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From Florence Nightingale To Rosie The Riveter: Women’s Roles In 20th Century Conflict

Jan 28, 2015

The demands of two world wars and changing gender roles opened the way for women to gain more rights as citizens in the United States and Britain.

Before the 20th century, women in the United States and Britain couldn’t vote in national elections and generally weren’t seen as key players in war efforts. With the professionalization of military nursing during the Crimean War, women’s participation in war efforts grew and paved the way for women’s heavy involvement between 1914 and 1918.

“World War I kind of throws this into disarray,” says University of New Hampshire historian Nicoletta Gullace. “Women showed themselves to be far more essential in waging war than anyone had thought before.”

The increased participation of women in war efforts coincided with women’s suffrage movements and public debates over citizenship in Britain and the United States. Gullace says during this time, patriotic support for the war effort was the main requirement for citizenship rights, and as a result women gained the right to vote in national elections and run for Parliament.

United States recruiting poster for women to enlist in the Navy, World War I.
Credit Howard Chandler Christy, 1873-1952, artist / Library of Congress

Kate Adie of the BBC reports more than 1.5 million British women entered the workforce for the first time during World War I, while more than 1 million more supported the war effort by taking up volunteer work. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of women enlisted in all branches of the military, serving in positions such as nurses and switchboard operators, according to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. Gullace says this, coupled with changing ideas about gender roles a generation earlier, spurred 20th century progress of women’s rights as citizens.

“In the late 19th century the so-called ‘new woman’ took up things like tennis, mountain climbing, and all kinds of women’s athletics,” Gullace says. “So I think this created a more physically fit, able type of woman, who was then able to step into those [new] roles during World War I.”

While British women’s right to vote was more restricted than men’s until the 1928 Representation of the People Act, and the United States did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1920, Gullace says women’s participation in World War I was an important step to gaining full citizenship.

“The cracking of the boat did begin to open up and change things in other ways,” Gullace says. “So women gradually became fuller and fuller citizens of the course of the 20s and 30s.”

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Interview Highlights

On Women’s Participation In War Before The 20th Century

women were involved in warfare well before the 20th century or the two world wars. Traditionally, women had been camp followers. In early-modern Europe, camp followers were women who followed the troops: often prostitutes, wives, girlfriends, and often just villagers who felt unprotected when the men left for war. And they followed the camp and provided many very important functions. They did things like dig latrines, bandage soldiers after battle, cook. They even followed the troops in the American Revolution. George Washington famously hated camp followers. But they were very essential to performing all kinds of service activity on the battlefield, particularly after the battle. It was in the mid-19th century, during the Crimean War, that women's participation in military action became respectable, when Florence Nightingale professionalized military nursing. And she cleaned up the hospitals in the Crimean War. And after that, female nurses became a very important and established part of European militaries, and eventually American military as well.

On Victimhood Versus Empowerment Of Women During The Wars

The German Army in August 1914 invaded an occupied Belgium. And many, many Belgian civilians, including women and children, were displaced, lost their homes. They got all the way into northern France. And many people were killed, hurt, raped, and such. So they were sort of the quintessential victims of war. So there were definitely important female victims and very negative impacts on women. What happens in places like Britain and the United States, which are outside of the main action of the fighting, is that women's role in support work does end up being empowering. Women are able to step into the jobs, for instance in heavy industry, that they had had their eyes on for a long time. These were better-paid jobs. These were jobs that involved skills. These were jobs that people previously thought women were incapable of doing. So in that way, there was an empowerment. But I think the question of empowerment versus victimhood depends very much on the geographical location of the women involved.

On Women’s Right To Run For Parliament

With the passage of women's suffrage, women also earned the right to stand for Parliament. And several female candidates stood for Parliament in the elections of 1918. Only one was elected, and she was an Irish nationalist who turned down that opportunity in favor of serving on the Dáil in Ireland. But it's interesting that the cracking of the boat did begin to open up and change things in other ways. So women gradually became fuller and fuller citizens over the course of the 20s and the 30s.

On The Development Of Women’s Citizenship Since The World Wars

I think we see in the primacy of women in the Conservative Party – we think of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Sarah Palin in the United States – that actually this role of women pointing out the conservative and the patriotic possibilities of women and womanhood has actually been more empowering in some ways for women than the radical challenge to patriarchy that was embodied in the pre-war women's suffrage movement. So I think these two world wars perhaps helped integrate women into citizenship, but perhaps created a more traditional idea of female citizenship that we still subscribe to in the democratic West. Not always, but often.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Nicoletta Gullace, welcome to World Views.

NICOLETTA GULLACE: Thank you very much

SUZETTE GRILLOT: Nicoletta, you have focused your work on the First World War from a perspective of citizenship. And in particular how gender emerged as an important concept after the Second World War, particularly given women's suffrage and all the things that followed. So, can you just start by giving us some sense of what it was about that Great War experience that heightened this notion of gender and the role that particularly women played during the War and after the War?

GULLACE: Yes, indeed. I think we tend to think of war as something that really affirms traditional gender stereotypes. Men go off to war; women stay home and support the war effort. And certainly in August 1914, when The Great War broke out, that's what people thought would happen. In fact, women's suffragists declared a truce with the government and they agreed to stop acts of militancy and their campaign for the vote, and to instead focus on the war effort. So people thought that the impact of World War I would be very traditional. What ended up happening, though, was that the demands of World War I were so great, and the manpower demands were so tremendous that all of this began to break down. First of all, soldiers were going to the front in the hundreds of thousands. In 1916 they had the institute conscription, so even more men went to the front. And in that vacuum, all sorts of women filled their roles. One of the things people don't realize, I think, about World War I, is suffragists were heavily involved in the effort to put women in jobs in munitions factories. And as suffrage organization organized many, many women's hospital units that actually put women in the line of fire as ambulance drivers, doctors, and nurses at the front. So all this really enhanced women's claim to citizenship.

GRILLOT: Well, so, many of us, when we think of our history, we think that this happened during the Second World War, right? That there was Rosie the Riveter and all of those women that went into the workforce because men were, obviously, off fighting war. But you're saying that this happened before, obviously during the First World War. But, before that, maybe? Or was there something unique about the First World War that changed this dynamic? 

GULLACE: That is an excellent question. I think we tend to think of women's heavy involvement in military action as being something that's part of the total wars of the 20th century. But in fact, women were involved in warfare well before the 20th century or the two world wars. Traditionally, women had been camp followers. In early-modern Europe, camp followers were women who followed the troops: often prostitutes, wives, girlfriends, and often just villagers who felt unprotected when the men left for war. And they followed the camp and provided many very important functions. They did things like dig latrines, bandage soldiers after battle, cook. They even followed the troops in the American Revolution. George Washington famously hated camp followers. But they were very essential to performing all kinds of service activity on the battlefield, particularly after the battle. It was in the mid-19th century, during the Crimean War, that women's participation in military action became respectable, when Florence Nightingale professionalized military nursing. And she cleaned up the hospitals in the Crimean War. And after that, female nurses became a very important and established part of European militaries, and eventually American military as well. What happens that's different in the 20th century is women become involved in wars in even more powerful ways. They become involved in making munitions: like Rosie the Riveter, as you said in World War II, and the famous munitions girls of World War I. They did things like driving ambulances. And women's suffrage organizations in World War I became very involved in actually putting forward women who were going to be part of these military actions as ambulance drivers, hospital directors, doctors and such. The reason, I think, the 20th century is so different is because of major changes in women's roles in the late 19th century. In the late 19th century, women started not only demanding women's suffrage, but also really altering the way they were expected to behave. There was a dress reform movement that called for looser corseting. And think how constrained you would be if you were forced to try and do work with a whalebone corset that pulled your waist down to 15 or 16 inches; Victorian women were fainting all the time. But the looser corseting allowed more freedom of movement, and in the late 19th century the so-called 'new woman' took up things like tennis, mountain climbing, and all kinds of women's athletics. So I think this created a more physically fit, able type of woman, who was then able to step into those roles during World War I.

GRILLOT: So, let's just step back though for a second. Because often when we study women and war, we tend to sometimes emphasize the ways in which women are victimized in war and the ways in which women experience extreme negative impact from war. And they obviously do. Around the world. We know that women, children, men too, but non-combatants, civilians, largely women and children, suffer significantly from the effects of war. But what I'm hearing you saying is that there's also something that's been extremely empowering about the female experience, women's experience, during war, at least starting in the late 19th century and into the 20th century. And that it enabled them, perhaps, to move forward certain issues regarding women's rights. Is this another take that we can perhaps learn? Or something that we can take away from the experience?

GULLACE: Yes. And I think you bring up a very important point, which is of course the issue of victimhood for women versus empowerment. And I think that really depends on what country, what places, what regions you're looking at. The German Army in August 1914 invaded an occupied Belgium. And many, many Belgian civilians, including women and children, were displaced, lost their homes. They got all the way into northern France. And many people were killed, hurt, raped, and such. So they were sort of the quintessential victims of war. So there were definitely important female victims and very negative impacts on women. What happens in places like Britain and the United States, which are outside of the main action of the fighting, is that women's role in support work does end up being empowering. Women are able to step into the jobs, for instance in heavy industry, that they had had their eyes on for a long time. These were better-paid jobs. These were jobs that involved skills. These were jobs that people previously thought women were incapable of doing. So in that way, there was an empowerment. But I think the question of empowerment versus victimhood depends very much on the geographical location of the women involved. And of course, remember that women in Britain and America also experienced tremendous grief. All those mothers who lost those boys: those sons, those husbands, those young men. And this ends up being the lasting memory, I think, of World War I, and one that we tend see in the centenary commemoration more than anything else.

GRILLOT: Well, so you've written about how these war experiences in this empowering way have led to changes in citizenship and the concept of women and their role in society. So, how is it that citizenship was affected? I mean, we know that society was affected; you've outlined all the various ways in which female roles in society changed gender roles and expectations. But when it comes to citizenship, is it just about the vote? Or is there something more to it than that?

GULLACE: I think that for women suffragists in 1914, they believed that they would never be fully citizens until they had the parliamentary vote, until they could they could vote in national elections. And this is something that they saw as the key to citizenship, even though they had other disabilities as well in terms of what they were and were not allowed to do. One of the things that I argue in my own research is interesting about this period for the forging of citizenship, is that one of the arguments against women's suffrage in the period before World War I was the idea that only men serve in the armed forces, and therefore only men should vote. And the rationale for that was that Parliament, the great legislative body in Great Britain, makes laws. And laws are backed up by physical force. Because men serve in the army, and men serve in the police forces, only men should be making those laws. Women at this time could vote in local elections; they could vote for Poor Law Guardians and school board members and things like that. But they could not vote in national elections, where domestic and foreign policy was made. World War I kind of throws this into disarray. First of all, many soldiers were actually not able to vote when they were at the front because they weren't resident in their local areas anymore. So that all of a sudden undercuts that argument. Men who stayed at home but did not serve in the armed forces could vote. So there was an irony there. And then finally, women showed themselves to be far more essential in waging war than anyone had thought before. So, when issues of citizenship come up during the First World War, they initially come up as a proposal to re-enfranchise soldiers who had lost their votes when they shipped out. But it turned into a much broader discussion. And at the same time that women, eventually women over 30, were enfranchised, conscientious objectors, who refused to go to war, were disenfranchised. And I think that helped show us how, in Britain, this willingness to patriotically serve the war effort became the litmus test of citizenship right at a moment when the vote was being debated. And very similar arguments are being made by American women suffragists during the War. And they will eventually get the vote shortly afterwards.

GRILLOT: So that movement toward suffrage, did it come along with growing roles of just civic responsibility in the community in general? And access to even running for office? Or being engaged in politics in ways other than just voting? That's a first step, right? But what other kinds of civic responsibilities did women pick up in the wake of that?

GULLACE: Women would have argued that they participated all the time in civic responsibilities. They raised money. They worked as auxiliaries to Conservative Party or the Liberal Party or the Labor Party even before they had the vote. But women did labor under some very important disabilities in terms of citizenship. The one that they were focused on was the vote, but they could not run for high political office. And this one they really hated: but if they got married they would assume the nationality of their husband. There were very heart-wrenching cases of British women who had married Germans, had lived happily, and maybe the German husband had died. And then, during World War I, they were subject to being treated as enemy aliens because their nationality had been changed. All of these things were being contested by women at this time. With the passage of women's suffrage, women also earned the right to stand for Parliament. And several female candidates stood for Parliament in the elections of 1918. Only one was elected, and she was an Irish nationalist who turned down that opportunity in favor of serving on the Dáil in Ireland. But it's interesting that the cracking of the boat did begin to open up and change things in other ways. So women gradually became fuller and fuller citizens over the course of the 20s and the 30s.

GRILLOT: Well finally, Nicoletta, I have to ask how this brings us to today in terms of female participation in politics and the role of women in civic activities and as global citizens today. I mean, you've talked about how depending on where you were, what your geography was, how important that was. But where are we today in terms of how far have we come in these hundred years that have passed since the First World War in terms of women's rights around the world?

GULLACE: Well, I guess, looking particularly at the Western democracies, what I would argue is that what the experiences of the two world wars showed – and this is my opinion, my interpretation, others would disagree with me, I think – but before the War, women contested citizenship by offering alternatives to male citizenship. Men were too belligerent. Women offered peace; women offered a gentle alternative; women would protect girls and women. The two world wars showed that the way women would achieve rights is by showing that they could participate in these national issues, like war, as effectively as men could. I think we see in the primacy of women in the Conservative Party – we think of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Sarah Palin in the United States – that actually this role of women pointing out the conservative and the patriotic possibilities of women and womanhood has actually been more empowering in some ways for women than the radical challenge to patriarchy that was embodied in the pre-war women's suffrage movement. So I think these two world wars perhaps helped integrate women into citizenship, but perhaps created a more traditional idea of female citizenship that we still subscribe to in the democratic West. Not always, but often.

GRILLOT: Well definitely more questions that we can have about this issues, and we'll be seeing where it goes. Well thank you so much, Nicoletta, for joining us today and sharing your perspective on this important and interesting topic. Thank you.

GULLACE: Thank you.

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