1915 reported "no men anywhere, women are doing everything."
? Furthermore, a network of women's welfare resources had been set up to help mothers at work: war kitchens, nurseries, kindergartens and leagues of housewives. Although there was no national campaign for female suffrage in Germany, the National Council of Women of Germany, with 600,000 members, was even beginning to show an interest in the women's vote.

But was this emancipation in the true sense? Women worked long hours and were paid less than their male counterparts. In France, a large section of female agricultural workers had participated in the war from the very beginning. o Williams - in Limehouse where, for just 10s. a week, women had to work in a dank, steaming basement dealing with vilesmelling, often decomposing food. o Work environments were often just as poor in Lloyd George's new factories, with workshops tending to be devoid of basic facilities. o Expansion of women in work from 4.93 million to 6.19 million, most of the new labour force came from working-class women who had previous work experience or teenagers who would have worked in the near future anyway. o DeGroot: "war imposed masculine values upon society, thus reinvigorating notions of separate spheres." Men fight wars, women stay at home and, as a result, women are forced back into the symbolic roles: nurturer, carer, mother.
? French scheme, Oeovre de mon Soldat - women adopted troops from the invaded territories who were fighting at the front. They would write and send parcels to these men while they were at the front and then look after them when they were on leave.


Legislative developments in warring nations varied - in Germany, skilled labourers and their representatives worked tirelessly to ensure that women could not usurp male jobs. Ultimately excluded from the 'Auxiliary Service for the Fatherland' law. Could still work voluntarily. Scope differed, but all women participated.Welfare supervision - middle-class women acting as intermediaries between the state and the factory floor in both Germany and Britain. Accepted within the confines of the 'nurturing' sphere. Those taking up positions more definitively understood as 'male' tended to be older, married and from upper-middle class backgrounds, providing a foundation for their official authority.Nurses in line of fire.. Different sectors generated different conditions in which nurses were to work. The Eastern Front, cold and dark, was a tasking environment to operate in, and women here were more likely than those in the West to be exposed to malaria and typhus. o Conservative attitudes of the post-war world undermine the work of women at the front. Intimate contact with soldiers' bodies prompted some to suspect the morality of nurses. When Vera Brittain returned to university after her service, she was considered liable to harm other women students: 'Who could calculate the awful extent to which I might corrupt the morals of my innocent juniors?'Women served as spies. Hid soldiers and supported networks for those who tried to escape - notably Edith Cavell, who was executed by the Germans in 1915, and Mata Hari, executed by the French in 1917 as a double agent. o Perfectly encapsulates the pit/pedestal binary through which women and their actions were understood. Hari as whore, obtaining information for money. 'Asexual' Cavell, undertaking role not for money but duty. o Irene Bastin - joined La Dame Blanche, Belgian resistance movement. Only 17: 'At last that which I have so desired is realised, I am going to work for our nation and as a soldier.' (239) o Collapse of gendered barriers. Agent Jeanne Delwaide had not known 'the intoxication of combat where we advanced elbow to elbow to the seductive clarion call, nor the nights of battle triumphant. But we have known violent struggle...we have seen the voids created in our ranks...tracked by the German police, we have wondered in our cities.' (240) o Proctor - , 'the blurring of the line between combatant and civilian' meant that 'the experience of occupation undermined gendered expectations about non combatants' role in warfare.'

But....Decline in secular female employment in France after the First World War. Rose to 46% of all labour employment during the war from

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