The role and the expectation of women had already started to change at the end of the 19th century. WWI hugely accelerated that process. With men away at war, women took up most of the work of men in all fields, and not all of them were ready to renounce it when men returned from the war.
WWI produce a huge change in the way societies, governments, and people perceived women and their role in society.
The very participation of women in the war effort, especially in the war zone, was revolutionary. Women were thought to be too delicate for such places and such work up to the war outbreak. Yet, many of them left their home to help in the hospitals and provided support on the frontlines.
On the home front, things were changing too. And dramatically.
With such great numbers of jobs vacated by men away at war, the only solution was that women took up those jobs.
It turned into a great opportunity for women. They filled in the places of men and performed jobs that had never been accessible to them before, such as railway guards and ticket collectors, busses and tram conductors. They worked as postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ and clerks.
Some jobs were created by the war. That is the case of ‘canaries’., who were predominantly women.
By 1917, munitions factories in Britain primarily employed women, who produced about 80% of the weapon and shells used by the army. They handled poisonous substances without adequate protections daily, namely TNT, the chemical compound used as an explosive agent in munitions, which caused their skin to turn yellow and their air green. It was a life hazard, and indeed many died for that poison.
How the Great War changed the perception of women
The position of working women was tricky at best, because to some extent, it was the society and governments themselves that encouraged women to take up the place of men. Even with most of the male population at war, the nation still had to function and live. Manpower had to be found wherever it was, even when it meant accepting woman-power. Besides, women were indeed encouraged to ‘do their bit’ in the war effort. It showed their patriotism, and it supported the nation. With an understanding that it was ‘for the duration’.
For many women, this was the first real opportunity to work outside the home, with everything this entailed. It was a shift that involved mostly married women belonging to the middle-class. Women educated to rely on their husbands for a living became now the breadwinners in their household. But many were young women who left the countryside to work in the city factories. These girls lived their earlier life experiences in a totally new, unexpected, environment and here they formed their personality and social awareness.
The male world looked with a mixture of amusement and anxiety to these ‘new women’.
On the one hand, they were perceived as ‘cute’. These women were ‘trying to do’ what men normally did. Society at large found this an endearing attempt to step into a man’s shoes, with a total disregard to the fact that women were most of the times entirely able to substitute men in those jobs. Sometimes, it meant doing things like working heavy or precision machinery in engineering, which had nothing ‘cute’ about it.
It was the apparent attempt of an anxious society to underline that women could not substitute men in those jobs because they were unable to do it efficiently, and so it was obvious that this was only a temporary solution. Everything was going ‘back to normal’ once the war was over.
On the other hand, these women were perceived as ‘alarming’.
Many of the jobs they performed were clearly visible. Society may never notice the thousands of women who worked inside factories, but all citizens could see a women postal worker or a woman tram driver. It was a normal occurrence of everyday life.
Not only these were jobs that had never been accessible to women, but they also clearly alluded to movement, therefore to evolution in the role of women. In a sense, it was a more powerful social assertion because these jobs were in the immediate experience of every citizen, and they clearly alluded to movement and change.
Mario Isnenghi and Giorgio Rochat, La Grande Guerra, 1914-1918, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014
The Guardian – Women and the first world war: a taste of freedom
RTE – WWI heralds change of women’s role in society
British Library – Changing lives: gender expectations and roles during and after World War One
Striking Women | Women and Work – World War I: 1914-1918
The National WWI Museum and Memorial – Women in World War I