Women in World War I

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German women in 1917, working as assistants to the war effort

Women in World War I were mobilized in unprecedented numbers on all sides. The vast majority of these women were drafted into the civilian work force to replace conscripted men or work in greatly expanded munitions factories. Thousands served in the military in support roles, e.g. as nurses, but in Russia some saw combat as well.

Women working in a gas mask factory in Geneva, Switzerland

Great Britain

Women also volunteered and served in a non-combatant role; by the end of the war, 80,000 had enlisted.[1] They mostly served as nurses in the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD); and from 1917, in the Army when the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), was founded.[2] The WAAC was divided into four sections: cookery; mechanical; clerical and miscellaneous. Most stayed on the Home Front, but around 9,000 served in France.[2]

Many women volunteered on the home front as nurses, teachers, and workers in traditionally male jobs.[3] Large numbers were hired in the munitions industries. The latter were let go when the munitions industries downsized at the end of the war. They volunteered for the money, and for patriotism. The wages were doubled of what they had previously made (although was still less than that of a man's). The women working in these munitions factories were called Munitionettes and the work in which these women did was long, tiring and exhausting as well as dangerous and hazardous to their health.[4]

Munitions factories

The women working in munitions factories were from mainly lower-class families and were between the ages of 18 and 30 years old.[5][6] A critical role consisted of making gun shells, explosives, aircraft and other materials that supplied the war at the front,[7] which was dangerous and repetitive work because they were constantly around and encased in toxic fumes as well as handling dangerous machinery and explosives. Some women would work long hours.[8] The factories all over Britain in which women worked were often unheated, deafeningly noisy, and full of noxious fumes and other dangers.[8] Some of the common diseases and illness which occurred were drowsiness, headaches, eczema, loss of appetite, cyanosis, shortness of breath, vomiting, anaemia, palpitation, bile stained urine, constipation, rapid weak pulse, pains in the limbs and jaundice and mercury poisoning.[9]

Poster campaign

Propaganda, in the form of posters to entice women to join the factory industry in World War I, did not represent the dangerous aspects of female wartime labour conditions.[10] The posters failed to represent an accurate account of reality by creating a satisfactory appeal for women who joined the workforce and did their part in the war. Designed for women to persuade their men to join the armed forces, one propaganda poster is a romantic setting as the women look out an open window into nature as the soldiers march off to war. The poster possesses a sentimental and romantic appeal when the reality of the situation was that many women endured extreme hardships when their husbands enlisted.[10] It was this narrative of a false reality conveyed in the visual propaganda that aimed to motivate war effort. The Edwardian social construction of gender was that women should be passive and emotional, and have moral virtue and domestic responsibility. Men on the other hand were expected to be active and intelligent, and to provide for their families. It was this idea of gender roles that poster propaganda aimed to reverse. In one war propaganda poster, titled “These Women Are Doing Their Bit”, a woman is represented as making a sacrifice by joining the munitions industry while the men are at the front. The woman in this particular persuasive poster is depicted as cheerful and beautiful, ensuring that her patriotic duty will not reduce her femininity.[10] These posters do not communicate the reality that munitions labour entails. There is no reference to highly explosive chemicals or illnesses due to harsh work environments. The persuasive images of idealized female figures and idyllic settings were designed to solicit female involvement in the war and greatly influenced the idea of appropriate feminine behavior in the wartime Britain. As a result, many women left their domestic lives to join munitions work as they were enticed by what they thought were better living conditions, patriotic duty and high pay.[10] According to Hupfer, the female role in the social sphere was expanded as they joined previously male-dominated and hazardous occupations (325).[10] Hupfer remarks that attitudes regarding the capabilities of women through the war effort sank back into the previously idealized roles of women and men once the war was over. Women went back to their duty in the home as they lost their jobs to returning soldiers and female labour statistics decreased to pre-war levels. Not until 1939 would the expansion of the role of women once again occur.[10]


The role of Australian women in World War I was focused mainly upon their involvement in the provision of nursing services.[11] 2,139 Australian nurses served during World War I. Their contributions were more important than initially expected, resulting in more respect for women in medical professions.

Some women made ANZAC biscuits which were shipped to the soldiers. The biscuits were made using a recipe that would allow them to remain edible for a long time without refrigeration.[12]


In December 1914, Julia Grace Wales published the Canada Plan, a proposal to set up a mediating conference consisting of intellectuals from neutral nations who would work to find a suitable solution for the First World War. The plan was presented to the United States Congress, but despite arousing the interest of President Wilson, failed when the US entered the war.[13][14]

During World War One, there was virtually no female presence in the Canadian armed forces, with the exception of the 3141 nurses serving both overseas and on the home front.[15] Of these women, 328 had been decorated by King George V, and 46 gave their lives in the line of duty.[15] Even though a number of these women received decorations for their efforts, many high-ranking military personnel still felt that they were unfit for the job. One notable adversary of the effort was Col. Guy Carleton Jones, he stated that, “Active service work is extremely severe, and a large portion of R.N.’s are totally unfit for it, mentally or physically.” [15] Although the Great War, had not officially been opened up to women, they did feel the pressures at home. There had been a gap in employment when the men enlisted; many women strove to fill this void along with keeping up with their responsibilities at home.[15] When war broke out Laura Gamble enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, because she knew that her experience in a Toronto hospital would be an asset to the war efforts.[16] Canadian nurses were the only nurses of the Allied armies that held the rank of officers.[16] Gamble was presented with a Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class medal, for her show of “greatest possible tact and extreme devotion to duty.” [16] This was awarded to her at Buckingham Palace during a special ceremony for Canadian nurses.[16] Health care practitioners had to deal with medical anomalies they had never seen before during the First World War. The chlorine gas that was used by the Germans caused injuries that treatment protocols had not yet been developed for. The only treatment that soothed the Canadian soldiers affected by the gas was the constant care they received from the nurses.[16] Canadian nurses were especially well known for their kindness.[16]

Canadians had expected that women would feel sympathetic to the war efforts, but the idea that they would contribute in such a physical way was absurd to most.[15] Because of the support that women had shown from the beginning of the war, people began to see their value in the war. In May 1918, a meeting was held to discuss the possible creation of the Canadian Women’s Corps. In September, the motion was approved, but the project was pushed aside because the war’s end was in sight.[15]

On the Canadian home front, there were many ways which women could participate in the war effort. Lois Allan joined the Farm Services Corps in 1918, to replace the men who were sent to the front.[17] Allan was placed at E.B. Smith and Sons where she hulled strawberries for jam.[17] Jobs were opened up at factories as well, as industrial production increased.[17] Work days for these women consisted of ten to twelve hours, six days a week. Because the days consisted of long monotonous work, many women made of parodies of popular songs to get through the day and boost morale.[17] Depending on the area of Canada, some women were given a choice to sleep in either barracks or tents at the factory or farm that they were employed at.[17] According to a brochure that was issued by the Canadian Department of Public Works, there were several areas in which it was appropriate for women to work. These were:

  1. On fruit or vegetable farms.
  2. In the camps to cook for workers.
  3. On mixed and dairy farms.
  4. In the farmhouse to help feed those who are raising the crops.
  5. In canneries, to preserve the fruit and vegetables.
  6. To take charge of milk routes.[18]

In addition, many women were involved in charitable organization such as the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, which helped provide the needs of soldiers, families of soldiers and the victims of war.[17] Women were deemed ‘soldiers on the home front’, encouraged to use less of nearly everything, and to be frugal in order to save supplies for the war efforts.[17]


  • November 11, 1918: Lotta Svärd, a Finnish voluntary auxiliary organization for women, was formed.

Ottoman Empire

Besides providing nursery services, women also took main roles in combat.[19]

C.E. Crutchley, Machine Gunner 1914 - 1918, (1975) which says:[20]

"An Australian patrol caught a Turkish woman sniper who had the identity discs of several British soldiers hanging round her neck. They shot her, and that shocked me for I thought she was a brave person doing only what many British women would have done to invaders of our land. But I kept my mouth shut for I knew that in war everyone is effected by its lunacy."

Also a Telegraph-Press Association news says:[21]

"A territorial from Dardanelles says that a Turkish girl was discovered sniping. She had round her neck thirty identification discs of the men she had shot and fifty pounds in English money."


The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.[22] 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.[23]

United States


During the course of the war, approximately 21,498 U.S. Army nurses (military nurses were all women then) served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. More than 1,476 U.S. Navy nurses served in military hospitals stateside and overseas.

The first American women enlisted into the regular armed forces were 13,000 women admitted into active duty in the Navy. They served stateside in jobs and received the same benefits and responsibilities as men, including identical pay (US$28.75 per month), and were treated as veterans after the war. These women were quickly demobilized when hostilities ceased, and aside from the Nurse Corps the uniformed army and navy became once again exclusively male. The U.S. Army recruited and trained 233 female bilingual telephone operators to work at switchboards near the front in France and sent 50 skilled female stenographers to France to work with the Quartermaster Corps. The U.S. Marine Corps enlisted 305 female Marine Reservists (F) to "free men to fight" by filling positions such as clerks and telephone operators on the home front. More than 400 U.S. military nurses died in service, almost all from the Spanish Flu epidemic which swept through crowded military camps, hospitals, and ports of embarkation.[24][25] In 1942, women were brought into the military again, largely following the British model.[26][27]

Notable individuals

  • 1914: Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a man in order to become an English soldier in the First World War
  • 1914 : Maria Bochkareva Russian: Мария Леонтьевна Бочкарева, née Frolkova, nicknamed Yashka, was a Russian woman who fought in World War I and formed the Women's Battalion of Death.
  • 1914 : Flora Sandes, an English woman, joined a St. John Ambulance unit in Serbia and subsequently became an officer in the Serbian army.[28]
  • 1914: British nurse Edith Cavell helped treat injured soldiers, of both sides, in German-occupied Belgium. Executed in 1915 by the Germans for helping British soldiers escape Belgium.
  • 1914: Olena Stepaniv, a Ukrainian officer of Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen. Was the first woman to receive officer rank in the world.
  • 1915: French artist Madame Arno organized a regiment of Parisian women to fight the Germans.[29]:18
  • 1915: Olga Krasilnikov, a Russian woman, disguised herself as a man and fought in nineteen battles in Poland. She received the Cross of St. George.[29]:144
  • 1915: Russian woman Natalie Tychmini fought the Austrians at Opatow in World War I, while disguised as a man. She received the Cross of St. George.[29]:225
  • 1916: Ecaterina Teodoroiu was a Romanian heroine who fought and died in World War I.
  • 1916: Milunka Savić, Serbian war hero,and the most decorated female fighter in the history of warfare, awarded with the French Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour) twice, Russian Cross of St. George, English medal of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael, Serbian Miloš Obilić medal. She is the sole female recipient of the French Croix de Guerre (War Cross) with the palm attribute.
  • 1917: Julia Hunt Catlin Park DePew Taufflieb. First American female to be awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor in the First World War for her efforts in turning her Chateau d'Annel into a front line hospital.

See also


  1. "Woman combatants". BBC History. Retrieved 2 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Women's Auxiliary Army Corps". National Archives. Retrieved 3 June 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Gail Braybon, Women Workers in the First World War (Routledge, 2012)
  4. Abbott, Edith. "The War and Women’s Work in England" Journal of Political Economy (July 1917) 25#7 pp: 656. in JSTOR
  5. Angela Woollacott, On her their lives depend: munitions workers in the Great War (U of California Press, 1994)
  6. Crisp, Helen. "Women in Munitions." The Australian Quarterly 13. 3 (September. 1941): 71. in JSTOR .
  7. Woollacott, Angela. "Women Munitions Makers, War and Citizenship." Peace Review 8. 3(September 1996): 374.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Woollacott, Angela. "Women Munitions Makers, War and Citizenship." Peace Review 8. 3 (September 1996): 374.
  9. "Health of Munitions Workers." The British Medical Journal. (BMJ Publishing Group) 1.2883 (April 1, 1916): 488. JSTOR. Web. 19 February 2013.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Hupfer, Maureen. "A Pluralistic Approach to Visual Communication: Reviewing Rhetoric and Representation in World War I Posters". University of Alberta. Advances in Consumer Research. (1997): 322–26.
  11. "1918: Australians in France – Nurses – "The roses of No Man's Land"". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 22 November 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. http://unibicanzacbiscuits.com/about-anzac-biscuits.html
  13. "Julia Grace Wales suggests an influential proposal to end the war, 1915". Wisconsin Historical Society. Retrieved 2008-12-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Moritz Randall, Mercedes. Improper Bostonian: Emily Greene Balch, Nobel Peace laureate, 1946. Taylor & Francis. pp. 162–163.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 Gossage, Carolyn. ‘’Greatcoats and Glamour Boots’’. (Toronto:Dundurn Press Limited, 1991)
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 Library and Archives Canada, "Canada and the First World War: We Were There," Government of Canada, 7 November 2008, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/firstworldwar/025005-2500-e.html
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 17.5 17.6 Library and Archives Canada, "Canada and the First World War: We Were There," Government of Canada, 7 November 2008, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/firstworldwar/025005-2100-e.html#d
  18. Canada, Department of Public Works, Women’s Work on the Land, (Ontario, Tracks and Labour Branch) www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/firstworldwar/025005-2100.005.07-e.html
  19. "1. Dnya Savanda Kadnlar".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Australian Light Horse Studies Centre".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Papers Past — Dominion — 17 September 1915 — TURKISH GIRL SNIPER".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Laurie Stoff, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia's Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution (U Press of Kansas, 2006)
  23. Reese, Roger R. (2000). The Soviet military experience: a history of the Soviet Army, 1917–1991. Routledge. p. 17. ISBN 0-415-21719-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Women's History Chronology". United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 2011-03-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Highlights in the History of Military Women". Retrieved 2011-03-11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Susan H. Godson, Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy (2002)
  27. Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (1993) pp 3-21
  28. Wheelwright, Julie (1989). Amazons and military maids: women who dressed as men in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Pandora. ISBN 0-04-440356-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Salmonson, Jessica Amanda (1991). The Encyclopedia of Amazons. Paragon House.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Cook, Bernard A. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present (2 vol. 2006) ISBN 1851097708
  • Fell, Alison S. and Christine E. Hallett, eds. First World War Nursing: New Perspectives (Routledge 2013) 216pp ISBN 9780415832052
  • Higonnet, Margaret R., et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (Yale UP, 1987) ISBN 0300036876
  • Leneman, Leah. "Medical women at war, 1914–1918." Medical history (1994) 38#2 pp: 160-177. online
  • Proctor, Tammy M. Female intelligence: women and espionage in the First World War (NYU Press, 2006) ISBN 0814766935 OCLC 51518648
  • Risser, Nicole Dombrowski. Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With Or Without Consent (1999) ISBN 0815322879


  • Braybon, Gail. Women workers in the First World War: the British experience (1981) online
  • Grayzel, Susan R. Women and the First World War (2002) online
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Ouditt, Sharon. First World War Women Writers: An Annotated Bibliography (1999) online


  • Fisher, Susan. Boys and Girls in No Man's Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War (University of Toronto Press, 2013) ISBN 9781442642249 OCLC 651903020
  • Glassford, Sarah, and Amy J. Shaw, eds. A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (UBC Press, 2012) ISBN 9780774822589 OCLC 774094735


  • Darrow, Margaret H. French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front (2000) online


  • Daniel, Ute. The war from within: German working-class women in the First World War (New York: Berg, 1997) ISBN 085496892X OCLC 38146749
  • Hagemann, Karen and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, eds. Home/Front: The Military, War, and Gender in Twentieth-Century Germany (Berg, 2002) ISBN 1859736653
  • 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



  • Krippner, Monica. The Quality of Mercy: Women at War, Serbia, 1915-18. Newton Abbot [England]: David & Charles, 1980. ISBN 0715378864 OCLC 7250132

United States

  • Ebbert, Jean and Marie-Beth Hall (2002). The First, the Few, the Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I. Annapolis, MD: The Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-203-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gavin, Lettie. American women in World War I: They also served (University Press of Colorado, 1997) ISBN 087081432X OCLC 35270026
  • Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy (2002) ch 1-2 ISBN 1557503176 OCLC 46791080
  • Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (1993) pp 3–21 ISBN 0891414509 OCLC 26012907
  • Greenwald, Maurine W. Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States (1990) ISBN 0313213550
  • Jensen, Kimberly. Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. ISBN 9780252032370
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society (Oxford University Press, 2004.) ISBN 0195027299 OCLC 6085939

External links