The ignored women of World War I

A study has awoken a silenced part of the First World War: the role of the war’s women. Researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Castilla-La Mancha consulted specialised sources on the women on the front line, on the rearguard and in the jobs that the men left behind to go to war.

Two researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Castilla-La Mancha have studied documentation about the history of women in the ‘Great War’. According to the study that has been published in the journal Historia y Comunicación Social, the war brought some of the progress made to a halt, in particular in regards to universal suffrage, but it also challenged the existing concept of femininity.

“The social and political consequences of the war changed the traditional gender stereotypes and gave way to a new modern woman, who was not limited to living in the private setting of the home. However, when the cities were rebuilt after the war, it was as if it had never happened”, Graciela Padilla Castillo, co-author of the study and member of the Feminist Research Institute at the Complutense University of Madrid explained.

According to researchers, most treaties overlooked the new figure of the women and the work done by those during World War I who remained on the rearguard, “but not at all in the background”, added Javier Rodríguez Torres, from the University of Castilla-La Mancha and co-author of the study.

The fundamental steps for women’s rights would not arrive until as late as 1947, when the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women created a draft with the intention of it being a legal instrument that united the rights of both men and women.


“Many women lived in the shadow of their husbands in this period, because even their work and progress had to be conceded to the latter so that the man published them and not the woman”, said Rodríguez.

The study primarily focuses on the countries involved in the conflict: Germany, Great Britain and France, as these were the countries in which the war had the greatest affect.

“Until wartime, progress had been made towards new rights for women, such as universal suffrage and education. With the outbreak of war, this was brought to a halt. Curiously, there was a break with patriarchal traditions, but after the war, it was vital to rebuild cities and attend to the wounded and mutilated soldiers, and this became an obstacle for many things, amongst them the situation of women”, said Padilla.

Women in the World Wars: WikiPedia
Women in the World Wars: WikiPedia

Women in the trenches

Data from the Henry Dunant Institute show that in over 5,000 years of history, more than 14,000 wars have been fought, leading to the deaths of 5 billion people.

“Women, as part of the civilian population and overlooked in terms of decision-making, have become, above all, victims and in general they are the people who, silently, in periods of war, guaranteed the survival of their families and even their communities”, as explained in the study.

World War I sent approximately 65 million soldiers across the conflicting nations and caused the rearguard to be lacking manpower, meaning industries had to resort to women in order to sustain levels of production.

The research emphasises that 430,000 French women and 800,000 British women went from being housewives to being employed workers, with many taking part in the war effort itself.

“In Germany, without participating directly in combat units, they contributed to the war effort, working in arms factories and carrying out various tasks near the battle front: supplies, ammunition depots, etc. Not long before the war ended, almost 68,000 women had replaced the men who were on the front”, they said.

According to Padilla, “women demonstrated that they could perform completely new roles. Before the Great War, it was said that women could not carry out the same work due to physical and psychological differences and this perception was fortunately broken”.

In England, women’s participation in the war was as unpaid civilians. In fact, 80,000 women enrolled as auxiliaries in the female units of the armed forces. A large amount also served as nurses.

In Russia, the first exclusively female combat unit, the Women’s Battalion of Death, was formed and it comprised of 2,000 volunteers trained by Maria Leontievna Bochkareva, also known by the nickname, Yashka

There was also substantial progress in Spain, but not to the degree of that of the countries involved in the conflict. “If we were going to compare it with our civil war – said the expert – there is practically no relationship. Similar cases were seen only in education, but in the First World War, we were quite far behind other countries. There were no female commandos or soldier units. Or if they existed, we have found no evidence of them in our research”.

At the time, the Spanish had already lost the last of their territories in their colonial empire, and as a result, were removed from the continental affairs that occupied the diplomatic keys of this period. “It was a small power with reduced interests in the north of Africa, in the shadow of the colonial interests of the European powers”.

Change of female stereotype

World War I introduced the very first modern concepts about women and their position in society: the emergence, for the first time in the history of Europe, of a mixed society.

Women took the place of men and were able to maintain a public and private life that promoted their personal and professional development. Likewise, a break with the typical customs of the era caused substantial changes in the family and marital structures and even aesthetic changes that contributed to boost their emancipation.

“The best example of this political change was in Great Britain. There, the suffragettes lost battles with parliament for the right to vote fourteen times. However, their empowerment as a result of their contribution to the Great War was decisive in obtaining it”, the researchers stress. They finally achieved it in 1928.

Spain proceeded to follow this example with its Constitute in 1931, during the Second Republic. Spanish women exercised their right to vote for the first time during the elections of 1933. This also supports the theory that the country did not participate directly in the war but they were influenced ideologically, with both its negative and positive consequences.


Contributing Source: Plataforma SINC

Header Image Source: Plataforma SINC


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