Women's roles in the World Wars

Women's roles in the World Wars

There is little doubt that women's work in the two World Wars of the twentieth century was an important factor in the outcome of both wars. This involvement changed the social status and working lives of women in many countries from that point onwards.

Women's contribution to both wars was significant; though the attitudes towards their contribution were typically paternalistic.

Women's role prior to World War I

Prior to the First World War women's role in society in western countries was generally confined to the domestic sphere (but not necessarily their own home) and to certain types of jobs: 'Women's Work'.In Great Britain for example, just before World War I, out of an adult population of about 24 million women, some 1.7 million worked in domestic service, 800,000 worked in the textile manufacturing industry, 600,000 worked in the clothing trades, 500,000 worked in commerce and 260,000 in local and national government (including teaching). Adams, R.J.Q., (1978). "Arms and the Wizard. Lloyd George and the Ministry of Munitions 1915 - 1916", London: Cassell & Co Ltd. ISBN 0-304-29916-2. Particularly, Chapter 8: "The Women's Part".] The British textile and clothing trades, in particular, employed far more women than men and could be regarded as 'women's work'.

While some women managed to receive a tertiary education and others to go into non-traditional career paths, for the most part women were expected to be primarily involved in "duties at home" and "women's work". Before 1914, only a few countries (New Zealand, Australia, and several Scandinavian nations) had given the right to vote to women (see Women's suffrage), and apart from these countries women were little involved in the political process.

More than any previous wars, World Wars I and II hinged as much on industrial production as they did on battlefield clashes. With millions of men away fighting and with the inevitable horrendous casualties, there was a severe shortage of labour in a range of industries, from rural and farm work to city office jobs.

During both World War I and World War II, women were called on, by necessity, to do work and to take on roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations. In Great Britain this was known as a process of "Dilution" and was strongly contested by the trade unions, particularly in the engineering and ship building industries. Women did, for the duration of both World Wars, take on jobs that were traditionally regarded as skilled "men's work". However, in accordance with the agreement negotiated with the trade unions, women undertaking jobs covered by the Dilution agreement lost their jobs at the end of the First World War.

World War I

Seealso|Women in the First World War.

By 1914 nearly 5.9 million were working out of the 23.8 million females in Britain.

In World War I, for example, thousands of women worked in munitions factories, offices and large hangars used to build aircraft. Women were also involved in knitting socks and preparing hampers for the soldiers on the front, as well as other voluntary work, but as a matter of survival women had to work for paid employment for the sake of their families.

Nursing became the one and only area of female contribution that involved being at the front and experiencing the horror of war. In Britain the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Voluntary Aid Detachment were all started before World War I. The VADs were not allowed in the front line until 1915.

Not only did they have to keep ‘the home fires burning’ but they took on voluntary and paid employment that was diverse in scope and showed that women were highly capable in diverse fields of endeavor. There is little doubt that this expanded view of the role of women in society did change the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. However the extent of this change is open to historical debate.

The role of women tended to differ in scope and importance between World War I and World War II.

Many women worked as volunteers serving at the Red Cross and encouraging the sale of bonds and the planting of "victory gardens".

In part because of female participation in the war effort Canada, the USA, Great Britain, and a number of European countries extended suffrage to women in the years after the First World War.

World War II

With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, women's roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. By 1945, more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries in the U.S., building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. In the Allied countries thousands of women enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving in the military itself, particularly in the Red Army (see below).

This necessity to use the skills and the time of women was heightened by the nature of the war itself. While World War I was mainly fought in France and was a war arguably without clear aggressor or villain, World War II was truly a global conflict where countries were invaded or under the threat of invasion from leaders in Germany (Adolf Hitler) and Japan that had ambitions of world domination. In these circumstances the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labour of women was symbolized in the United States by the figure of Rosie the Riveter.

Many women served in the resistances of France, Italy, and Poland, and in the British SOE which aided these.

United States of America

American women also saw combat during World War II, firstly as the nurses in the Army Nurses Corps and United States Navy Nurse Corps during the Pearl Harbor attacks on 7 December 1941. The Woman’s Naval Reserve and United States Marine Corps Women's Reserve were also created for women performing auxiliary roles. In July 1943 a bill was signed making the Women's Army Corps an official part of the regular army, but not in combat units. In 1944 WAC’s arrived in the Pacific and were landing in Normandy on D-Day. During the war, 67 Army nurses and 16 Navy nurses were captured and spent three years as Japanese prisoners of war. 350,000 American women served during World War Two and 16 were killed in action. American women also performed many varieties of non-combat military service in special units such as the WAVES, Women's Army Corps, and Women's Auxiliary Air Force. IndeedWorld War II also marked milestones for women in the US military, Carmen Contreras-Bozak, who became the first Hispanic to join the WAC's, serving in Algiers under General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Minnie Spotted-Wolf the first female Native American woman to enlist in the United States Marines. In 1943, the first female officer of the United States Marine Corps was commissioned, and the first detachment of female marines was sent to Hawaii for duty in 1945. Women also joined the federal government in massive numbers during World War II. Nearly a million "government girls" were recruited for war work.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, women were essential to the war effort, in both civilian and military roles. The contribution by women to the civilian war effort in the United Kingdom was acknowledged with the use of the words "Home Front" to describe the battles that were being fought on a domestic level with rationing, recycling, and war work, such as in munitions factories and farms. Men were thus released into the military. Women were also recruited into non-combat military units such as the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS or "Wrens") and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) thus further releasing men into the frontline. Auxiliary services such as the Air Transport Auxiliary also recruited women.

In Britain, women were not recruited into regular combat units, but the Special Operations Executive (SOE) did. They were used as agents and radio operators in Nazi occupied Europe.

The Second World War began in 1939 so many housewives joined the war effort and took over the men who joined the army’s jobs.

The most common job for women was in domestic service, which about one and a half million women worked. Some domestic servants lived in attics and worked long hours as cleaners, cooks or chamber maids. They would be typically paid £5 or £10 a year. Often domestic servants would get half a day off a week however some only got half a day a month. This style of work was very appealing to young girls as the schools leaving age was twelve and domestic service didn’t require a high level of education. Nine-hundred thousand women worked in textiles. The textile industry was a major employer of women as they could supervise the spinning and weaving machines as effectively as men. Pay was of course much lower for women than it was for men. Five-hundred thousand worked in the ‘sweat trades’ where they would work excessive hours of work for very low pay in unsanitary conditions. The worst examples of the sweated industry were clothing and dress making, where women worked in workshops in the home of their employers. Some women however worked from home and were paid piece rates (paid for every item they made). Women were easy targets for sweatshop owners as they could not afford to complain for fear of losing their jobs, and it was almost impossible to set up trade unions as the number of workers per shop was very low. Women were usually paid two-thirds of a man's wage, or even less and were rarely ever promoted above men.

Women usually weren’t as well educated as men as some families educated their sons and not daughters because they assumed that women would get married and have children. The school leaving age was twelve and staying at school after that meant having to pay school fees or winning a scholarship; sometimes if a girl won a scholarship her parents would refuse it as they needed her wages. As a result 10 per cent of children attended school after twelve and 10 per cent of them were girls. Before the war effort middle and upper-class women were not expected to work. Middle-class women would sometimes work as secretaries or in posh shops as assistants before they were married.

oviet Union


In occupied Poland, as elsewhere, women played a major role in the resistance movement, putting them in the front line. Their most important role was as couriers carrying messages between cells of the resistance movement and distributing news broadsheets and operating clandestine printing presses. During partisan attacks on Nazi forces and installations they served as scouts.

During the Warsaw Rising of 1944, female members of the Home Army were couriers and medics, but many carried weapons and took part in the fighting. Among the more notable women of the Home Army was Wanda Gertz who created and commanded "DYSK" (Women's sabotage unit). For her bravery in these activities and later in the Warsaw Uprising she was awarded Poland's highest awards - Virtuti Militari and Polonia Restituta. One of the articles of the capitulation was that the German Army recognized them as full members of the armed forces and needed to set up separate Prisoner-of-war camps to hold over 2000 women prisoners-of-war. [ [http://www.polishresistance-ak.org/12%20Article.htm Women of the Home army] ] .


Much like in the United Kingdom, the Finnish women took part in defence: nursing, air raid signaling, rationing and hospitalization of the wounded. Their organization was called Lotta Svärd, where voluntary women took part in auxiliary work of the armed forces to help those fighting on the front. Lotta Svärd was one of the largest, if not the largest, voluntary group in World War II. Though they never held guns (a rule among the Lottas), without women's help Finland probably could not have held off the Soviet forces as long as it did.


The Third Reich, contrary to popular belief, had similar roles for women. The SS-Helferinnen were regarded as part of the SS if they had undergone training at a Reichsschule SS but all other female workers were regarded as being contracted to the SS and chosen largely from concentration camps. Women also served in auxiliary units in the navy (Kriegshelferinnen), air force (Luftnachrichtenhelferinnen) and army (Nachrichtenhelferin). Hundreds of women auxiliaries (Aufseherin) served for the SS in the camps, the majority of which were at Ravensbrück. In Germany women also worked, and were told by Hitler to produce more pure Aryan children to fight in future wars.

Contemporary conflicts

in 1942.

ee also

*History of women in the military
*First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (UK) -known as "FANYs"
*Home front during World War II
*Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (USA) -known as "WAVES"
*Women Airforce Service Pilots (USA) -known as "WASPs"
*Women in the Russian and Soviet military
*Women's Army Corps (USA) -known as "WACs"
*Women's Auxiliary Air Force (UK)
*Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service (UK) (in which Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II was enlisted)
*Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (Australia) -known as "WRANS"
*Women's Royal Naval Service (UK) -known as "Wrens"
*Women's Royal Army Corps (UK)
*Air Transport Auxiliary (UK)
*Female guards in Nazi concentration camps
*Australian Women's Army Service (WWII)
*Dorothy Lawrence British reporter who posed as a man in the First World War.


Women on the Homefront

* D'Ann Campbell, "Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era" (1984)
* Calder, Angus. "The People's War: Britain 1939-45" (1969)
* Costello, John. "Love, Sex, and War: Changing Values, 1939-1945" (1985). US title: "Virtue under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social and Sexual Attitudes"
* Darian-Smith, Kate. "On the Home Front: Melbourne in Wartime, 1939-1945." Australia: Oxford UP, 1990.
* Gildea, Robert. "Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation" (2004)
* Maurine W. Greenwald. "Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States" (1990)
* Hagemann, Karen and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum; "Home/Front: The Military, War, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Germany." Berg, 2002.
* Harris, Carol (2000). "Women at War 1939-1945: The Home Front". Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited. ISBN 0-7509-2536-1.
* Havens, Thomas R. "Women and War in Japan, 1937-1945." "American Historical Review" 80 (1975): 913-934. online in JSTOR.
* Higonnet, Margaret R., et al., eds. "Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars." Yale UP, 1987.
* Marwick, Arthur. "War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States." 1974.
* J. Noakes (ed.), "The Civilian in War: The Home Front in Europe, Japan and the U.S.A. in World War II." Exeter: Exęter University Press. 1992.
* Pierson, Ruth Roach. "They're Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood." Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.
* Wightman, Clare (1999). "More than Munitions: Women, Work and the Engineering Industries 1900-1950". London: Addison Wesley Longman limited. ISBN 0-582-41435-0.
* Williams, Mari. A. (2002). "A Forgotten Army: Female Munitions Workers of South Wales, 1939-1945". Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1726-X.- "Government Girls of World War II" 2004 film by Leslie Sewell

Women in Military service

* Bidwell, Shelford. "The Women's Royal Army Corps" (London, 1977),
* D'Ann Campbell, "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union," "Journal of Military History" (April 1993), 57:301-323 [http://members.aol.com/DAnn01/combat.html online edition]
* D'Ann Campbell, "Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era" (1984)
* D'Ann Campbell. "Women in Uniform: The World War II Experiment," "Military Affairs", Vol. 51, No. 3, Fiftieth Year--1937-1987 (Jul., 1987), pp. 137-139 [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0026-3931(198707)51%3A3%3C137%3AWIUTWW%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H in JSTOR]
* K. Jean Cottam, ed. "The Golden-Tressed Soldier" (Manhattan, KS, Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983) on Soviet women
* K. Jean Cottam, "Soviet Airwomen in Combat in World War II" (Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983)
* K. Jean Cottam, "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Ground Forces and the Navy," "International Journal of Women's Studies," 3, no. 4 (1980): 345-57
* DeGroot G.J. "Whose Finger on the Trigger? Mixed Anti-Aircraft Batteries and the Female Combat Taboo," "War in History," Volume 4, Number 4, December 1997, pp. 434-453(20)
* Nicole Ann Dombrowski. "Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With Or Without Consent" (1999)
* Shelley Saywell, "Women in War" (Toronto, 1985);
* Franz W. Seidler, "Frauen zu den Waffen-- Marketenderinnen, Helferinnen Soldatinnen" ["Women to Arms: Sutlers, Volunteers, Female Soldiers"] (Koblenz, Bonn: Wehr & Wissen, 1978)
* Laurie S. Stoff. "They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I And the Revolution" (2006)
* Mattie Treadwell, "The Women's Army Corps" (1954)
* Jeff M. Tuten, "Germany and the World Wars," in Nancy Loring Goldman, ed. "Female Combatants or Non-Combatants?" (1982)


External links

* [http://www.warandgender.com/wgwomwwi.htm Women of World War I] The Women of World War I (from the book "War and Gender").

* [http://www.railwaywomen.co.uk Railwaywomen in Wartime] British women's work on the railways in both world wars - photos and text - free information.

* [http://www.blitzkriegbaby.de/ WWII US women's service organizations] — History and uniforms in color (WAAC/WAC, WAVES, ANC, NNC, USMCWR, PHS, SPARS, ARC and WASP)

* [http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/wwii/72-14/72-14.htm the U.S. Army Nurse Corps]

* [http://www.polishresistance-ak.org/12%20Article.htm Women soldiers in Polish Home Army]

World War I

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