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Women in World War I

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Women in World War I

German women in 1917, working as assistants to the war effort

Women in World War I were mobilized in unprecedented numbers on all sides. The vast majority of these women were drafted into the civilian work force to replace conscripted men or work in greatly expanded munitions factories. Thousands served in the military in support roles, e.g. as nurses, but in Russia some saw combat as well.

Women working in a gas mask factory in Geneva, Switzerland


The role of Australian women in World War I was focused mainly upon their involvement in the provision of nursing services.[1]


In December 1914, Julia Grace Wales published the Canada Plan, a proposal to set up a mediating conference consisting of intellectuals from neutral nations who would work to find a suitable solution for the First World War. The plan was presented to the United States Congress, but despite arousing the interest of President Wilson, failed when the US entered the war.[2][3]

During World War One, there was virtually no female presence in the Canadian armed forces, with the exception of the 3141 nurses serving both overseas and on the home front.[4] Of these women, 328 had been decorated by King George V, and 46 gave their lives in the line of duty.[4] Even though a number of these women received decorations for their efforts, many high-ranking military personnel still felt that they were unfit for the job. One notable adversary of the effort was Col. Guy Carleton Jones, he stated that, “Active service work is extremely severe, and a large portion of R.N.’s are totally unfit for it, mentally or physically.” [4] Although the Great War, had not officially been opened up to women, they did feel the pressures at home. There had been a gap in employment when the men enlisted; many women strove to fill this void along with keeping up with their responsibilities at home.[4] When war broke out Laura Gamble enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, because she knew that her experience in a Toronto hospital would be an asset to the war efforts.[5] Canadian nurses were the only nurses of the Allied armies that held the rank of officers.[5] Gamble was presented with a Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class medal, for her show of “greatest possible tact and extreme devotion to duty.” [5] This was awarded to her at Buckingham Palace during a special ceremony for Canadian nurses.[5] Health care practitioners had to deal with medical anomalies they had never seen before during the First World War. The chlorine gas that was used by the Germans caused injuries that treatment protocols had not yet been developed for. The only treatment that soothed the Canadian soldiers affected by the gas was the constant care they received from the nurses.[5] Canadian nurses were especially well known for their kindness.[5]

Canadians had expected that women would feel sympathetic to the war efforts, but the idea that they would contribute in such a physical way was absurd to most.[4] Because of the support that women had shown from the beginning of the war, people began to see their value in the war. In May 1918, a meeting was held to discuss the possible creation of the Canadian Women’s Corps. In September, the motion was approved, but the project was pushed aside because the war’s end was in sight.[4]

On the Canadian home front, there were many ways which women could participate in the war effort. Lois Allan joined the Farm Services Corps in 1918, to replace the men who were sent to the front.[6] Allan was placed at E.B. Smith and Sons where she hulled strawberries for jam.[6] Jobs were opened up at factories as well, as industrial production increased.[6] Work days for these women consisted of ten to twelve hours, six days a week. Because the days consisted of long monotonous work, many women made of parodies of popular songs to get through the day and boost morale.[6] Depending on the area of Canada, some women were given a choice to sleep in either barracks or tents at the factory or farm that they were employed at.[6] According to a brochure that was issued by the Canadian Department of Public Works, there were several areas in which it was appropriate for women to work. These were:

  1. On fruit or vegetable farms.
  2. In the camps to cook for workers.
  3. On mixed and dairy farms.
  4. In the farmhouse to help feed those who are raising the crops.
  5. In canneries, to preserve the fruit and vegetables.
  6. To take charge of milk routes.[7]

In addition many women were involved in charitable organization such as the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, which helped provide the needs of soldiers, families of soldiers and the victims of war.[6] Women were deemed ‘soldiers on the home front’, encouraged to use less of nearly everything, and to be frugal in order to save supplies for the war efforts.[6]

Ottoman Empire

Besides providing nursery services, women also took main roles in combat.[8]

C.E. Crutchley, Machine Gunner 1914 - 1918, (1975) which says:[9]

"An Australian patrol caught a Turkish woman sniper who had the identity discs of several British soldiers hanging round her neck. They shot her, and that shocked me for I thought she was a brave person doing only what many British women would have done to invaders of our land. But I kept my mouth shut for I knew that in war everyone is effected by its lunacy."

Also a Telegraph-Press Association news says:[10]

"A territorial from Dardanelles says that a Turkish girl was discovered sniping. She had round her neck thirty identification discs of the men she had shot and fifty pounds in English money."


The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.[11] Its few "Women's Battalions" fought well, but failed to provide the propaganda value expected of them and were disbanded before the end of the year. In the later Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks would also employ women infantry.[12]

United States

Great Britain

During World War I, many women weren't able to participate on the home front supporting the men who had gone out to fight. They weren't given the opportunity to help as nurses, teachers, textiles makers, coal miners and clothing, but the largest area in which the women did work was in the munitions factories, which were there to produce supplies for the men on the front not including tailoring, metal trades, chemical and explosives, food trades, hosiery and woolen and worsted industries.[13] The reason for so many women joining the munitions factories and other parts of the war effort was mixed between the sense of patriotism felt for working and helping their fathers, brothers and husbands fighting, or they joined because the wages received were doubled of what they had previously made (although was still less than that of a man's). The women working in these munitions factories were called Munitionettes and the work in which these women did was long, tiring and exhausting as well as dangerous and hazardous to their health.

The women working in munitions factories were from mainly lower-class families[14] and were between the ages of 18 and 30 years old.[14] A lot of the work these women did consisted of making gun shells, explosives, aircraft and other materials that supplied the war at the front,[15] which was dangerous and repetitive work because they were constantly around and encased in toxic fumes as well as handling dangerous machinery and explosives. They were to handle these explosives and chemicals with little training, yet expected to make them quickly and efficiently so the weapons could be shipped off to the men at war. There were different groups which were essential to the production of getting the weaponry out to the men. Each group was important in the making of munitions as each had their own particular job such as putting the cordite into the shells; another group was to put together the fuses and so on. This was very repetitive work and it was important to be very careful when handling these because explosions and unexpected gunfire was at all times possible, putting themselves and others at risk.

Not only was the work stressful and dangerous, but the amount which the women worked contributed to the difficulty of their jobs. The women would work twelve-hour shifts, six or seven days a week,[16] and at times would be expected to work over night. These long days in the factories were difficult on the lives of the women because it affected their home lives, especially those with children at home, and they were expected fulfill their wifely duties. This could be considered double work as they would work all day, to go home and maintain the house, this was exhausting and the women got very little sleep and were worked very hard. The lack of sleep was supplementary to the harms of the chemicals of the factories took a toll on the health of the women.

The factories all over Britain in which women worked were often unheated, deafeningly noisy, and full of noxious fumes and other dangers;[16] therefore the conditions which they worked under were not exactly benefiting their health. The factories also had very little ventilation for the chemicals and fumes to escape from, trapping all of the chemicals in and creating a very toxic environment. Explosives and guns rely on chemical reactions to work, therefore if the women because dealing with many chemicals and hazardous materials in order to create these weapons being exposed to the harshness of these chemicals without being properly protected increased the chances of illness.

Being enclosed in the chemicals some of the common diseases and illness which occurred were drowsiness, headaches, eczema, loss of appetite, cyanosis, shortness of breath, vomiting, anaemia, palpitation, bile stained urine, constipation, rapid weak pules, pains in the limbs and jaundice and mercury poisoning.[17] In [1] book On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in Great War” there is a picture of a firewoman who is carrying a munitions worker out of a building who had passed out from the fumes and Smokey conditions in which she had been working. This kind of reaction to the fumes and smoke in munitions factories was common as there was very little ventilation and fresh air. Jaundice was caused from working with sulphur which was used in the making of explosives because it is found in TNT and other such explosives. Jaundice with along with other affects makes the skin turn into a yellowish hue, this yellowing of the skin created the term canary girls.[18] Canary girls was a popular name for the women working in munitions factories because many had yellow skin as a result of jaundice. Another discoloration of the skin found from working in the factories is cyanosis; this is the ashen gray and livid color of the lips.[17] Although the women were at a high risk of getting diseases and illnesses, the women would go home at night to their children and would have these chemicals on them and attached to them carrying them home and putting their families at risk of health problems as well, especially to those women who were either pregnant or breast feeding their babies.

Along with health issues there were many obvious dangers of working in munitions factories such as the shells exploding or the fire-arms shooting when they were not supposed to, this was dangerous and many women had died from such instances. The women had to be very careful that nothing that was not supposed to enter the shells and explosives because if even a small amount of dirt was entered and the chemicals were added the reaction could be set off and harm the many working in that factory. This was critical to their safety and the women had to work carefully and hard knowing that anything bad could happen, a slip of the hand when drilling into a shell or the simple misplacement of a fuse could have drastic and deadly consequences. The munitionettes were brave and hard working women; they knew their lives were in danger yet they worked through the illness and the dangers to do their part in the war and increased the women’s role in society and gave women a new face proving their abilities to society and proved that they were capable of doing a man’s work.

Poster campaign

Propaganda, in the form of visual posters to entice women to join the factory industry in World War I, did not represent the dangerous aspects of female wartime labour conditions.[19] The posters failed to represent an accurate account of reality by creating a satisfactory appeal for women who joined the workforce and did their part in the war. Designed for women to persuade their men to join the armed forces, one propaganda poster is a romantic setting as the women look out an open window into nature as the soldiers march off to war. The poster possesses a sentimental and romantic appeal when the reality of the situation was that many women endured extreme hardships when their husbands enlisted.[19] It was this narrative of a false reality conveyed in the visual propaganda that aimed to motivate war effort. The Edwardian social construction of gender was that women should be passive and emotional, and have moral virtue and domestic responsibility. Men on the other hand were expected to be active and intelligent, and to provide for their families. It was this idea of gender roles that poster propaganda aimed to reverse. In one war propaganda poster, titled “These Women Are Doing Their Bit”, a woman is represented as making a sacrifice by joining the munitions industry while the men are at the front. The woman in this particular persuasive poster is depicted as cheerful and beautiful, ensuring that her patriotic duty will not reduce her femininity.[19] These posters do not communicate the reality that munitions labour entails. There is no reference to highly explosive chemicals or illnesses due to harsh work environments. The persuasive images of idealized female figures and idyllic settings were designed to solicit female involvement in the war and greatly influenced the idea of appropriate feminine behavior in the wartime Britain. As a result, many women left their domestic lives to join munitions work as they were enticed by what they thought were better living conditions, patriotic duty and high pay.[19] According to Hupfer, the female role in the social sphere was expanded as they joined previously male-dominated and hazardous occupations (325).[19] Hupfer remarks that attitudes regarding the capabilities of women through the war effort sank back into the previously idealized roles of women and men once the war was over. Women went back to their duty in the home as they lost their jobs to returning soldiers and female labour statistics decreased to pre-war levels. Not until 1939 would the expansion of the role of women once again occur.[19]

Notable individuals

  • 1914: Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a man in order to become an English soldier in the First World War
  • 1914 : Maria Bochkareva Russian: Мария Леонтьевна Бочкарева, née Frolkova, nicknamed Yashka, was a Russian woman who fought in World War I and formed the Women's Battalion of Death.
  • 1914 : Flora Sandes, an English woman, joined a St. John Ambulance unit in Serbia and subsequently became an officer in the Serbian army.[20]
  • 1914: British nurse Edith Cavell helped treat injured soldiers, of both sides, in German-occupied Belgium. Executed in 1915 by the Germans for helping British soldiers escape Belgium.
  • 1914: Olena Stepaniv, a Ukrainian officer of Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. Was the first woman to receive officer rank in the world.
  • 1915: French artist [21]
  • 1915: [21]
  • 1915: Russian woman [21]
  • 1916: Ecaterina Teodoroiu was a Romanian heroine who fought and died in World War I.
  • 1916: Milunka Savić, Serbian war hero,and the most decorated female fighter in the history of warfare, awarded with the French Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) twice, Russian Cross of St. George, English medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbian Miloš Obilić medal. She is the sole female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross) with the palm attribute.


  • November 11, 1918: Lotta Svärd, a Finnish voluntary auxiliary organization for women, was formed.

See also


  1. ^ """1918: Australians in France – Nurses – "The roses of No Man's Land. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 22 November 2010. 
  2. ^ "Julia Grace Wales suggests an influential proposal to end the war, 1915". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2008-12-10. 
  3. ^ Moritz Randall, Mercedes. Improper Bostonian: Emily Greene Balch, Nobel Peace laureate, 1946. Taylor & Francis. pp. 162–163. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Gossage, Carolyn. ‘’Greatcoats and Glamour Boots’’. (Toronto:Dundurn Press Limited, 1991)
  5. ^ a b c d e f Library and Archives Canada, "Canada and the First World War: We Were There," Government of Canada, 7 November 2008,
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Library and Archives Canada, "Canada and the First World War: We Were There," Government of Canada, 7 November 2008,
  7. ^ Canada, Department of Public Works, Women’s Work on the Land, (Ontario, Tracks and Labour Branch)
  8. ^ "1. Dnya Savanda Kadnlar". 
  9. ^ "Australian Light Horse Studies Centre". 
  10. ^ "Papers Past — Dominion — 17 September 1915 — TURKISH GIRL SNIPER". 
  11. ^ Laurie Stoff, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution (U Press of Kansas, 2006)
  12. ^ Reese, Roger R. (2000). The Soviet military experience: a history of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991.  
  13. ^ Abbott, Edith. "The War and Women’s Work in England" Journal of Political Economy (University of Chicago Press) 25. 7 (July 1917): 656. JSTOR. Web. 19 February 2013.
  14. ^ a b Crisp, Helen. "Women in Munitions." The Australian Quarterly (Australian Institute of Policy and Science) 13. 3 (September. 1941): 71. JSTOR. Web. 19 February 2013.
  15. ^ Woollacott, Angela. "Women Munitions Makers, War and Citizenship." Peace Review 8. 3(September 1996): 374. ProQuest. Web. 19 February 2013.
  16. ^ a b Woollacott, Angela. "Women Munitions Makers, War and Citizenship." Peace Review 8. 3 (September 1996): 374. ProQuest. Web. 19 February 2013.
  17. ^ a b "Health of Munitions Workers." The British Medical Journal. (BMJ Publishing Group) 1.2883 (April 1, 1916): 488. JSTOR. Web. 19 February 2013.
  18. ^ Ferris, Helen Josephine. "Chapter XIV: Club Work in War Time- Over There." Girls Clubs:Their Organization and Management, A Manual for Workers. New York: E.P Dutton, 1918. 327. Women and Social Movements in the United States. Web. February 19th 2013.
  19. ^ a b c d e f Hupfer, Maureen. "A Pluralistic Approach to Visual Communication: Reviewing Rhetoric and Representation in World War I Posters". University of Alberta. Advances in Consumer Research. (1997): 322–26.
  20. ^  
  21. ^ a b c Salmonson, Jessica Amanda (1991). The Encyclopedia of Amazons. Paragon House. p. 18. 

Further reading

  • Cook, Bernard A. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present (2 vol. 2006)
  • Dombrowski, Nicole Ann. Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With Or Without Consent (1999)
  • Higonnet, Margaret R., et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (Yale UP, 1987)


  • Braybon, Gail. Women workers in the First World War: the British experience (1981) online
  • Grayzel, Susan R. Women and the First World War (2002) online
  • Ouditt, Sharon. First World War Women Writers: An Annotated Bibliography (1999) online

United States


  • Darrow, Margaret H. French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front (2000) online
  • Hagemann, Karen and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, eds. Home/Front: The Military, War, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Germany (Berg, 2002)
  • Hagemann, Karen, "Mobilizing Women for War: The History, Historiography, and Memory of German Women’s War Service in the Two World Wars," Journal of Military History 75:3 (2011): 1055-1093

External links

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