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Gender and war

First World War

WWI was expected to be a brief war but lasted for 4 years

The ‘Great War’? - superlatives of horror

nos. of dead and permanently disabled

the extreme physical and mental endurance required of the combatants

the scale of the involvement of the civilian population

accompanying cultural events:

an experience which imprinted itself profoundly in elite and popular culture

unique and specific cultural life that the war encouraged was recorded in poems, novels, plays, paintings, and songs

accompanying political events:

disappearance of central and eastern Europe empires, viz.

Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Ottoman

the first communist state, the USSR


Gender identities

many of the political, social and cultural changes that had emerged in the 1890s were made definite by WWI but it is doubtful that WWI was an agent of change itself.

Historians differ on the impact of war:

Marwick – positive change

Summerfield, Braybon, Kent – women returned to pre-war status after 1918

pre-war developments

Sexuality and sexual difference widely discussed

New discourses of sexology and psychoanalysis

Emphasis on sexuality often closely associated with worries of declining birth rates

Eugenicist concerns about declining birth rates of middle classes compared with ‘degenerate’ urban poor


1885 Criminal Law Amendment – criminalising of homosexuality in private or public

widespread public debates about nature of homosexuality


the ‘New Woman’ – term coined in 1894 for women who demanded a public role and who

rejected recognised feminine ideals

lampooned in popular press – caricatures of powerful and athletic women bullying meek or effeminate men

‘New Woman’ challenged dominant Victorian image of middle-class womanhood

increasingly radical critique of marriage developing in pre-war era

alternatives to marriage – celibacy, sexual relations outside marriage, same-sex relationships

motherhood always a complicated issue for feminists – demanded higher status for mothers, control of women’s bodies through contraception and abortion – calls for ‘voluntary motherhood’

effects of WWI


effects of war on discourses of masculinity were ambiguous

public image of WWI – Kitchener on recruitment posters – solid, calm, untroubled

bravery expected of men

positive expectations of early volunteers – adventure, brief war, easy victory

harsh treatment of men who did not volunteer or were conscientious objectors

those who fought discovered that heroic ideals were a fantasy

many suffered terrible physical and mental injuries

existence of mentally-injured men challenged heroic idea of war and Victorian ideals of masculinity

incidence of ‘shell shock’ widespread – approx 80,000 cases by the end of WWI

‘crisis of masculinity’ brought about by male war neurosis – popularly called ‘shell shock’ - but many sufferers had not been under fire

gender order threatened because neuroses no longer could be seen as exclusively female


WWI = an opportunity to restore the natural gender order?

Some women participated directly in the war – military nurses, women’s military auxiliary corps – engaged in defence of the nation

but also hostility to women

encouraging men to enlist

nursing wounded, damaged men

hostility fanned by widespread publicity of women doing ‘men’s work – drivers, heavy industrial work, farm workers, women wearing militaristic uniforms

Servicemen’s Wife’s Allowance (1914) state responsible for financial provision for wives of husbands absent on war service but

SWA reinforced concept of married women’s economic dependence

conditional on wives demonstrating their respectability

allowances frequently insufficient for women’s needs

short-time measure for duration of war


Were women’s lives transformed by WWI?

Marwick - major proponent of positive view that women’s lives changed by WWI, subject to subsequent modifications

questioned by Summerfield, again with some modifications

Grounds for war as agent of change include: women’s war work

post-war female enfranchisement

women’s war work: positive approach

• increased workforce participation by women in WWI but problems with figures (see TLTP courseware)

• official figures for WWI: 3.3 million women employed in 1914 (23.6% of total work force)

4.9m women employed in 1918 (37.7 %) but may have been higher in1918

• some women moving from existing work into specific war-time jobs


July 1914 212,000 women employed

July 1915 256,000

July 1916 520,000

July 1917 819,000

women’s military and civil auxiliaries - WAAC, WRNS, WRAF, women police volunteers

women in transport work increased from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918

women in clerical or commercial work, civil service increased from half a million in 1914 to nearly 1 million by 1918

Marwick: a permanent change - the 20c phenomenon of the rise of the business girl

• substantial decline in nos. of women engaged in domestic service

1.7m in 1914 to 1.6m in 1918 - decline noted by contemporaries - change temporary or


• more married women in war-time workforce than in peace time - 40% of women workers in 1918 were married

• women workers earning higher wages than pre-war

average about £1 (20/-) per week rather than 9/-

spending this on clothing, smoking, entertainment, meals in restaurants, cafes, pubs

• equal pay became a major feminist issue for the first time – complicated issue, not resolved

• war work had not damaged women physically, except in cases where working with explosives or toxic materials

women’s war work: less positive approach

• many of the war-time employments were a re-iteration of women’s traditional roles as carers, nurturers, manually dextrous e.g. munitions, nursing, textiles

• some types of ‘new’ work such as farm work not popular with women or farmers who preferred to employ children because they were cheaper

• domestic service still a major employment area, continued post-war, albeit in different form

• women still paid less than men, even when doing apparently equal work such as munitions

issues of ‘equal pay for equal work’ articulated but not resolved

• no strong attempts by women to hold on to war-time jobs at end of war - expected to vacate them for returning soldiers

• TU Conference in March 1918 argued that women’s industrial work must be consistent with family life - married women s/be excluded from paid work; state welfare benefits for war-widowed mothers and wives of disabled men

• class differences apparent in women’s war work

upper middle class, educated women and girls: civil service, banking, volunteer nursing, the

women’s services, women doctors

lower middle class or more affluent working class: trained nurses and school teachers

working class women: clothing, food production, transport, munitions, all other industrial work

• women’s recruitment into munitions increased exponenientially only in government-controlled establishments; in privately-controlled munitions factories, only rose by about one-third

conclusions on women’s war work

• transfers of women into different types of work more important than recruitment of women who had not done paid work before

• wartime movement of women workers between sectors of the economy = fore-runner of occupational changes in inter-war period

decline in nos. in domestic service was significant

inter-war women’s work in light industrial, assembly work, food processing

• should also ask why women were involved in war work in WWI when they were not compelled to do so


Was the suffrage a reward for women’s war work?

focus of much historical debate - was suffrage product of :

cessation of violent suffragette activity during war?

maneouvring by Herbert Asquth (Prime Minister until 1916)?

Asquith had to ensure returning soldiers were enfranchised, therefore had very little choice but to grant suffrage to some women?

lobbying and political work by male and female suffragists?

consensus amongst historians that female suffrage

not a reward for war work

not the result of suffragette violence

but the product of pressure on politicians to enfranchise returning soldiers who would otherwise have been disenfranchised by British antiquated voting qualifications

pre-war suffrage movement had prepared the ground for female enfranchisement

wartime activities of WSPU (abandoned violence and strident wartime patriotism)

suffragists kept up moral-force lobbying on Asquith and, after 1916, on Lloyd George

the suffrage was only granted to women because male politicians believed it would not threaten the existing political and social gender order

but most people in 1920s believed that war had altered relations between the sexes (Joanna Burke)



Post-war renegotiation of place of men and women in public and work contexts

Change often worked out using existing ideas of gender and gender relations that looked back to pre-war ideals

No straightforward economic or political progress for women after WWI

Masculinity remained the predominant conception of citizenship

Pre-war feminist campaigns for equal rights replaced by welfare feminism and celebration of motherhood

Post-war widespread hostility to women’s aspirations

marriage bars

absence of equal pay and conditions for working women

negative perceptions of unmarried working women irrespective of post-war gender imbalance

between the sexes