Women at Home in a World at War

Professor Susan R Grayzel studies the range of roles women carried out in World War One within domestic labour, waged industrial labour, and military nursing and doctoring.

‘Like other mothers throughout the Empire, the Queen has bravely sent her sons to strive for the cause of Justice.’ These words surround a portrait of Queen Mary from The Women of the Empire in War Time, seen here, and encapsulate some of the many contradictions of wartime propaganda aimed at women across participant states. The words stress that women of all classes and rankings might be brought together by the shared sacrifice of sending their beloved men – husbands, brothers, lovers, friends and, most especially, sons – to fight. In this way, all women were presumably united by sending men to fight, much as all men were united in their willingness to take up arms on behalf of their nation. It would hardly surprise us to learn that appeals to women or records of their lives during wartime and across enemy lines similarly emphasised their significance as mothers or supporters of men striving for ‘justice.’ Furthermore, this representation of the Queen, and the wartime role that it evokes, does not seem particularly modern. Yet the First World War was, in many ways, the first modern, total war and, as such, it called upon women both to maintain their domestic and familial roles and to take on a variety of challenging tasks that made them a vital, active part of their wartime nations.

Women of the Empire in wartime

Published in London by the Dominion of Canada News Co., this book looks at the roles played by women in the First World War, 1915.

Book published in 1916 in London exploring the role that women played in World War One.

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Women and domestic labour

This was a total war because it involved all sectors of society, including men, women and children. Some of the roles that women played were novel, many were not. Yet even traditional feminine occupations and pursuits could become part of a modern war effort. From the earliest days of the conflict, domestic tasks like sewing and knitting took on a military cast as girls and women created handmade comforts for soldiers. In addition to the sacrifices asked of women who surrendered their loved ones, as the war continued states asked women to ‘sacrifice’ (a word often invoked) many other things. The Allied blockade of the Central Powers obliged women to accept rationing, and therefore to do without specific foodstuffs. Austrian, German, Russian and eventually French and British women all learned how to make do with less and, even more painfully, to face limits on what they could provide for their families as well as themselves. One of the more telling emblems of how the war transformed women’s basic sense of self can be seen in appeals that German women give even their long hair to the war effort.

Booklet 'Women's effort in war time'

Published by the European Fashion Journal, this booklet contains instructions for making quick and easy wartime clothing and equipment such as caps, bandages and uniforms.

Booklet, printed in 1914, with practical instructions on how to knit and sew clothing at home as the war impacted upon economic exchanges between countries.

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Poster and bag for the collection of women's hair

Acceptance and distribution of collecting bags for women's hair / Collecting bag for women's hair

German poster encouraging women to donate their hair to the war effort. Raw materials became scarce during World War One, and human hair was used to make transmission belts.

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Women and waged labour

Women sustained their nations in many other ways. Most working-class women already worked outside the home for wages as well as undertaking domestic duties inside the home. Female factory workers continued to labour alongside men; they sustained the production of textiles (including uniforms) but many also shifted into metal working in factories, creating war material such as munitions. Factory work and waged labour were not new for many of these women. However, the substantial shift of female workers from things like domestic service into industrial work, and an expansion of the range of tasks within factories and other workspaces, was unprecedented. The widely circulated images of women taking on industrial, war-related labour, such as the Italian women featured here, helped reinforce the message that women were making vital contributions to the war effort in place of their mobilised and absent men. Indeed such women became a key economic force so that the strike by French women, pictured here, caused a great deal of consternation for the government which was simultaneously grappling with mutinies and fearful of grievances (e.g. about wages and working conditions but also about the war itself). Even more significantly, a strike by women in the early months of 1917 in Petrograd helped spark the Russian Revolution.

When war came home

Some experiences at home were comparable to those of men. For instance, due to innovations in wartime technology, some women (and children) found themselves facing new means of waging war, such as air power and chemical weapons, as the chilling photograph of the mother and child in improvised gas masks somewhere in the ‘bombed territory’ near the Western Front reveals. Air raids on densely populated cities like Paris and London killed and injured women literally in their homes. Often the public was outraged by such attacks precisely because they affected a feminised civilian population far from traditional front lines.

Photograph of a mother and child wearing gas masks

Mother and child wearing gas masks

Photograph of a mother and child wearing gas masks.

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Women and the military

Perhaps as remarkably, some women took on exceptional roles that directly aided the military. While military nursing was also not new, its ranks greatly expanded across many nations. In addition, the war saw a wider participation of female doctors. More direct aid to armies came in the form of newly established women’s auxiliaries such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In Russia, women even joined combat forces, as the Russian Women’s Battalions of Death took to the field in the summer of 1917.

Why does the sacrifice of women get singled out in wartime media?

Even as women made visible contributions to the war and garnered praise for this, wartime media often signalled that what women did was somehow extraordinary and quite separate from their male counterparts. Despite debates at fairly high levels of government in both Britain and Germany, for instance, about compulsory labour for women, every task that a woman performed was in some sense voluntary in the way that the conscripted male labour of soldiering was not.

Why this focus on the exceptional? After all, many of women’s most celebrated roles balanced the demands of traditional femininity – mothering, nursing, domestic labour – with those required for modern war. Since women lacked political rights, some women, including several prominent feminists who had worked for women’s suffrage for years before the war, saw in it an opportunity to ‘prove ourselves worthy of citizenship.’ Yet it would be a mistake to look to the war alone as having irrevocably changed women’s lives. Many wartime opportunities for women proved temporary. While singled out because of their gender, women were not a monolithic group. Given the range of their experiences and circumstances, there was not one woman’s war, just as there could never be one man’s war.

  • Susan Grayzel
  • Susan R Grayzel is Professor of History at the University of Mississippi, where she teaches modern European history, focusing on gender and the cultural history of 20th-century war. Her publications include the books: Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War (1999); Women and the First World War (2002); The First World War: A Brief History with Documents (2012); and At Home and Under Fire: Air Raids and Culture in Britain from the Great War to the Blitz (2012).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.