Women in World War I

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


In late July 1914 the Viennese press circulated a message published by Austria's first major women's group, the Frauenhifsaktion Wien, appealing to "Austria's women" to perform their duties to the nation and take part in the war effort. Women would be expected to provide much of the necessary manpower during this time and depending on the social class some would even take part in the leadership of local communities in Austria.[1]

Viktoria Savs served as a soldier in the Imperial Austrian army in the guise of a man and was awarded with the Medal for Bravery (Austria-Hungary) for valor in combat for her service in the Dolomitian front.[2]

Great Britain[]

In the military[]

WAAC Recruitment poster

Dorothy Lawrence was an English journalist who posed as a male soldier in order to report from the front line during World War I. She was the only known English woman soldier on the frontline during World War I. In her later book, Lawrence wrote she was a sapper with the 179 Tunnelling Company, 51st Division, Royal Engineers,a specialist mine-laying company that operated within 400 yards (370 m) of the front line. But later evidence and correspondence from the time after her discovery by British Army authorities, including from the files of Sir Walter Kirke of the BEF's secret service, suggest she actually was at liberty and working within the trenches. The toll of the job, and of hiding her true identity, soon gave her constant chills and rheumatism, and latterly fainting fits. Concerned that if she needed medical attention her true gender would be discovered and the men who had befriended her would be in danger, after 10 days of service she presented herself to the commanding sergeant, who promptly placed her under military arrest. She was sent home under a strict agreement not to publish her experiences.[3][4]

Women also volunteered and served in the military without disguising themselves; by the end of the war, 80,000 had enlisted.[5][6] They mostly served as nurses in the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), founded in 1907, also known as the “Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps”; the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD); and from 1917, in the Army when the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), was founded.[7] 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.[7]

Munitions factories[]

Lottie Meade, munitions worker who died of TNT poisoning
Female workers arranging and packing fuze heads in the Coventry Ordnance Works

Large numbers of women were hired in the munitions industries. They 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. The women working in these munitions factories were called "Munitionettes"; another nickname for these women was the "Canaries" because of the yellow skin which came from working with toxic chemicals. The work which these women did was long, tiring and exhausting as well as dangerous and hazardous to their health.[8]

The women working in munitions factories were from mainly lower-class families and were between the ages of 18 and 29 years old.[9][10] A critical role consisted of making gun shells, explosives, aircraft and other materials that supplied the war at the front,[11] 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.[12] The factories all over Britain in which women worked were often unheated, deafeningly noisy, and full of noxious fumes and other dangers.[12] 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.[13]

Oftentimes after the war as well women would end up losing their jobs as men returned home from the war, gaining no recognition for the effort women put in to aid in the war efforts.

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.[14] 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.[14] 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.[14] 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.[14] According to Hupfer, the female role in the social sphere was expanded as they joined previously male-dominated and hazardous occupations (325).[14] 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.[14]

Jobs on the home front other than in munitions factories[]

Many women volunteered on the home front as nurses, teachers, and workers in traditionally male jobs.[15] Wealthy women set up an organization called the American Women's War Relief Fund in England in 1914 order to buy ambulances, support hospitals and provide economic opportunities to women during the war.[16][17][18]


The role of Australian women in World War I was focused mainly upon their involvement in the provision of nursing services.[19] 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.


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.[20][21]

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.[22] Of these women, 328 had been decorated by King George V, and 46 gave their lives in the line of duty.[22] 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. 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.[22] 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.[23] Canadian nurses were the only nurses of the Allied armies that held the rank of officers.[23] Gamble was presented with a Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class medal, for her show of “greatest possible tact and extreme devotion to duty.” [23] This was awarded to her at Buckingham Palace during a special ceremony for Canadian nurses.[23] 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.[23] Canadian nurses were especially well known for their kindness.[23]

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.[22] 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.[22]

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.[24] Allan was placed at E.B. Smith and Sons where she hulled strawberries for jam.[24] Jobs were opened up at factories as well, as industrial production increased.[24] 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 up parodies of popular songs to get through the day and boost morale.[24] 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.[24] 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.[25]

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.[24] 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.[24]


In the 1918 Finnish Civil War, more than 2,000 women fought in the Women's Red Guards formed in early February with more than 15 female guard units. As the commanders of the Red Guard were reluctant to commit female guards to combat most of the female guards were held in reserve for much of the civil war, only seeing combat towards the end of the war, in battles such as the Battle of Tampere where the city hall was held by the last pockets of Red Guard resistance, legends tell of how the male defenders wanted to surrender while the Tampere Women's Red Guard insisted on fighting to the bitter end. At the end of the civil war over 755 Red Guard women had died, with only 70 to 130 of them killed on the battlefield, over 20% or 400 to 500 members would be executed by the anti-communist White Guard victors and 80 to 110 died in prison camps with 150 to 200 members AWOL.[26]

As such it is clear that women played a role in the Finnish war both during the first world war when the women's military divisions would be conceptualized with some women already serving in the military and towards the end during the civil war when it would be formed by the Red Guard in reality.

Ottoman Empire[]

Ottoman Red Crescent and Red Cross staff at Hafir el Aujah.

Women had limited front line roles being nurses and provided a subsidiary work force of emergency medical personnel in substitution for the lack of manpower available as the empire was battling multiple fronts of enemies forcing the conscription of most of its male population, this medical workforce of women was all possible through organizations created by the government and international organizations such as the Red Cross.[27]

Women such as Safiye Huseyin risked her life working on the Resit Pasa Hospital Ship for wounded soldiers. This ship took in wounded Ottoman soldiers from the Dardanelles and was oftentimes bombarded by enemy planes and other ships.[28]

Women were also given limited roles in employment positions by the IOEW (Islamic Organization for the Employment of Women), an organization formed in 1916 with the aim to "protect women by finding them work and by making them accustomed to making a living in an honorable way". This was a necessary step to find workers to continue production of military goods while most of the available male population was off fighting the war.[29] The IOEW would prove to be responsible for a majority of the increase in female labor force in the military industrial industry in the 1916–1917. For example, over 900 women were employed by the organization at the military footwear factory in Beykoz.[30] However the fate of the organization would come to an end after the termination of orders from the military and the NDL at the end of the world war. This led to a decrease for a need of female workers and a gradual decrease in the labor force employed by the organization in the year following the war, and an eventual closure of all of its factories and disbandment of the IOEW.[31]

Along with an increase demand in labor forces came the increase in White collared and Civil service roles for women, tho to a much lesser degree then men, the mass mobilization of the male workforce prompted the nation to speed up the process of allowing urban, educated Muslim women into white collared jobs. Through the discrimination of non-Muslim populations with policies such as the deportation of non-Muslims in 1915 this opened up a lot more jobs for Ottoman women for entrepreneurial roles within the country's economy. When the Ottoman Empire outlawed the use of any language except for Turkish in March 1916 also granted new opportunities for Ottoman women that knew Turkish and other foreign languages with a specific focus given to women through organizations such as the Ottoman School of Commerce which specifically opened a branch for women. The IOEW also provided women with administrative jobs and served as an intermediary for the school to allocate women students as interns in commercial and financial institutions throughout the country.[32]

During the war the British press circulated false stories that Ottoman women took sniper roles in combat. These stories have however mostly been discred, and it's unlikely any women actually fought for the Ottoman Empire.[33]

Women shouldered a large portion of the agricultural and manufacturing burdens within the nation during the war, having to deal with the harsh conditions of war time life with many women having to work in the construction of roads and fortifications. Raising prices of both staple items and consumer goods also rendered many women unable to subsist during these harsh conditions. Many homes were also commandeered by the military for various purposing forcing people, mostly women, because the vast majority of men were off fighting the war to sleep under trees and generally outside. To make this all worst there were deserters and refugees roaming vast areas in the Ottoman Empire plundering and stealing large stocks of goods such as maize and hazelnuts that were stockpiled to last the war. Worst of all perhaps was that state officials through the military were pressuring many village women to provide grain for the army at little to no compensation, grain that was once meant for their own subsistence would instead be taken away to feed the army. These war time conditions did not affect just women but did affect women most of all over men due to the forced conscription nature of the Ottoman Empire and the fact that women were the ones left to take care of villages and homes dotted throughout the country.[34]

Another shocking look at the lives of Ottoman women during the war was the frequency of petitioners to underline the martyrdom (sehitlik) of their sons and husbands to show the contribution of their men to the war effort. If a women's family's death was deemed worthy enough by the government women would be allowed a small pension payment based on the contribution of their dead loved ones. This was also meant to show their religious faith in a public setting.[28]

Ottoman women were not given much voice in the inner workings of the government. Women would suffer violence and misogynistic negative reactions towards the end of the war as men returned to reclaim their jobs. However the war also gave way to new ideas and desires for women's rights and is illustrated in the folk songs and state bureaucracy that followed the war.[35]


The only belligerent to deploy female combat troops in substantial numbers was the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.[36] 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.[37]


Examples of women serving in the Serbian army: soldier and foreigner Flora Sandes,[38] soldier Sofija Jovanović, sergeant Milunka Savić, and sergeant Slavka Tomić all serving with distinction.[39]

A number of women such as Milunka Savic were present and took part during the Battle of Crna Bend in 1916, this would be the battle in which Milunka famously captured 23 soldiers single-handedly.[40]

Also includes limited role for women volunteers as nurses during the war as well as in manufacturing roles outside the front lines. During the World War Serbia could be considered a country of women with a far greater number of women compared to men, Serbian census in 1910 showed there were 100 females per 107 males but by the time of the Austro-Hungarian census in 1916 there were 100 females per sixty nine males, many of the men gone from the census just a short six years later were killed in combat, involved in the war effort or interned in camps. This led to a shortage of men in Serbia with many young and middle aged women, not able to find similarly aged partners.[41] During this time period in Serbia as a female dominated society the prevailing feeling of the majority of the nation was sadness, fear and anxiety because of the war, with very few marriages occurring during the war because of the disproportional numbers of men and women with more illegitimate children being born during this time, with 4 percent of children being illegitimate as compared to peace times 1 percent. As such children were the main victim of the war in Serbia, as women were forced to take upon the "social responsibilities of men including toiling in the fields, doing hard physical labor, breading livestock and protecting their properties. It also shifted the traditional role of women in Serbia from that of the housewife to being the primary bread winner in the family while the majority of men were fighting, leading to new obligations such as taxes, surtaxes and war loans that women in Serbia would have to contend with along with the role of caretaker of the household.[42]

United States[]

In the military[]

During the course of the war, 21,498 U.S. Army nurses (American military nurses were all women then) served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas. Many of these women were positioned near to battlefields, and they tended to over a million soldiers who had been wounded or were unwell.[43] 272 U.S. Army nurses died of disease (mainly tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia).[44] Eighteen African-American Army nurses served stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers. They were assigned to Camp Grant, IL, and Camp Sherman, OH, and lived in segregated quarters.[45][46][47]

Hello Girls was the colloquial name for American female switchboard operators in World War I, formally known as the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. During World War I, these switchboard operators were sworn into the Army Signal Corps.[48] This corps was formed in 1917 from a call by General John J. Pershing to improve the worsening state of communications on the Western front. Applicants for the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit had to be bilingual in English and French to ensure that orders would be heard by anyone. Over 7,000 women applied, but only 450 women were accepted. Many of these women were former switchboard operators or employees at telecommunications companies.[48] Despite the fact that they wore Army Uniforms and were subject to Army Regulations (and Chief Operator Grace Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal),[49] they were not given honorable discharges but were considered "civilians" employed by the military, because Army Regulations specified the male gender. Not until 1978, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War I, did Congress approve veteran status and honorable discharges for the remaining women who had served in the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.[50]

The first American women enlisted into the regular armed forces were 13,000 women admitted into active duty in the U.S. Navy during the war. 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.

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.

In 1918 during the war, twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker transferred from the Naval Coastal Defense Reserve and became the first uniformed women to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.[51][52][53][54] Before the war ended, several more women joined them, all of them serving in the Coast Guard at Coast Guard Headquarters.[54]

These women were demobilized when hostilities ceased, and aside from the Nurse Corps the uniformed military became once again exclusively male. In 1942, women were brought into the military again, largely following the British model.[55][56]

Notable individuals[]

See also[]


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Further reading[]






Ottoman Empire[]


United States[]


External links[]