World War One took many of Europe’s men away from their usual jobs. To compensate for this diminished workforce women were encouraged to take up those jobs in the meantime. While this may have begun as a temporary solution on the home front of a war, it raised questions about women’s place in society
Nursing Becomes a Profession
One of the most significant roles for women in the war was nursing. Although it had long been an occupation associated with women, the sheer scale of World War One allowed a greater number of women to get away from their peacetime domesticity.
Furthermore, nurses was in the process of emerging as a true profession rather than simply a voluntary assistance. For example, in 1887 the British Nurses’ Association was established by Ethel Gordon Fenwick ‘to unite all British nurses in membership of a recognised profession and to provide . . . evidence of their having received systematic training’. This gave a higher status to military nurses than was the case in previous wars.
80,000 British Women Volunteered in the various nursing services which operated during the war. They worked alongside nurses from Britain’s colonies and dominions, including around 3,000 Australians and 3,141 Canadians. In 1917 they were joined by a further 21,500 from the U.S. Army, who at the time recruited female nurses exclusively.
Edith Cavell was probably the most celebrated nurse of the war. She helped 200 Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium and was executed by the Germans as a result — an act which caused outrage around the world.
Industry and the War Effort
A lot of women took up factory jobs during the war. These were not only the jobs left vacant by men going off to war but also new jobs created by the surge in demand for war goods such as uniforms, machinery and, most prominently, munitions. Artillery played a huge role in the war so shells were in high demand.
By November 1918 950,000 women worked in British munitions factories and a further 700,000 were employed in similar work in Germany.
Munitions jobs were hazardous. Not only was there the risk of explosions, but prolonged exposure to sulphur turned the skin yellow and could cause liver failure, spleen enlargement and infertility. Despite these risks, women earned only half the equivalent male wage.
Women filled a range of auxilliary military roles acting as clerks, cooks, telephone operators, translators and stenographers. They also occupied other sectors of the traditionally male workforce such as the police and fire brigade.
The US Navy admitted a small number of women on equal terms with men, but after the war quickly ceased this policy and returned to an all male navy.
A few women served in a more direct military capacity. In the Ottoman Empire there were a limited number of female snipers and the Russian Provisional Government of 1917 established fighting women’s units, though their deployment was limited as Russia withdrew from the war.