WW1: A War that was Out to Get Women

A woman of today’s time could easily be labelled as an independent force, due to the advancing freedom of expression and changing workplace conditions. However, a century ago, this was definitely not the case. In the early 20th century, a woman was not yet able to vote and had only just begun working alongside her male companions (Dodd 330). These modifications created a complicated divide between the sexes and put women at risk for being viewed as second place to the men fighting on the front line. As well, it is worth mentioning the extreme pressure women faced to withhold the demands of their respective countries while armies marched elsewhere. The major inequalities women faced while the First World War was in bloom caused historians to reflect differently on the development of feminism. In comparison to the modern day woman, the governments’ regulations around the world manipulated how women were to feel and be treated as to cater to the intensities of the First World War. Women felt helpless in secret services, felt lonely due to the diminishing population of men, and were likely unaware that the government was using them as puppets for war propaganda.

When looking at the historiography of how women are portrayed during the First World War, there is a distinct contrast when the 1970 revolution became a place for American and British women to speak out about the issues surrounding sexual harassment and the objectification of women. Writings published from then until now, have brought about critical discussions on the subject of women being mistreated in the First World War, helping to initiate feminism as a significant social movement (Metinsoy 19). For example, an article written in 1975 by Oxford University openly argues that although women were finally allowed to work in occupations other than a mother, their positions as munition workers, typists, janitors, or railway employees were simple, low-level jobs at the bottom of the economic hierarchy (Greenwald 156). As stated in a more recent publication by Canadian author Diane Dodd, wartime meant that men would be away from these duties and thus, women had to step up, although paid less than what men would have earned (Dodd 328). Therefore, it was only until the last quarter of the 20th century that sexist workplace conditions were brought into the light of the public eye. Before then, as the Second World War and Vietnam War finished, women were still depicted, by the United States and United Kingdom governments’ standards, as less than men (Redmond and Farrell 331). The portrayal of women has transformed over the past century in historians’ eyes, helping more women to speak out about the inequalities between men and women.

In Britain, espionage was a useful tactic so that secrecy could remain a part of their offensive strategy. Considering this, it is vital to delve into the remarkable imbalances between male and female spies. In Tammy M. Proctor’s book, she examines the way British women in espionage were seen as too emotional to be taken seriously for the job, adding in that the government thought women would fall in love with the enemy due to their “romantic natures” (Proctor 43). Indeed, this speculation that women are more emotional than men has been floating around society for many years, and continues to be an issue in current political situations (Ladkin 402). On the other hand, it is unintelligent to diagnose all women with this problem. This stereotype classified women as unfit for the secretive role and caused women to face disadvantages against the idolism of men in espionage (Proctor 50). When a woman missioned to double-cross an enemy line, she could use her sexuality to pre-maturely gather information for the government, but was then pushed aside (Proctor 149). It seems, that men were actually the more emotionally-driven workers due to the fact that they could be persuaded by a woman merely based on her sex appeal. Thus, women were wrongfully judged as too sentimental for an occupation as perilous as espionage because they were the most successful at the tasks they were given. Emotion should not be historicized as a weakness that kept women from performing their duties as intelligence workers. As mentioned above, female sexuality was used in British spying as a tool for targeting a man’s pleasure for having sex. Not only is this an extreme case of the objectification of women, but female spies agreed to pose as prostitutes because it was the only way women could exercise their patriotism. According to Proctor, the British media’s portrayal of women caused their secret service work to be demoralized and ineffective to their constant battle for equality: “Media portraits of women as virtuous, martyred heroines or avaricious spy-prostitutes made it difficult for real women to assert patriotism… without suspicion. Official secret service work for allied governments was one route to validation as “true” patriots, but even then, women’s work was suspect and their loyalty to their nations questioned” (Proctor 125-126). Further, these women who worked so desperately to be treated in a serious manner wanted their government to succeed in the war, and that meant accepting the profound sexism in this domain of military forces. British women everywhere, but particularly in espionage, were deemed similar to prostitutes with diseased reproductive organs leading to a strong regulation of women as a marginalized group (Kiere 250). This included curfews, and police officers were given the freedom to conduct strip-searches whenever they pleased (Proctor 31). All in all, female spies were unfairly treated as over-emotional prostitutes, causing their accomplishments as secret service workers to be viewed as invaluable.

Another example of how the First World War made the government act differently towards women stems from the population on the home front. Moreover, the women in the United States of America had to make do with the diminishing population of men who left for the battlefield. This is clearly stated in a book titled Singled Out, written by Virginia Nicholson: “The anguish of the surplus two million was exacerbated by the sense that they were unwanted by men not only as wives, but also as competitors in the workplace and social stakeholders” (Nicholson 24). It was standard, at this time in society, that the woman performed house work and motherly tasks, so that the man could provide for the family and greet his wife when he arrived home (Dodd 331). As men started to leave their families to fight for their respective countries, women began to feel a sad solitude because the normal household needed a mother and a father. American women became the majority in their communities, and that meant single women were not as likely to find a husband who could raise a family with them (Nicholson 83). Due to an extensive divide of the sexes, women were solely educated in areas such as needlework and languages rather than trades or economics (Nicholson 28). So it was not the woman’s fault that she could not handle a family by herself, but the control that the government had over their female civilians. This societal belief is to blame for why women on the home front had such a difficult experience living without a partner (Kiere 248). Equally, marriage as a whole became an implausible choice for women because they would just be left alone anyways. Nicholson exclaims that the mental health of women, as a whole, started to decline because they were stuck between choosing a life of poverty or a miserable marriage (Nicholson 147). The thought of marrying out of a loving relationship disappeared during the war, and depression arose throughout the minds of the surplus woman. Some women tried to use their allurement skills as a way to make money, leading to men in local nightclubs to treat them like prostitutes (Kiere 260). Consequently, this led to more oppression of women wanting to be open about their sexuality. In sum, there was not enough men to go around for the amount of women that stayed home to take care of the family, making the home front a very depressing place for American women.

On the other hand, maybe it was the case that, at the time, women were unaware of the lack of fairness. The legacy of British women, as well as Ottoman and American, has been studied and analyzed by historians in a variety of ways (Jensen 198; Metinsoy 20). Many believe that propaganda was a defining feature in the empowerment of women, in lieu of it being shameful for women (White 52). If it is true that women could not imagine their lives being any better, then it is possible that the government was brain-washing them. For instance, the White Feather Campaign, explored by Susan Grayzel, had an oxymoron kind of effect for women who participated in it because, in actuality, they were not given any real power at all (Grayzel 20). When a British woman gave a white feather to a man who had not enlisted in the army, she was just aiding the government in their twisted way of recruiting more soldiers. Rather than exercising her power as an influential woman, she was being innocently abused by the government by means of propaganda. Likewise, if a woman gave a feather to a military man who happened to be out of uniform on a particular night, she was ridiculed for her mistake (Gullace 202). In addition, the British government meticulously planned that women would never achieve the same status as men, no matter what field of work they pursued. In her book Women and the First World War, Grayzel writes that “women could join the military’s auxiliary corps [to construct ammunitions] and be ‘the woman behind the man behind the gun’” (Grayzel 13). In regards to this, women were never the intended superheroines at all. Instead, they were tricked into being the government’s toys and were perpetually treated as second priority to men. If the White Feather Campaign intended to make women feel less included in the war, it succeeded in more ways than one. This is also exhibited when enlistment posters were filled with women as an excuse for a man to sign up (Gullace 184). Similar to the ways modern advertisers use the sexuality of women to sell their products, the government thought they could market from displaying women in the media so that men would feel more personally connected to the war (Grayzel 10). As a final point, there are many oxymora to be found in the governmental structure of the war, including the fake power that was given to British women in the form of a white feather or a recruitment advertisement.

In conclusion, the First World War took a lot out of the wishes and aspirations of women because the governments of many countries required women to live in a regulated way. Whether it was because of female espionage workers being treated like overly sensitive prostitutes, because of a wife feeling incapable without a husband, or because of the government providing inauthentic ways for women to succeed in social status, the years of 1914-1918 mainly pandered to the needs of the war and the men fighting in it. The historiography of how women were portrayed during this time has evolved over the last century, resulting in authors writing from a modern day perspective. When comparing the treatment of women during the time of the Great War to the progressive movement of the “Me Too” campaign, there has been an extreme shift. It would be foolish to look at the accomplishments of women in 1914 as a victorious milestone for feminism because there were still many issues surrounding sexism. This is similar to the way Christians sacredly follow a book that was written ages ago. More important milestones have come along and shaped how society treats women today. As history constantly evolves, it is imperative to evolve one’s judgment of the progression of society. The years of 1914-1918 are not on par with the forward thinking of today. Simply put, World War One was out to get women.


Works Cited

Dodd, Diane. “Canadian Military Nurse Deaths in the First World War.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, vol. 34, no. 2, 2017, pp. 329-363. https://muse-jhu-edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/671547.

Grayzel, Susan R. Women and the First World War. Pearson Education Limited, 2002.

Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. “Women Workers and World War I: The American Railroad Industry, a Case Study.” Journal of Social History, vol. 9, no. 2, 1975, pp. 154–177.          JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3786250.

Gullace, Nicoletta F. “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 1997, pp. 178-206. JSTOR, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/176011?pqorigsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

Jensen, Kimberly. “Women’s ‘Positive Patriotic Duty’ to Participate: The Practice of Female Citizenship in Oregon and the Expanding Surveillance State during the First World War and Its Aftermath.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 118, no. 2, Summer2017, pp. 198-EBSCOhost, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ahl&AN=124209916&site=ehost-live.

Keire, Mara L. “Swearing Allegiance: Street Language, US War Propaganda, and the Declining Status of Women in Northeastern Nightlife, 1900-1920.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 25, no. 2, May 2016, pp. 246-266. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7560/JHS25202.

Ladkin, Donna. “How Did That Happen? Making Sense of the 2016 US Presidential Election Result through the Lens of the ‘Leadership Moment’.” Leadership, vol. 13, no. 4, 12 July 2017, pp. 393-412. http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/pdf/10.1177/1742715017714841.

Metinsoy, Elif Mahir. “Writing the history of ordinary Ottoman Women During World War 1”. Apasia, vol. 10, 2016, pp. 18–39. doi:10.3167/asp.2016.100103.

Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. Penguin Books Limited, 2007.

Proctor, Tammy M. Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. New York University Press, 2003.

Redmond, Jennifer and Elaine Farrell. “War within and Without: Irish Women in the First World War Era.” Women’s History Review, vol. 27, no. 3, May 2018, pp. 329-342. EBSCOhost,doi:10.1080/09612025.2016.1223311.

White, Bonnie. The Women’s Land Army in First World War Britain. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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