Women Participated in The First World War, But You Wouldn't Know That

On the centenary of Armistice Day, a good occasion to reflect about the role of women during the First World War

“War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only,” wrote Helena Swanwick, a British feminist journalist, in 1915. Not all feminists would agree about all women being intrinsically pacifist. But what Swanwick says reminds us that men couldn’t have been the only victims of the First World War. And yet even a hundred years later, most accounts of the war are only about men and in their voices.

​Men​ who faced horrors of trench warfare get adequate empathy — as they should — in all remembrance of the war. But what were women doing at the time and more important, what were they saying about the war? Heartening stories of women bravely “substituting” men in industry and transport jobs or nursing the wounded on the frontlines are not so rare. But these often draw from wartime patriotic journalism and propaganda material. In keeping with the ethos of war centenaries, these stories are repeated to glorify the role of women in the war but they eclipse the harsher realities of their situation.

Most mainstream accounts refuse to acknowledge that women’s rights movements in Europe suffered a setback during the war. The glorious images of women running metros, delivering mail, labouring in factories and sometimes even doing dangerous work in munitions factories during the war are wonderful but they don’t tell the full story.

Women did find out during the war that they could take over jobs previously reserved only for men when the task of earning wages to sustain themselves and their families fell solely upon them. But feminist historians have pointed out that this didn’t necessarily lead to any major change in how women’s ‘real’ place was defined.

Wives and mothers

This remained pretty much the same as before–wives and mothers looking after the home. That’s where everyone would have liked to see them return, once the war was over.

“Women themselves may have gained much from the experience of war work,” wrote historian and feminist Gail Braybon. “But men’s attitudes to them were another matter.” Braybon did a substantial amount of work on women in the First World War in the 1980s but failed to procure funds to do more research on the subject. She died of cancer in 2008. Braybon argued that women were not universally well paid and had not given up domestic work just because they were also doing factory work.

Women did organise their daily activities around their work rather than around their husbands, but were poorly paid as compared to men for the same kind of work. By the time the war ended, women were still valued for “their cheapness, dexterity, tolerance of boredom and lack of ambition”. Voices of some women who showed an open resentment about not being able to go to war were drowned. Nora Bomford, a poet, bitterly wrote in 1918, “O damn the shibboleth/Of sex! God knows we’ve equal personality”

The idea that women were introduced into the work force during the war is popular and gratifying but it’s not entirely accurate. The war wasn’t the first time women were “stepping out” of homes to work either. In the Middle Ages in Europe, women were already working in the textile industry in all-women workshops that were run by the nobility or inside monasteries. Many of these women were either working for aristocratic families or serving sentences for practising prostitution.

Not important enough

Even before Europe’s industrialisation began, cottage industries were the norm where entire households, including women and children, worked inside their homes. The pre-war industrial revolution brought women workers out to the factories too but they were more or less restricted to those that manufactured “domestic” goods such as food and textile whereas men got to do the supervisory and better paid jobs in heavy industry. Women were employed as temporary workers and excluded from guilds and unions. Women’s work was not always deemed important enough to be recorded; this leaves gaping holes in available data.

French journalist Julie-Victoire Daubié, who became the first woman to receive a university degree in France in 1872, gave a scorching account of the deploring social and economic conditions of working women before the First World War. She protested the “brutality” of men who “procured women like horses and made them undergo the same treatment”. Outraged about inferior wages and poor education, Daubié also denounced sexual harassment in the workplace, domestic violence and rape. She even slammed the judiciary for low conviction rate. (Sounds like something that could have been written today but it was a century and a half ago).

Daubié was writing during the pre-war suffrage movement. This is the time feminists across Europe and the United States were just beginning to find opportunities to connect. But the war diverted them because the patriotic sentiment started taking precedence over all others. The differences between radical and pacifists feminists that had already been deepening were getting more difficult to reconcile.

Once the war ended, radical feminist voices were far less tolerated than pacifist ones, according to historians Alison S. Fell and Ingrid Sharp.

​ It took France another war before it granted voting rights to women in 1944. In Britain too, where voting rights came earlier (1919), there was a post-war wave of conservatism where women were expected to “return” to their domestic and maternal roles as tolerance for disruptive, radical feminism took a plunge.

The willingness of women to make sacrifices and then return home quietly to be forgotten was more an idea expressed on behalf of women by men rather than by women themselves. A man called Eric Thirkell Cooper writes of “women’s share” during the war where the woman waits and endures. In his narrative, the woman is made to say these lines:

“The history of our times won’t mention us, ‘Tis so indeed that we would have it be:

Let men have all that may seem glorious, Let us but feel our part is known to Thee”

The idea that men’s war writing is more authentic stems from the assumption that the “real” domain of war is the battlefield where only men are “in action”. Women’s writing and their experience are relegated to a somewhat less authentic domain.

Historians choose to ignore women’s writing and we continue to ignore historians writing about women in the First World War. Even the much studied war poetry genre ignores women poets. Obviously, some of these women poets are just as good as the much read and studied men writers.

Even the “most peripheral of material spawned by the war” is lavished with “wholesale attention” if it’s written by men, says Nosheen Khan, who has written about women’s poetry of the First World War. Khan sees this sentiment flowing from “the atavistic feeling that war is man’s province and one which has no room for woman.” The poet Grace Mary Golden succinctly expressed this in 1917:

“The man goes forth to battle with pulse that throbs for strike,

He knows the joy of action, the weal and thrill of life,

He goes the great adventure to seek, perchance to find,

And, somewhere in the background, the woman – stays behind.”