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Women’s Contributions to The First World War Significantly Affect Constructions of Gender

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Gender divisions satisfied the justification of war through the explanation that it could release male bloodlust, which was unsatisfied by civilised society. It was a role that allowed men to be able to protect women from “foreign” contamination. As such it can be argued that war “gendered society” as it portrayed an exaggerated stereotype, especially with men.

“Masculine identity was synonymous with war. To be a soldier is to be ‘a man’; to be anything else, no matter how involved in the combat, is to be the ‘other’. There is no need to extrapolate masculinity from man-in a soldier they become one.”

It can be argued then that men needed a war to perpetuate their masculinity and the traditional identity it epitomised. Whilst feminists argued against this, stating that men were not typically war-mongering, it was society on the whole that intensified the gendering of the sexes.

“Feminists believed masculinity to be culturally, not biologically, constructed and attributed women’s victimization to a sociological process.”

Whereas anti-suffrage women believed that men had a biological necessity to dominate, and if women were to achieve suffrage they would be in danger through the provoking of a competition, which would be imposed on them by the male urge to “win”, especially within the political arena. Anti-suffrage women believed in a balance between the sexes.

“We want men who are men, and women who are women.”

Having such an obligation for the sexes to remain stereotypes brought about a “gender contract” expecting that men go off to fight whilst women stay at home, to keep house and wait upon their return. This was especially seen prior to the First World War such as at the turn of the century with the Boer War (1899-1902). Women were unconcerned with war, as it did not concern the home front; due to the regular army consisting of working class men the war effort did not affect the majority of society. Industry and the domestic sphere, to which women were concerned, were left uninterrupted. ‘Women’s work’ had no function within the war effort until the First World War eclipsed Britain.

This ‘women’s work’ for example saw out of an adult population of twenty-four million women working prior to the outbreak of the First World War; 1.7 million worked in domestic service, 0.8 million in the textile industry, 0.6 million in the clothing trade, 0.5 million in commerce, and 0.26 million worked in local and national government (including teaching).

When it came to the First World War women were absorbed in to the public sphere of work, yet many major industries were wary about employing women, they were suspicious of their “competence and reliability”5, yet enjoyed paying lower wages than they would to a specifically male workforce. By 1917 women were spread throughout industry, and some managed to break in to the skilled labour force. Few of these women were middle class, however many married women who had previously been dependant upon their husbands earnings, made up 40% of women workers during the war. This necessity for women to occupy the roles of men who had been called up for service was outside the typical gender expectation of the time, which saw women to be fragile. Yet this process of Dilution; having women employed in the male sphere was strongly contested and it was only with agreement with trade unions that women undertaking ‘men’s’ work lost their jobs after the end of the war.

Having to occupy the male role allowed women to begin to access new freedoms and opportunities, although it can be argued that this was short lived, because although for the war period conventional attitudes towards gender roles were under-strain, it can be seen that no permanent change occurred. The attitude towards women in male-dominant jobs created a hostility, which left most retreating back to the domestic sphere, devaluing the contribution made by them during the war period.

Feminist movements used the notion that once women were accepted in to the workplace they would attain political and sexual equality. They believed their contribution to the war was integral to achieving their aims of equality. On the other hand women’s oppression could be deemed entirely due to the capitalist system. The war effort of 1914-1918 and during the interwar period was an immense time of political and social change for women yet achieving the vote did not automatically gain women powers of those equal to men, women were not represented in Parliament and ultimately they did not vote for other women therefore although they were able to change the ideals women had for themselves it can be argued that they did not deconstruct the feminine image through suffrage. Feminists and those pro-suffrage prior to the war repealed their goals opting for anti suffrage ideals, wanting for a typical gender identity stipulation due to their beliefs in how the war affected the constructions of masculinity and femininity.

“Feminist’s understandings of masculinity and femininity became transformed during the war and in the immediate post war period, until they were virtually indistinguishable from those of anti-feminists”

War was a constant reminder of the differences in the sexes, it reverted society back to idealistic values through, constructions of protection, men being the protectors of female, as well as conditions such as the ‘male soldier’. Interwoven within society were symbols of these traditional ideas such as weaponry,

“Weapons are not only culturally constructed and endowed with symbolical meaning, they are at the same time completely gendered. In western history weapons and guns, as symbols of power, violence, dignity and freedom, are linked with social constructions of masculinity.”

Whilst other gender stereotypes such as the ‘male worker’ and the male being the ‘breadwinner’ embodied the typical attitude toward conventional roles,

“An attack on the cultural construction of the female as the sex and the male the sexual aggressor”

However the war deconstructed this element, instead causing a crossing-over of natural attitudes through feminine persistence in the workplace.

“Women expertly fulfilled the roles of men as engineers and such like; while still retaining the trappings of femininity. They are the material of propaganda both as patriots and as victims.”

Propaganda allowed the usage of humiliation in to getting men in to the war effort using femininity, on the one hand with mothers and girlfriends giving the excuse of defend the homeland to protect their women. Whilst on the other hand enhancing the ‘stiff upper lip’ image propelling the male mentality used in war.

Masculine imagery sold messages of the first world war to recruit soldiers; the messages showed strong and powerful ‘manly’ men, giving the impression that those who didn’t sign up were weak This was a common feature of the propaganda campaigns, which played upon the question of masculinity; inferring that ‘real men’ volunteered. The use of women to boost numbers was also very prominent; through their usage the ideas about masculinity were reinforced yet it was in a completely different way. Women were portrayed as dismissing men not in uniform, and there were organised campaigns to hand out white feathers to able-bodied men, a movement created by Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald, to shame them for not signing up to the war effort. Whilst some women did not support the action,

“Dealer in white feathers/…Can you not see it isn’t decent, / To flout and goad men into doing, / What isn’t asked of you?”

Many scholars believe therefore, that in order to influence and affect men in to going to war other men devised pieces of propaganda such as the “Women of Britain Say, Go!” poster. For it can be said that women were considerate to the effort of men in wartime,

“They (women) had a deep sense of loyalty to their men and were acutely aware of their (men’s) sufferings and sacrifices. Not for the World would they say anything that would undervalue their men, or suggest they were being sacrificed for a wrong or mistaken cause. So in backing the men who were actually fighting in the war, many women seemed to be backing warfare itself, although most probably they abhorred it. They were caught in the classic situation of women whose men were away at war.”

The usage of emotion within the war allowed men to retain their masculinity through protecting women from the horrors of war. A lot of the war exaggerated traits of masculinity and femininity such as these. By nature war is a man’s game. The aspects of femininity that allowed the war on moralistic grounds required the use of women as the victim and the man as the advocate for guarding his nation.

“By using femininity to persuade a man to go to war propagandists reinforced the pre war ideals of what it meant to be masculine and feminine in Britain. They could ensure the gender roles did not merge through the course of war.”

Yet men coming home still experienced a “crisis of masculinity” related to propaganda. Different usages explained men to be effeminate and weak if they did not sign up during the war.

“The identification of men with feminist characteristics contributed to the misogyny of the post war period”

Identifying men in this light led to a misogynistic hatred of women after the war. With women fulfilling the roles of men there was resentment due to their displacement on the home front.

“Men’s quarrels with the feminine element in their own psyches became externalised as quarrels with women”

Men returned from the home front to find women had become independent; this undermined the value of masculinity in its basic construction. Women contributed towards the undermining of the male mentality of masculinity. Yet women were vital to pushing men to work harder on the war front, propaganda saw that men were working towards victory for their country and their women.

“Victory was won by the woman behind the men behind the gun”

Women were integral to the war movement and their achievements and contributions insured that their social status would not identify them as dainty objects in the face of exclusion from the important, and memorable features of the war i.e. the battlefront.

“Every form of militarisation through its exclusion of women and through its connection to the topic of masculinity is structured through gender”

Gender was vital to the structure of the war, men were meant to face the battle and die for their country, and women were there to support the men. Men were the ones sent to the front as; physical strength, resourcefulness, endurance, comradeship, and sacrifice, were the five major elements of ‘masculine’ identity.

Women altered ‘the male’ role and attitude due to their involvement in the war, they were not content to wait at home and militant organisations that previously had been campaigning for the vote turned to reshaping Victorian attitudes.

The turbulence of the First World War caused a re-examination of gender roles, especially when it came to suffrage for women. Prior to the First World War women had mass campaigns led by such women as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. It can be argued that the extension of the franchise was merely due to the lack of men able to vote and thus the Liberal government saw women as a necessity to secure votes.

There was a ‘reconstruction of gender’ in Britain after World War One, which constrained women’s roles and reinvigorated the ideology of motherhood. The feminist movement never regained after the war the status as a mass movement it had held before the war. Where pre-war feminists had fought against separate male and female spheres and different constructions of masculinity and femininity, feminists in the interwar period gradually ‘accepted theories of sexual difference that helped to advance notions of separate spheres.’ After the ‘horrific events’ of World War One, British society ‘sought above all to re-establish a sense of peace and security’.

“If women could not actively share the battleground, they could

Share its results;’ the annihilation of husbands, sons, lovers, brothers and friends.”

For women had felt guilt, frustration and anguish staying at home.

“And life was bound in a still ring…

Drowsy, and quiet, and sweet…

When heavily up the Southeast wind,

The great guns beat”

This poem demonstrates the frustration and anguish women felt at being left at home, unable to bear the burden as men did. The First World War was essentially a man’s war, the scenes of horror were never experienced by women, and many men did not share with the women at home the difficulties experienced in the trenches; another case of men wanting to retain their status of protector. There was an ethos surrounding the end of the war that the obscenity that had occurred was in a sense ‘swept under the carpet’.

Yet women felt a responsibility towards the war as well,

“Why should they (women) not have a voice then, when the question comes as to whether war or peace shall be?”

The traditional gender stereotype saw men on the battlefront as a typical soldier, fighting for their country, against ‘foreign’ contamination, earning money for their families and being in charge of affairs, of the home and the state. Whilst women were constrained to home life, bringing up children ‘rearing armies’. Gender has always been an issue of the state, and when a country is at war this is on the one hand exaggerated. During the First World War, although previously women had been trying to escape the personification of the stereotypical female, the country used it as an incentive to get recruits for the war. Shaming men through the dismissal by women and using their fragile image, as a reason to defend the nation was a creation by men to encourage other men to fight. Whilst women although they were left on the home front they broke the mould of traditional women by being forced to take on the role of their fathers, brothers and husbands. Not being able to fight for their nation encouraged women to do their best on the home front, to find the independence they had been struggling for prior to the war, and give men a reason for them to have suffrage, so that they would have a voice when it came to going to war.

Breaking their bounds of femininity whilst men were actively involved in the stereotypical image caused a destruction between the balance of the genders. Anti suffragettes and feminists both saw a balance of the sexes yet disagreed as to why it had occurred, the former believing it to be biological and the latter believing that it was a social construction. Either way by women breaking the traditional codes of femininity it caused a crisis of masculinity, men who were afraid of war were classed as effeminate and due to homophobic attitudes of the period it was better to therefore be classed as a hero.

Gender has always been a difficulty at important times in history all citizens wish to be a part of their nation and thus fight, and the construction of gender did not allow women the ability to do this. Therefore in order to keep the country running they were forced to take on a role that deconstructed this image. Therefore although war can be seen to amplify gender constructions the First World War was unlike previous wars, it relied on the home front to contribute, and women with it to keep the ‘home fires burning’. Therefore in order to contribute to the war effort they had to break stereotypical behaviour and with it deconstructed the balance between the sexes causing a rift and a need to adapt what it meant to be masculine, and what it meant to be feminine.


1 Angela K. Smith ed. Gender and Warfare in the Twentieth Century, (Manchester University Press, 2004) P4

2 Susan Kingsley Kent: “The Politics of Sexual Difference: World War One and the Demise of British Feminism”, Journal of British Studies, Volume 27, Number 3, Page 233

3 Winifred Holtby, “Black-words for women only” quoted in Berry and Bishop, (1934) P161

4 Information from Wikipedia; “Female Roles in the World Wars.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_roles_in_the_World _Wars, (06/11/2006), Page1 of 5.

5 TLTP, Penny Summerfield, “Women and War in Twentieth Century Britain”, Part 2 Section 20, (07/11/2006)

6 Susan Kingsley Kent, Ibid, P232

7 Jstor, Cordula Dittmer, “Male Weapons and Female Soldiers”, Aesthetic Dimensions of Warfare

8 Susan Kingsley Kent, Ibid, P233

9 Angela K. Smith ed. Ibid, Page 7

10 Joan Montgomery Byles, War, Women and Poetry, (Associated University Presses Inc, 1995) P. 38

11 Nicolette F. Gullace, “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War”, in The Journal of British Studies, Volume 36 Number 2, Twentieth Century British Studies (April 1997) Pages 178-206, P178

12 Susan Kingsley Kent, Ibid, P252

13 Elaine Showalter, “The Female Malady”, Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, (New York, 1985) P173

14 “Women and Patriotism” Girl’s Own Paper, Volume 1914-1915, P36

15 Christoph Treiblmayr, Gender Roles and the Military,


16 Jessica Meyer, Continuity and Discontinuity in British Masculinity after the First World War, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/

17 Joan Montgomery Byles, Ibid, Page 67

18 Rose Macaulay, “Picnic”, 1915, found in War, Women and Poetry

19 Joan Montgomery Byles, Ibid, Page 46

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