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World War I (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022)

WWI women’s role changed women’s history. With so many men off at war, all governments involved in the war effort had to come to terms with the fact that women could and had to work the same jobs as men. But acknowledging that was an altogether different story.

During WWI, governments involved in the conflict not only had to tolerate working women, but they had to come to terms with needing them. 
Women took up all sorts of jobs vacated by men, including some formerly performed exclusively by men, like heavy or precision machinery in engineering, something women had been thought incapable of. They also led cart horses on farms and worked in the civil service. Thousands worked in the munitions factories. 

Society wasn’t ready for this. All governments made clear that this was for the duration of the war, as long as the emergency lasted. Once soldiers came home, everything was supposed to go back to normal. Women received lower wages than men for doing the same job, normally from 50% to 80% less. The number of women employed out of the house raised considerably in all states involved in the war, and the number of married women who worked skyrocketed. Before the war, women were expected to leave their job as soon as they got married. 

When the soldiers came home, a great many women lost their jobs. Even their lower wages didn’t save their employment. Yet many managed to stay and started to work with different unions asking for equal rights and wages, a cause that eventually joined the demand for women’s suffrage. 

The Canary Girls

Pinterest pin. The text reads, "Enter the New Woman - WWI". The picture shows a vintage photo from WWI, where a woman in trousers and wearing a protective mask is welding something in a factory.

Victorian and Edwardian women were considered too delicate to be involved with anything related to fighting or killing. But when the war broke out, the need for munitions spurred the opening of new factories, and the only workers available were women. 
It was hazardous work during the war and afterwards since it gave health problems long after the exposure to the toxic TNT.

The entire process was dangerous.
These women constantly exposed themselves to the chemical compound trinitrotoluene (TNT), an explosive agent. TNT had been known to be toxic since 1914, and from 1915 doctors acknowledged its connection with the severe jaundice disease. Munitions factories should have taken health and safety measures, such as providing protective clothing that, although not enough to prevent all risks, did give some protection. 
But in the was emergency, very little precautions were taken. Women worked at the munitions with basically no protection, and this caused them several problems, some of which proved to be fatal. 

The least it could happen was that their skin and hair turned yellow, which is why they were called Canary Girls. The yellow colour revealed to these women that they were being exposed to something toxic – the TNT was yellow. They were turning yellow. Of course, there was a connection. Yet they kept working out of patriotism and in support of their men at the front. Working also gave them a sense of independence and purpose. It was surprisingly heady.
The consequences of the exposure to TNT weren’t normally too serious. Once removed from the agent, the yellow colour would fade, though some of these women gave birth to babies who also were yellow. 
But sometimes, the poison went deeper, it reached the liver, and that caused far worse illnesses that could be fatal: anaemia and jaundice.
Historians have estimated that some 400 women lost their lives from TNT poisoning in Great Britain alone. 

World War I (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) All nations invelved in #WWI had to come to terms with the fact that women were able to and were taking up men's jobs #WomenHistory Share on X

The job required filling the casing with powder and then putting a detonator on the top. The worker then had to press the detonator down, and here lay the danger. If they tapped too hard, it would detonate. 
Many women lost their hands, their sight, or were otherwise severely injured by this kind of accident. 

What these women did wasn’t less risky than being on the frontline, yet their job was seldom acknowledged. Canary Girls – who did their bit even during WWII – were often left out of history. Only now many nations are acknowledging their work and efforts. 


Mario Isnenghi  and Giorgio Rochat, La Grande Guerra, 1914-1918, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014

Women of the 20th Century – The Changing Role of Women
Library of Congress – Women’s Fashion History Through Newspapers: 1900-1920
Students of History – Flappers and Jazz During the Roaring 20’s
Striking Women | Women at Work – World War I: 1914-1918
National WWI Museum and Memorial – Women in WWI
British LIbrary – Changing lives: gender expectations and roles during and after World War One
International Encyclopedia of the First World War – Controversy: War-related Changes in Gender Relations: The Issue of Women’s Citizenship
BBC News – The Canary Girls: The workers the war turned yellow

Mail Online – Incredible photos from WW1 reveal the backbreaking and often dangerous work taken on by British women during the Great War
Mail Online – Wearing the trousers: Stunning black and white photos show how WWI changed women’s roles (and fashions) forever
BBC – What did women do on the front line in World War One?


  • Kristin
    Posted April 27, 2022 at 13:23

    Some of those women were working because they had to support themselves and their families.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2022 at 21:42

      Very true. Still, while researching this piece, I was impressed by how many of them found this kind of work libeerating becasue they were doing something similar to what men on the battlefileds did. They were fighting for their nation in a very active way.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 30, 2022 at 16:27

    And still women get paid less for doing the same job as a man. Hopefully the discrepancies aren’t as huge as back then…

  • Anne E.G. Nydam
    Posted April 30, 2022 at 17:56

    Thanks for trying to rectify the omission of this part of history!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 30, 2022 at 21:58

      You’re giving me too much credit!
      But I do what I can to offer different perspectives to history.
      That’s what I love about history: it’s a lot more complex and diverse than we think.

  • Damyanti Biswas
    Posted May 2, 2022 at 17:28

    Such an inspiring theme!

    • Post Author
      Posted May 18, 2022 at 08:36

      I agree. I’ve become interested in WWI years ago, but I think the shift in women’s and men’s perception of themselves is one of the msot fascinating topics.

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