Women’s experience as nurses in WWI factored into the advancement of their social role even after the war. During the war, women proved to be able to do what men did, to sustain the same stress and the same roles. Both women and men brought this knowledge home when the war was over.
We often think of wars as a male affair, but WWI shows that – at least modern wars – are as much female as they are masculine.
Although they were never at the front trenches or in battles, many women served in WWI, and contrary to men, they were all volunteers.
There are many reasons why women volunteered in the war. Some of them were doctors. There were still not many female doctors at the beginning of the 1900s, and they were usually rejected by the army when they applied to join the war effort. Undeterred, many of them entered other humanitarian organisations, like the Red Cross, or joined as contract surgeons.
But the great majority of the women who volunteered– like men – wanted to give their bit in the war. These were women with no special skill who offered themselves as ‘natural’ caregivers, thinking like everyone else that the war would have lasted for just a few months.
The myth of the gentle young nurse in her starched and spotless white uniform, which was widespread during the war, is particularly interesting. These girls were looked at as the quintessential women, who gave her services as caregivers – her traditional role – but were, in fact, new women that went out of the house into peril, learned a professional job and ultimately could do the same job than men in the same situation. These were women who would not be content to go back to their old life once the war was over, and it’s from them that, in large part, the push to innovation in the role of women came.
At first, female nurses were intended to serve in the rear, never facing dangerous conditions near the battlefield. This quickly changed as it became clear that the situation at the front was dire, and the kind of wounds soldiers were receiving needed swift attention. Surgical and gas treatment teams were organised to take special care closer to the front, and nurses were a key element in these teams.
These women soon learned to live and work in the same poor condition as soldiers. They worked long hours (shifts of 14 or 18 hours were common) in extreme cold and generally poor weather. Although they were not in the battle, they saw and treated severe, horrifying injuries with minimal equipment. They had to handle and try to help soldiers suffering from emotional injuries, like shell shock, having little more than their experience on the field to help them.
Many nurses and women volunteers never recovered from the stresses of the wartime services, and just like men, they suffered from Shell shock.
Nursing as a profession
Up to WWI, nursing was understood more as an attitude than a job. It was a role that some individuals (particularly women and nuns) fulfilled almost ‘naturally’, according to their personal inclinations. There was not a profession of nursing, not evening in hospitals.
During the war, practices were optimised and standardised because this allowed to transmit information from one team to another. Inside one team, practices needed to be made more efficient, quicker and as effective as possible.
In brief, nursing became a profession.
Nurses slowly entered the medical care and became as skilled as their doctors in curing the battle injuries. They also officially entered the medical profession since they started to dress wounds, administer medicine and anaesthetics, and assist doctors in surgery.
This shifting in the understanding of what nursing was (a profession, not an attitude) started to change the way women were perceived, first in the war hospitals and then at home. Wearing uniforms solidified and legitimised the work and, therefore, the abilities of women in the army and in the society at large. Uniforms visualised the fact that women helped in the war effort and that they had earned their position. Which was sometimes uneasy since some nurses were more experienced than the doctor they served under, but – especially in military hospitals – they had no decisional power.
Wearing that uniform was a hard-earned victory.
World War I Volunteer Nursing by Megan L. Schmedake (pdf)
The National WWI Museum and Memorial – Women in World War I
Top RN to BSN – 10 Greatest Nurses of World War I
Centenary of ANZAC – Nursing in World War I
CEUfast – Nursing and Medicine During World War I
BBC News – World War One: The many battles faced by surces of WW1