Women in the World Wars

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David McLellan - Interior of a ward on a British Ambulance Train in France during World War I

In Great Britain just before World War I there were 24 million adult women and 1.7 million worked in domestic service, 200,000 worked in the textile manufacturing industry, 600,000 worked in the clothing trades, 500,000 worked in commerce, and 260,000 worked in local and national government, including teaching.[1] The British textile and clothing trades, in particular, employed far more women than men and were regarded as 'women's work'.[1] During WWII, in total, 6 million women were added to the workforce in what resulted as a major cultural shift. With the men fighting in the wars, women were needed to take on responsibilities that the men had to leave behind. [2]

While some women managed to enter the traditionally male career paths, women, for the most part, were expected to be primarily involved in "duties at home" and "women's work". Before 1914, only a few countries, including New Zealand, Australia, and several Scandinavian nations, had given women the right to vote (see Women's suffrage), but otherwise, women were minimally involved in the political process.

The two world wars hinged as much on industrial production as they did on battlefield clashes. With millions of men away fighting and with the inevitable casualties, there was a severe shortage of labour in a range of industries, from rural and farm work to urban office jobs.

During both world wars women were needed by the national war effort to undertake new roles.[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] For the duration of both World Wars, women sometimes did take on 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[edit]

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

Home front[edit]

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 capable in diverse fields of endeavour. There is little doubt this expanded the view of the role of women in society and changed the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. Although women were still paid less than men in the workforce, pay inequalities were starting to diminish as women were now getting paid two-thirds of the typical pay for men, a 28% increase. However, the extent of this change is open to historical debate. In part because of female participation in the war effort Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and a number of European countries extended suffrage to women in the years after the First World War.

British historians[why?] no longer emphasize the granting of woman suffrage as a reward for women's participation in war work. Pugh (1974) argues that enfranchising soldiers primarily and women secondarily was decided by senior politicians in 1916. In the absence of major women's groups demanding equal suffrage, the government's conference recommended limited, age-restricted women's suffrage. The suffragettes had been weakened, Pugh argues, by repeated failures before 1914 and by the disorganizing effects of war mobilization; therefore they quietly accepted these restrictions, which were approved in 1918 by a majority of the War Ministry and each political party in Parliament.[3] More generally, G. R. Searle (2004) argues that the British debate was essentially over by the 1890s, and that granting the suffrage in 1918 was mostly a byproduct of giving the vote to male soldiers. Women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.[4]

Military service[edit]

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 and Voluntary Aid Detachment were all started before World War I. The VADs were not allowed in the front line until 1915.[5]

More than 12,000 women enlisted in auxiliary roles in the United States Navy and Marine Corps during the First World War. About 400 of them died in that war.[6]

Over 2,800 women served with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War and it was during that era that the role of Canadian women in the military first extended beyond nursing.[7] Women were given paramilitary training in small arms, drill, first aid and vehicle maintenance in case they were needed as home guards.[7] Forty-three women in the Canadian military died during WWI.[7]

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.[8]

In the 1918 Finnish Civil War, more than 2,000 women fought in the paramilitary Women's Red Guards.[9]

World War II[edit]

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

United States[edit]

Women in World War II took on a variety of roles, from country to country. World War II involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale; the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labor of women was symbolized in the United States by the concept of Rosie the Riveter, a woman factory laborer performing what was previously considered man's 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 war industries, especially in munitions plants. They participated in the building of ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked on farms, 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 in the front line units. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving for the military itself, particularly in the Soviet Union's Red Army.

During World War II, approximately 400,000 U.S. women served in support positions with the armed forces and more than 460 — some sources say the figure is closer to 543 — lost their lives as a result of the war, including 16 from enemy fire. Women became officially recognized as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces after the war with the passing of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

The ability for women to be involved overseas opened doors for many underrepresented groups, including Latinas, to serve their country.

Out of one million African Americans serving in WWII, 600,000 of them were women. 4,000 of these women served in the Women's Army Corps and 330 of these women served as nurses. African American women also fought for African American rights through media, social activism, etc. A person's race was heavily divided and in the year 1943, there were a documented 242 violent events against African Americans regardless of whether they served in the war efforts or not.[10]


Several hundred thousand women in European countries 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.

Then-Princess Elizabeth served in the British Army, during the 1940s.

Germany had presented an ideal female role at home, but the urgent need for war production led to the hiring of millions of German women for factory and office work.[11]

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

Approximately 2 million Jewish women in the Holocaust were killed, and the Nazis also killed other women who belonged to groups they were committing genocide against, such as women with disabilities and Roma women.


Women, called comfort women, were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army before and during World War II. Korean women were especially used.[12]

A large number of women in Japan and Korea also performed industrial labor duties during the war. They helped make bombs and guns and airplanes, etc.


Australian women during World War II played a larger role than they had during The First World War, when they primarily served as nurses and additional homefront workers. Many women wanted to play an active role in the war, and hundreds of voluntary women's auxiliary and paramilitary organisations had been formed by 1940. A shortage of male recruits forced the military to establish female branches in 1941 and 1942. Women entered roles which had traditionally been limited to men, but continued to receive lower wages.[13]


Canadian women in the World Wars became indispensable because the World Wars were total wars that required the maximum effort of the civilian population. While Canadians were deeply divided on the issue of conscription for men, there was wide agreement that women had important new roles to play in the home, in civic life, in industry, in nursing, and even in military uniforms. Historians debate whether there was much long-term impact on the postwar roles of women.[14]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ Hall, Martha L.; Orzada, Belinda T.; Lopez‐Gydosh, Dilia (2015). "American Women's Wartime Dress: Sociocultural Ambiguity Regarding Women's Roles During World War II". The Journal of American Culture. 38 (3): 232–242. doi:10.1111/jacc.12357. ISSN 1542-734X.
  3. ^ Martin D. Pugh, "Politicians and the Women's Vote 1914-1918," History, October 1974, Vol. 59 Issue 197, pp 358-374
  4. ^ G. R. Searle, A New England? Peace and war, 1886-1918 (2004) p 791
  5. ^ "Volunteers during the First World War". British Red Cross.
  6. ^ "Women in the military — international". CBC News. May 30, 2006. Archived from the original on August 17, 2011.
  7. ^ a b c "Women in the Canadian military". CBC News. 30 May 2006. Archived from the original on August 21, 2011.
  8. ^ Reese, Roger R. (2000). The Soviet military experience: a history of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991. Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 0-415-21719-9.
  9. ^ Lintunen, Tiina (2014). "Women at War". The Finnish Civil War 1918: History, Memory, Legacy. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 201–229. ISBN 978-900-42436-6-8.
  10. ^ Honey, Maureen (1999). Bitter fruit: African American women in World War II. University of Missouri Press. OCLC 1090207263.
  11. ^ Karen Hagemann, "Mobilizing Women for War: The History, Historiography, and Memory of German Women’s War Service in the Two World Wars," Journal of Military History 75:3 (2011): 1055-1093
  12. ^ George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan's brutal regime of enforced prostitution in the Second World War (WW Norton & Company, 1997).
  13. ^ Patsy Adam-Smith, Australian Women At War (Penguin, Melbourne, 1996).
  14. ^ Jean Bruce, Back the Attack!: Canadian Women During the Second World War, at Home and Abroad (Macmillan of Canada, 1985).

Further reading[edit]

Women on the homefront[edit]

  • Beauman, Katharine Bentley. Green Sleeves: The Story of WVS/WRVS (London: Seeley, Service & Co. Ltd., 1977)
  • Calder, Angus. The People's War: Britain 1939-45 (1969)
  • Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era (1984)
  • Cook, Bernard A. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present (2006)
  • 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.
  • Falconi, April M., et al. "Shifts in women's paid employment participation during the World War II era and later life health." Journal of Adolescent Health 66.1 (2020): S42-S50 online.
  • 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 978-1-879932-05-0.
  • 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.
  • Woolfitt, Susan (1995). Idle Women (Working Waterways). M & M Baldwin. ISBN 0-947712-28-3.
  • "Government Girls of World War II" 2004 film by Leslie Sewell

Women in military service[edit]

  • Bidwell, Shelford. The Women's Royal Army Corps (London, 1977),
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "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. online edition
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "The women of World War II." in A Companion to World War II ed. by Thomas W. Zeiler(2013) 2:717–738. online
  • Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era (1984) ch 1-2
  • Campbell, D'Ann. "Women in Uniform: The World War II Experiment," Military Affairs, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fiftieth Year—1937-1987 (July, 1987), pp. 137–139 in JSTOR
  • Cottam, K. Jean, ed. The Golden-Tressed Soldier (Manhattan, KS, Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983) on Soviet women
  • Cottam, K. Jean. Soviet Airwomen in Combat in World War II (Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing, 1983)
  • Cottam, K. Jean. "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)
  • Dombrowski, Nicole Ann. Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With Or Without Consent (1999)
  • Grant, Susan-Mary. "On the Field of Mercy: Women Medical Volunteers from the Civil War to the First World War." American Nineteenth Century History (2012) 13#2 pp: 276-278.
  • Hacker, Barton C. and Margaret Vining, eds. A Companion to Women's Military History (2012) 625pp; articles by scholars covering a very wide range of topics
  • Hagemann, Karen, "Mobilizing Women for War: The History, Historiography, and Memory of German Women’s War Service in the Two World Wars," Journal of Military History 75:3 (2011): 1055-1093
  • Krylova, Anna. Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front (2010) excerpt and text search
  • Leneman, Leah. "Medical women at war, 1914–1918." Medical history (1994) 38#2 pp: 160-177. online on Britain
  • Merry, L. K. Women Military Pilots of World War II: A History with Biographies of American, British, Russian and German Aviators (McFarland, 2010).
  • Pennington, Reina. Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat (2007) excerpt and text search ISBN 0-7006-1145-2
  • Pennington, Reina. Amazons to Fighter Pilots: A Biographical Dictionary of Military Women (Greenwood, 2003).
  • Saywell, Shelley. Women in War (Toronto, 1985);
  • Seidler, Franz W. Frauen zu den Waffen—Marketenderinnen, Helferinnen Soldatinnen ["Women to Arms: Sutlers, Volunteers, Female Soldiers"] (Koblenz, Bonn: Wehr & Wissen, 1978)
  • Stoff, Laurie S. They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I And the Revolution (2006)
  • Treadwell, Mattie. The Women's Army Corps (1954)
  • Tuten, "Jeff M. Germany and the World Wars," in Nancy Loring Goldman, ed. Female Combatants or Non-Combatants? (1982)

External links[edit]