Women and World War One

World War I changed everything, plain and simple.  But in so many ways the biggest changes it brought about involved not the scores of men who fought and died in the trenches, but the women who held the fort down at home.

It’s important to remember that the world before the war saw women as primarily mothers, wives, and daughters.  They were the keepers of the graces, gentle creatures whose sphere was in the home and whose thoughts were best expressed through the men in their lives.  Sure, this meant that women were put up on a pedestal to a certain point, especially in the upper classes.  To use Downton Abbey as an example, the Crawley sisters were expected to do no more than look fashionable and snag the right husband.  No thought was given to what they would be when they grew up.  And you can see through the characters of the Crawley sisters that this life and these expectations were profoundly difficult for a lot of women to bear.  Women knew that they were perfectly capable of taking charge.  It wasn’t until war swept through the world that they were truly given a chance to show that.

War fashion took a decidely slimmer turn

It wasn’t obvious at first.  In the early days of the war, as far as women were concerned, or rather as far as the media assumed women would be concerned, it was the loss of life’s luxuries that would affect them most profoundly.  Women’s fashion changed quickly to incorporate simpler lines and less material.  The blooming, voluminous dresses of the Victorian era, dresses that took more than one person to climb into, were replaced by straight lines and modest colors.  And in the early days “sacrifices” like this, the fact that women of all classes were encouraged to donate their money to the war effort instead of buying new clothes, were seen as the worst women would or could endure.  It also brought about a huge crisis in the garment industry, which is a whole other story.

The thing is, women who were in the know, the ones who had been fighting for equal rights for decades, knew that to simplify the contribution by women to the war effort as giving up finery was an insult.  The fact of the matter was that while men were in power, fighting in the front lines and making the military and political decisions that had gotten everyone into the mess in the first place, it was the women back home, wherever home was, that suffered the most.

In her book A Woman and the War, the Countess of Warwick goes to great lengths to point out that the suffering of a mother losing her son in battle is a far graver tragedy to be endured than any man could handle:

“She has lost much that was dearest to her, much that life is powerless to replace.  All the springs of her being have nourished the love that she has given to her dear ones, to the man who was her choice, to the son who fed upon her life.  In many cases she has loved almost entirely in her children, for the ties that bind her to the active pleasures of life grow weak in conflict with the powers of maternity.  She has forgotten the brief years in which she lived for herself and savoured all the sweets of existence, she has lived in her children, happy chiefly in their happiness, ambitious only for their future and concerned with the struggle for the freedom of her sex less on account of her own generation than on account of that which is to follow.”

I wanted to quote this paragraph because I don’t think that we women of the early 21st century can really appreciate what it was like to live a life where we were not truly individuals in and of ourselves, but rather a root or an extension of someone else.  Prior to the war so many women out there didn’t work, couldn’t vote, and, as this paragraph implies, devoted their whole lives to their husbands and most especially their children.

And suddenly that was gone, torn away by a war that many women opposed.  It was a war built on policies that women were powerless to vote for or against.  Many women, especially the suffragettes violently opposed the war.  And yet they could do nothing about it.  Because during this time women couldn’t vote.

Think about this for a second.  As pretty as the world before WWI was, the women who inhabited it were largely powerless.  Then suddenly this war comes along, this war that they didn’t want, that ripped their lives away from them in so many ways that went far beyond fashion.  And in the midst of the unspeakable sorrow of losing the men that these women not only loved but who were their conduit to be heard … life got better.

Downton Abbey does a pretty decent job of showing these changes in the lives of women through the characters of Sybil, who drops everything about her posh lifestyle to become a nurse, and Isobel, who was already a nurse but steps up and takes charge not only within the context of the hospital in town, but later by going to France to help the Red Cross.  Even Edith steps up to help on a farm and Cora by helping to run the convalescent part of Downton Abbey.  These are all real examples of massive changes that rearranged the social and sexual landscape forever.

Women stepped into all sorts of jobs that the men had left behind.  It wasn’t quite the era of Rosie the Riveter yet, but Rosie was on the way.  And once that cat was out of the bag, no pun intended, it was difficult to put it back.

WWI Factory workers - photo courtesy of http://rememberingscotlandatwar.ning.com/

When the war was over some things reverted back to the way they had been.  Jobs were given back to men and women were shuffled back into the home.  But wheels had been put in motion that couldn’t be stopped.  In 1918, as the war ended, women were finally given the vote after as much as a century of struggle.  Well, in the UK and Germany at least.  Women didn’t get the vote in the US until 1920.  And guess what?  Women in France didn’t get the vote until 1944 and 1946 for Italy.  Even in Russia women were granted the vote in 1917, but there were a few other revolutionary factors at play there.

The point is that the war marked a distinct turning point in the lives of women.  No more could they be said to be fragile creatures that were incapable of serious work or serious thought.  While they had to endure sadness and loss on a level that men couldn’t comprehend, they gained the ability to organize their lives around more than just men.  It might sound like a small thing as I write it here, but you can’t put too fine a point on it.  As horrible as the war was, it opened so many doors for women.

Which is why I’m dying to see how Downton Abbey season three handles this transition.  But I’ll have to wait a super long time now to see that.

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8 thoughts on “Women and World War One

  1. Awesome post, Merry. I’ve cut ‘n pasted your quote from the Countess b/c I feel, as a mother of a son who’s about to be launched (not the same thing, I know, but I’m still losing him) v close to what she’s saying. I know women have endured the loss of their dear boys (as cannon fodder) for centuries, but the terror and sorrow of it is inconceivable to me. And even though my life is so different from my grandmother’s in 1914, I find myself agreeing so totally with the Countess when she says: “She has forgotten the brief years in which she lived for herself and savoured all the sweets of existence, she has lived in her children, happy chiefly in their happiness, ambitious only for their future…” It’s the oddest thing, especially since I married late and had my son at 43. I’d had a long, long time to travel the world and live just for myself. And when I became a mother (something I never thought I’d want to do), it’s amazing how irrelevant and nothing those years that came before feel to me now.

    • Thanks for sharing, Susan! I have always been so struck by the Countess’s words on the subject. And as painful as it must be to lose children today I can only imagine how wrenching it would have been back then.

  2. I’m not sure that women having the right to vote would’ve changed the outcome of WW1 all that much. New Zealand women gained the right to vote in 1893, and yet their country was one of the most gung-ho about going to war. NZ’s eagerness to fight shocked many British people at the time. The sad end result, of course, was that NZ suffered the highest per capita casualty rate in the war.

    • I don’t think women having the right to vote would have changed the war, but I do think that the war changed the battle to give women the right to vote. Without the smack upside the head that the war brought to people I think it would have taken much, much longer for the vote to come to women. But I didn’t know that about New Zealand. Interesting!

  3. I’m always surprised when I learn about woman in history. The standard text book barely mentions them and then only in order to show how bad they had it and how powerless they were- and compared to today they were, but there were some seriously strong and badass woman in history and not just the few who made the pages of a history text book.

  4. Pretty good piece about the ladies. I just wonder why you say women “had to endure sadness and loss on a level that men couldn’t comprehend”. I guess the general idea is that women’s identity was bound up in their children in a way that men’s probably wasn’t, but that still sounds like a questionable generalization. Does a father suffer less when he loses a son (or today, a daughter) in battle? My grandfather’s a WWII vet who saw close friends shot dead right beside him. Did he suffer less than grieving mothers? I don’t know. You can’t ever really say who’s suffering the most, from an outside view.

    • I think the thing that impressed me so much about the sacrifice of a woman losing her son in World War One was how disproportionate an amount of her life that was at that time as opposed to the loss a man would have faced. Yeah, it’s a generalization that men wouldn’t feel the loss as tragically, but in that era a man at least had a larger mission in life. I can’t help but think that for a woman who was probably told from her earliest age that her whole purpose in life was to get married and create a good home for her husband and give him children, especially sons, to then lose those sons would mean losing her whole purpose of life. I’m glad that things have changed in the last hundred years and that women are seen as having more of a purpose than baby-makers, but back then I think a woman would have lost more than just her son in death.

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