Female roles in the World Wars: Wikis

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Rosie the Riveter: "We Can Do It!" - Many women first found economic strength in World War II-era manufacturing jobs.

There is little doubt that women's work in the two World Wars of the twentieth century was an important factor in the outcome of both wars. This involvement changed the social status and working lives of women in many countries from that point onwards.

Women's contribution to both wars was significant; though the attitudes towards their contribution were typically paternalistic.


Women's role prior to World War I

Prior to the First World War women's role in society in western countries was generally confined to the domestic sphere (but not necessarily their own home) and to certain types of jobs: 'Women's Work'. In Great Britain for example, just before World War I, out of an adult population of about 24 million women, around 1.7 million worked in domestic service, 800,000 worked in the textile manufacturing industry, 600,000 worked in the clothing trades, 500,000 worked in commerce and 260,000 in local and national government (including teaching).[1] The British textile and clothing trades, in particular, employed far more women than men and could be regarded as 'women's work'.[1]

While some women managed to receive a tertiary education and others to go into non-traditional career paths, for the most part women were expected to be primarily involved in "duties at home" and "women's work". Before 1914, only a few countries (New Zealand, Australia, and several Scandinavian nations) had given the right to vote to women (see Women's suffrage), and apart from these countries women were little involved in the political process.

More than any previous wars, World Wars I and II hinged as much on industrial production as they did on battlefield clashes. With millions of men away fighting and with the inevitable horrendous casualties, there was a severe shortage of labour in a range of industries, from rural and farm work to city office jobs.

During both World War I and World War II, women were called on, by necessity, to do work and to take on roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations.[1] In Great Britain this was known as a process of "Dilution" and was strongly contested by the trade unions, particularly in the engineering and ship building industries.[1] Women did, for the duration of both World Wars, take on jobs that were traditionally regarded as skilled "men's work".[1] However, in accordance with the agreement negotiated with the trade unions, women undertaking jobs covered by the Dilution agreement lost their jobs at the end of the First World War.[1]

World War I

The United States Navy began accepting women for enlisted service during World War I

Home front

By 1914 nearly 5.09 million out of the 23.8 million women in Britain were working. Thousands worked in munitions factories (see Canary girl), offices and large hangars used to build aircraft.[1] Women were also involved in knitting socks for the soldiers on the front, as well as other voluntary work, but as a matter of survival women had to work for paid employment for the sake of their families. Many women worked as volunteers serving at the Red Cross, encouraged the sale of war bonds or planted "victory gardens".

Not only did women have to keep "the home fires burning" but they took on voluntary and paid employment that was diverse in scope and showed that women were highly capable in diverse fields of endeavor. There is little doubt that this expanded view of the role of women in society did change the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. Although women were still paid less than men in the workforce, women's equality were starting to arise as women were now getting paid two-thirds of the typical pay for men. However, to the extent of this change is open to historical debate. In part because of female participation in the war effort Canada, the USA, Great Britain, and a number of European countries extended suffrage to women in the years after the First World War.

Military service

Nursing became almost the only area of female contribution that involved being at the front and experiencing the war. In Britain the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Voluntary Aid Detachment were all started before World War I. The VADs were not allowed in the front line until 1915.

The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was the Russian Provisional Government in 1917. 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.[2]

World War II

In many Allied countries women were encouraged to join female branches of the armed forces or participate in industrial or farm work.

With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, women's roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. By 1945, more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. In the Allied countries thousands of women enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving in the military itself, particularly in the Red Army (see below).

Several hundred thousand women served in combat roles, especially in anti-aircraft units. The U.S. decided not to use women in combat because public opinion would not tolerate it.[3]

This necessity to use the skills and the time of women was heightened by the nature of the war itself. While World War I was mainly fought in France and was a war arguably without clear aggressor or villain, World War II involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale against certain aggressors. In these circumstances the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labour of women was symbolized in the United States by the figure of Rosie the Riveter.

Many women served in the resistances of France, Italy, and Poland, and in the British SOE which aided these.


A woman machinist talking with Eleanor Roosevelt during her goodwill tour of Great Britain in 1942

In Britain, women were essential to the war effort, in both civilian and military roles. The contribution by civilian men and women to the British war effort was acknowledged with the use of the words "Home Front" to describe the battles that were being fought on a domestic level with rationing, recycling, and war work, such as in munitions factories and farms. Men were thus released into the military. Women were "drafted" in the sense that they were assigned jobs by the government, including non-combat jobs in the military, including the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS or "Wrens") and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Auxiliary services such as the Air Transport Auxiliary also recruited women. British women were not drafted into combat units, but could volunteer for combat duty in anti-aircraft units, which shot down German planes and V-1 missiles.[4] Civilian women joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which used them in high-danger roles as secret agents and underground radio operators in Nazi occupied Europe.


Much like in the United Kingdom, the Finnish women took part in defence: nursing, air raid signaling, rationing and hospitalization of the wounded. Their organization was called Lotta Svärd, where voluntary women took part in auxiliary work of the armed forces to help those fighting on the front. Lotta Svärd was one of the largest, if not the largest, voluntary group in World War II. Though they never held guns (a rule among the Lottas), without women's help Finland probably could not have held off the Soviet forces as long as it did.


The Third Reich, contrary to popular belief, had similar roles for women. The SS-Helferinnen were regarded as part of the SS if they had undergone training at a Reichsschule SS but all other female workers were regarded as being contracted to the SS and chosen largely from concentration camps. Women also served in auxiliary units in the navy (Kriegshelferinnen), air force (Luftnachrichtenhelferinnen) and army (Nachrichtenhelferin). Hundreds of women auxiliaries (Aufseherin) served for the SS in the camps, the majority of which were at Ravensbrück. In Germany women also worked, and were told by Hitler to produce more pure Aryan children to fight in future wars.


A grave of three Polish female soldiers who fell during the Invasion of Poland, 1939, among their colleagues interred at Warsaw's Powązki Cemetery

In occupied Poland, as elsewhere, women played a major role in the resistance movement, putting them in the front line. Their most important role was as couriers carrying messages between cells of the resistance movement and distributing news broadsheets and operating clandestine printing presses. During partisan attacks on Nazi forces and installations they served as scouts.

During the Warsaw Rising of 1944, female members of the Home Army were couriers and medics, but many carried weapons and took part in the fighting. Among the more notable women of the Home Army was Wanda Gertz who created and commanded DYSK (Women's sabotage unit). For her bravery in these activities and later in the Warsaw Uprising she was awarded Poland's highest awards - Virtuti Militari and Polonia Restituta. One of the articles of the capitulation was that the German Army recognized them as full members of the armed forces and needed to set up separate Prisoner-of-war camps to hold over 2000 women prisoners-of-war.[5].

Soviet Union

United States of America

American women also saw combat during World War II, first as nurses in the Army Nurse Corps and United States Navy Nurse Corps during the Attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, Women’s Naval Reserve and United States Marine Corps Women's Reserve were also created for women performing auxiliary roles. The WAAC, however, never accomplished its goal of making available to "the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation." In July 1943, the WAAC was reorganized to form the Women's Army Corps, which was recognized as an official part of the regular army, but not in combat units.[6] The Women's Army Corps replaced the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. WAACs served overseas in North Africa in 1942. In 1944 WACs landed in Normandy after D-Day and served in Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines in the Pacific. During the war, 67 Army nurses and 11 Navy nurses were captured and spent three years as Japanese prisoners of war. 350,000 American women served during World War II and 16 were killed in action. Indeed, World War II also marked milestones for women in the US military, Carmen Contreras-Bozak, who became the first Hispanic to join the WAC, serving in Algiers under General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Minnie Spotted-Wolf the first female Native American woman to enlist in the United States Marines. In 1943, the first female officer of the United States Marine Corps was commissioned, and the first detachment of female marines was sent to Hawaii for duty in 1945.

U.S. women also performed many kinds of non-military service in organizations such as the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Office of Strategic Services (OSS), American Red Cross, Cadet Nurse Corps, and the United Service Organizations (USO). Nineteen million American women filled out the home front labor force, not only as "Rosie the Riveters" in war factory jobs, but in transportation, agricultural, and office work of every variety. Women joined the federal government in massive numbers during World War II. Nearly a million "government girls" were recruited for war work. In addition, women volunteers aided the war effort by planting victory gardens, canning produce, selling war bonds, donating blood, salvaging needed commodities and sending care packages.

Treatment of Women on the Warfront

Although women became more involved in the military during World War II, they were not treated equally to men. Many commanding officers purposefully kept women out of combat. There were also cases in which men falsely accused women of promiscuity, although there were more cases where promiscuity was a factor. [7]

After the war

The Second World War changed many things: it let women do the jobs that they wanted to do, and it let them compete in a man’s world and made the men no longer ‘masters of the house’. But at the end of World War II, most of the women lost their jobs because the men wanted them back. After the war, the women went back to doing the old jobs (housewives), and when needed, they helped the men in the harder jobs.

See also


Women on the Homefront

  • D'Ann Campbell, Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era (1984)
  • Calder, Angus. The People's War: Britain 1939-45 (1969)
  • Costello, John. Love, Sex, and War: Changing Values, 1939-1945 (1985). US title: Virtue under Fire: How World War II Changed Our Social and Sexual Attitudes
  • Darian-Smith, Kate. On the Home Front: Melbourne in Wartime, 1939-1945. Australia: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Gildea, Robert. Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation (2004)
  • Maurine W. Greenwald. Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States (1990)
  • Hagemann, Karen and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum; Home/Front: The Military, War, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Germany. Berg, 2002.
  • Harris, Carol (2000). Women at War 1939-1945: The Home Front. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited. ISBN 0-7509-2536-1.
  • Havens, Thomas R. "Women and War in Japan, 1937-1945." American Historical Review 80 (1975): 913-934. online in JSTOR.
  • Higonnet, Margaret R., et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. Yale UP, 1987.
  • Marwick, Arthur. War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States. 1974.
  • Noakes, J. (ed.), The Civilian in War: The Home Front in Europe, Japan and the U.S.A. in World War II. Exeter: Exęter University Press. 1992.
  • Pierson, Ruth Roach. They're Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.
  • Regis, Margaret. When Our Mothers Went to War: An Illustrated History of Women in World War II. Seattle: NavPublishing. (2008) ISBN 978-1-87732-05-0.
  • Wightman, Clare (1999). More than Munitions: Women, Work and the Engineering Industries 1900-1950. London: Addison Wesley Longman limited. ISBN 0-582-41435-0.
  • Williams, Mari. A. (2002). A Forgotten Army: Female Munitions Workers of South Wales, 1939-1945. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1726-X.

- "Government Girls of World War II" 2004 film by Leslie Sewell

Women in Military service

  • Bidwell, Shelford. The Women's Royal Army Corps (London, 1977),
  • D'Ann Campbell, "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union," Journal of Military History (April 1993), 57:301-323
  • D'Ann Campbell, Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era (1984)
  • D'Ann Campbell. "Women in Uniform: The World War II Experiment," Military Affairs, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fiftieth Year--1937-1987 (Jul., 1987), pp. 137-139 in JSTOR
  • K. Jean Cottam, ed. The Golden-Tressed Soldier (Manhattan, KS, Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983) on Soviet women
  • K. Jean Cottam, Soviet Airwomen in Combat in World War II (Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983)
  • K. Jean Cottam, "Soviet Women in Combat in World War II: The Ground Forces and the Navy," International Journal of Women's Studies, 3, no. 4 (1980): 345-57
  • DeGroot G.J. "Whose Finger on the Trigger? Mixed Anti-Aircraft Batteries and the Female Combat Taboo," War in History, Volume 4, Number 4, December 1997, pp. 434-453(20)
  • Nicole Ann Dombrowski. Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With Or Without Consent (1999)
  • Regis, Margaret. When Our Mothers Went to War: An Illustrated History of Women in World War II. Seattle: NavPublishing. (2008) ISBN 978-1-87732-05-0.
  • Shelley Saywell, Women in War (Toronto, 1985);
  • Franz W. Seidler, Frauen zu den Waffen-- Marketenderinnen, Helferinnen Soldatinnen ["Women to Arms: Sutlers, Volunteers, Female Soldiers"] (Koblenz, Bonn: Wehr & Wissen, 1978)
  • Laurie S. Stoff. They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I And the Revolution (2006)
  • Mattie Treadwell, The Women's Army Corps (1954)
  • Jeff M. Tuten, "Germany and the World Wars," in Nancy Loring Goldman, ed. Female Combatants or Non-Combatants? (1982)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Adams, R.J.Q., (1978). Arms and the Wizard. Lloyd George and the Ministry of Munitions 1915 - 1916, London: Cassell & Co Ltd. ISBN 0-304-29916-2. Particularly, Chapter 8: The Women's Part.
  2. ^ Reese, Roger R. (2000). The Soviet military experience: a history of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991. Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 0-415-21719-9. 
  3. ^ D'Ann Campbell, "Women in Combat: The World War Two Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union," Journal of Military History (April 1993), 57:301-323
  4. ^ See Campbell 1993
  5. ^ Women of the Home army
  6. ^ Stremlow, Mary V. Free a Marine to Fight: Women Marines in World War II. Reprint, illustrated ed. DIANE, 1996. Google Book Search. 23 Apr. 2009 <http://books.google.com/books?id=lA8DkWs_FXgC&printsec=frontcover>.
  7. ^ Nash, Gary B., Julie Roy Jeffrey, John R. Howe, Peter J. Frederick, Allen F. Davis, Allan M. Winkler, Charlene Mires, and Carla Gardina Pestana. The American People, Concise Edition Creating a Nation and a Society, Combined Volume (6th Edition). New York: Longman, 2007, 771.

External links

  • Railwaywomen in Wartime British women's work on the railways in both world wars - photos and text - free information.

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