The Emancipation of Women during the Great War: Myth or Reality?

French school system: History, 3rd and 1st • Canadian grade level: Grades 9 to 12


In France, once war was declared and universal mobilization decreed, Prime Minister René Viviani instituted a poster campaign on August 2, 1914, targeting the women of the country’s farming families. In the expectation that the war would soon be over, at this time, it seemed to be enough to ensure that these women would take care of the only truly urgent need. The appeal read:

“Rise up, Frenchwomen, little children, sons and daughters of the fatherland! Take over the work of those who are on the battlefield. Be ready to show them tomorrow that the soil is plowed, the harvest is in, and the fields are sown. In this hour of need, no task is small. Everything that serves the country is great. Rise to action and toil! Tomorrow, there will be glory for everyone.” 

Women very quickly stepped up and moved into all the sectors of economic activity in all the countries engaged in the war, whether they offered their services as volunteers or not. They were considered, as in a further pronouncement by Viviani, a lynchpin in the struggle for victory. The men having left for the front, the women had to replace them in the fields, factories, and workshops to satisfy labour needs that had sharply increased in certain industries due to the war.

It is tempting to conclude, as several historians have done, that the role of women in the Great War constituted the first step on the path to emancipation. According to this interpretation, the image of the garçonne, a woman with short hair who has ripped off her corset and become independent, originated in this period, with the term itself being coined right after the Armistice.

However, the debate over the so-called emancipation of women in the Great War is more complex than it appears, and should be more closely examined to avoid facile generalizations and the construction of what Françoise Thébaud calls “a hagiographic image of feminine mobilization” and the impression of a war that liberated women.

A complex historiography

This subject, one of many in the field of First World War studies, intersects with a branch of historiography that is specifically focussed on the history of women and has evolved in the framework of gender history, as well as in social and cultural history in a broader sense. According to Françoise Thébaud, we can identify different eras in the development of this relatively recent historiographical tendency. Initial studies, done at the end of the 1960s, mainly concerned the lives of professional women in wartime, and emphasized the changes wrought by the war in Great Britain. Historians at the Imperial War Museum spearheaded these studies, which concentrated on the activities of prominent Englishwomen, a source a national pride. A second tendency that appeared in the 1980s emphasized the conservative character of the war in the matter of gender relations. In the view of these scholars, either there was no female emancipation during the First World War, or if there had been, it was only temporary and superficial. In the 1990s, a third tendency underlined the importance of nuance, according to the scale of the object of study (individuals, groups, societies), the length of observation (results will differ in short-term, medium-term, and long-term studies), the approach, methods and tools used in studies, which have an influence on the type of sources consulted (social, cultural, judicial), and lastly, the different characteristics of the women (social class, age). Also during the 1990s, the reality of contemporary conflicts, particularly the war in the former Yugoslavia, completely overturned the idea that a war could be a terrain for female emancipation, bringing attention back to aspects that had been neglected in the research, such as rape and other atrocities specifically perpetrated upon women during war.

With these perspectives in mind, what is the truth about women’s roles in the First World War?

A special place for women in the Great War?

Women carrying salvaged shell boxes, 1918.<br>Imperial War Museums, First War Agency Collection.

Women contributed to the war effort, each in their own way. There were the women of farming families who, in predominantly rural and agriculture-based countries like France and Belgium, took over the field work and food production from the summer of 1914 onward; the women who volunteered as military nurses; the “war godmothers” who wrote and sent packages to soldiers at the front and visited the wounded in the hospitals; the city women who made up for the manpower shortage in a wide range of activities, from driving tramways to working more than 10 hours a day in munitions factories.

Women railway workers in France, 1917.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (580)].

In Great Britain, more than one million women laboured in munitions factories during the war, and in Canada, out of a total population of eight million people, the number of the approximately 600,000 women who held permanent jobs at the beginning of the war doubled to 1,200,000 during the conflict. As the belligerent countries became more deeply involved in a war that promised to be much longer than first expected and therefore required the establishment of a true war economy, the female work force became absolutely indispensable. In countries where a high proportion of women worked before the war, such as France, they had most often carried out tasks that were considered secondary: “The women of the people had always worked. They were housewives, but they were also chambermaids, seamstresses, washerwomen, and street vendors. Later, with the expansion of the service sector, middle-class girls were given access to white collar jobs.” What was new was the hiring of women, starting in 1915, in munitions factories, where they were quickly dubbed “bomb girls” or “munitionettes” (“obusettes” in France). At the height of the shell crisis and the war in the trenches, the number of female factory workers sharply increased, reaching 400,000 in France by the end of 1917, although the proportion of women hired varied considerably between companies: for example, between 60 percent of the shell-assemblers at Citroën were women, compared to the 20 percent working in arms and army vehicle manufacturing at Panhard-Levassor. At the beginning of 1918, when the mobilization of women appeared to have peaked, the total number of female workers in industry and commerce had risen above its prewar level by 20 percent.

Women working in the Renault factories in Billancourt

<strong>Total number of workers</strong> <strong>Number of female workers</strong> <strong>% of female workers</strong>
<strong>January 1914</strong> 4,970 190 3.8
<strong>December 1916</strong> 20,157 3,654 18.1
<strong>Spring 1918</strong> 21,400 6,770 31.6

Taken from 14–18. Le magazine de la Grande Guerre, no. 1, April-May 2001.

French journalist Marcelle Capy, feminist and libertarian, worked incognito for several weeks in a munitions factory in wartime. Her account, published as a series in the magazine La Voix des femmes from November 1917 to January 1918, described the stressful work:

The worker, always standing, must take hold of the shell, place it on the machine, and lift off the top part of the device (the bell). Once in position, she lowers the bell and checks its dimensions, (…) lifts it up again, takes the shell and places it on the left. Each shell weighs 7 kilos. At the normal rate of production, 2,500 shells pass through her hands in 11 hours. As she has to lift each one twice, it means that she lifts 35,000 kilos every day. After three quarters of an hour at this job, I had to give up. I watched my comrade, young, docile, and frail in her big black apron, continue her work. She has been at this work station for a year. As 900,000 shells have passed through her fingers during this period, she has lifted seven million kilos at her job. Rosy-faced and robust when she started out, she has lost her lovely colour and is now a thin, exhausted girl. I look at her in amazement, and the words ‘thirty-five thousand kilos’ echo in my head.

In recent historiography, the study of individual cases has revealed that the effects of the war were not the same for all women. Significant differences distinguished their destinies according to their ages and social conditions. Young women from middle-income and wealthy backgrounds, as well as orphans, seem to have improved their lots during the war, gaining in autonomy and independence. Also, as many of them worked in the service sector, their jobs were much less onerous. The First World War also conferred professional status to nursing and feminized the services sector, with increasing numbers of young women and girls of the middle class finding employment in this sector, which had developed considerably since the Belle Époque of the turn of the century.

Women munitions workers’ football team from the AEC Munitions Factory at Beckton, London.<br>Imperial War Museums.

However, once the war ended, the majority of women resumed their prewar activities, and in general, the respective societies seemed to want to return to the situation that existed before the conflict—in all domains, not just in those concerning women. This choice was particularly evident in political speeches and posters. It was even reported that “this development is not to the taste of soldiers, who fear a loss of their status once peace has returned.” The men were expected to go back to work, and the women to resume their tasks of the past. However, a return to the “normal state of affairs” was impossible, due to the loss of so many active members of the population, particularly men, with approximately 9.7 million soldiers of all nationalities having been killed in combat.

Feminism during the Great War

At the beginning of the 20th century, feminism had achieved undeniable success in Europe and North America, led by charismatic figures who fought for equal rights for women. In France, the most dynamic association dedicated to the franchise for women was the Union française pour le suffrage des femmes, headed by the strong-willed Marguerite de Witt-Schlumberger. Other courageous pioneers of the movement, such as psychiatrist Madeleine Pelletier, demanded the availability of contraception and abortion. However, on the whole, French feminism remained moderate and was limited to lobbying for civil rights, with a tendency to accept compromises.

Demonstration by suffragettes, Rue Feydeau, Paris, 1914.<br>Agence Meurisse, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (2514)].

From 1914 onward, in France, the majority of feminists supported the Union sacrée, the political truce between French political parties during the war, with Marguerite de Witt- Schlumberger calling upon women to follow this path. This “patriotic feminism” movement contributed to the war effort in several countries, providing solace to soldiers, tending to the wounded, and offering labour power and energy to the means of production. In general, it received support from the various governments through the application of measures to encourage women to work, although on the whole, this was done in a strongly conservative spirit.

The feminist struggle during the war essentially centered on demands for equal rights and equal salaries for women, especially as many of them worked in gruelling conditions for a pittance. Indeed, the slogan most often heard was “equal pay for equal work.” Women occasionally organized strikes, which led to raises in salaries, notably in the munitions factories where women risked their lives working with toxic materials at a dangerously fast pace.

Seamstresses’ strike. Meeting at Grange-aux-Belles, Paris, May 18, 1917.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EI-13 (553)].

The right to vote was the ongoing objective that united feminists from the start. However, numerous divergent tendencies among feminists caused splits within the movement. In France, feminists included patriots, neo-Malthusians like Nelly Roussel, who lobbied for the legalization of abortion, and socialists such as Hélène Brion, Madeleine Vernet, and Louise Saumoneau. In March 1915, this last activist participated in the third International Conference of Socialist Women in Bern, a gathering of feminist anti-war activists who had remained loyal to Internationalism.

In Great Britain, the suffragette movement, which had existed since 1865, took a more radical turn between 1903 and 1917. Emmeline Pankhurst, founder and leader of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) from 1903 until her death in 1928, called for direct action to win the franchise for women, thus launching an important new wave of feminist militancy.

Arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst in London, February 13, 1908.

Since 1908, the suffragettes had effectively promoted their views in a newspaper, Votes for Women, that urged the women of London to demand the franchise. In 1910, Hyde Park was filled with thousands of supporters of the suffragettes, carrying banners bearing the slogan “Deeds Not Words.” Emmeline Pankhurst organized many demonstrations and provocative actions, in which she and other suffragettes carried out hunger strikes, chained themselves to lampposts, set fire to buildings, and cut telegraph wires, which caused her to be arrested five times between 1908 and 1913. When she was released from prison in 1914, she publicly supported the war effort and travelled to the United States to urge support for the Allied forces. She also called on women to volunteer as nurses during the conflict.

Suffragettes in London, June 19, 1911.<br>Agence Rol, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département Estampes et photographie [EST EI-13 (94)].

An example of radical feminist protest occurred in London on March 10, 1914, when Canadian suffragette Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery and slashed Diego Velázquez’s painting The Toilet of Venus (the Rokeby Venus) with a meat cleaver; she was subsequently sentenced to six months in prison. In a statement explaining her actions to the WSPU, she said the destruction of the image of the most beautiful woman in mythology was a protest against the government’s slow murder of Mrs. Pankhurst.

In 1917, the suffragettes’ intensified actions finally led to a debate in the British House of Commons on the vote for women, in which it was decided to give women over the age of 30 the right to vote in the December 1918 parliamentary elections. Inspired by this positive development, women in other parts of the British Commonwealth began their own struggles for the franchise.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Montreal was a hub of feminist activity in Canada. A mainly anglophone association, the Montreal Local Council of Women, founded in 1893, had its French-language equivalent in the Fédération nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, created in 1907. Like their European counterparts, these organizations campaigned for the recognition of women’s political and legal rights, as well as for access for women to institutes of higher learning and to the liberal professions. Marie Gérin-Lajoie (1867–1945) and Julia Drummond (1897–1937) were among several Montreal women, mostly of the upper-middle class, who stood out in this phase of the struggle for women’s rights in Canada.

When the First World War ended, feminists expressed their desire to participate in the peace negotiations, in vain. The postwar public discourse in France—not surprisingly, as it was dominated by men—treated the women’s movement largely as a bourgeois struggle. Added to this was the idea that women’s rights should not be a central issue at a time when, after four years of devastating war, the major concern was the depleted population and the efforts to solve this problem. In January 1919, when women were officially demobilized by the authorities, the difficulty lay in providing assistance to the world’s four millions war widows, of whom almost 700,000 lived in France. Attempts to achieve women’s emancipation were relegated to narrow circles of bourgeois intellectuals. For the majority of women, the postwar period was characterized by a return to normality, i.e., the status quo. In France, a country traumatized by the loss of so many lives, women were expected to resume their roles as wives, homemakers, and mothers—especially if their children had lost their father—and natalist policies were promoted. The French parliament even passed a law, which, by repressing birth control practices, pressured Frenchwomen to conceive and repopulate the country after the demographic catastrophe that was the Great War.

Ultimately, in France, none of the changes demanded by feminists were achieved at the end of the war, or even in the 1920s. Women did not obtain the franchise, nor did they see an improvement in their legal status as married women. In 1919, the French Chamber of Deputies did vote in political rights for women, but the Senate, dominated by members of the Radical Party who were fearful of giving the franchise to women, blocked the bill. They thought women would follow their local priests and confessors in voting preferences, and therefore, that France would become even more conservative. German women, on the other hand, obtained full voting rights at the end of the war. In other countries, such as Canada, the female franchise was granted to certain categories of women in 1917 and was extended, for federal elections, to women who were British subjects aged 21 and up, and who “possessed the qualities that would allow a man to vote.” In Belgium, according to a law of 1921, the franchise for all elections was granted to war widows, while other women could vote only on the municipal level.

Female spies: An important role in the First World War

On the role of female spies during the First World War, see the full version of the article by Chantal Antier, "Espionnage et espionnes de la Grande Guerre" Revue historique des armées, No. 247, "Dossier Le renseignement", 2007, pp. 42–51.


All things considered, the First World War, far from being a time of true emancipation for women, was a time of trials for them, just as it was for the men. The war brought everyone his or her share of suffering. That of the women in the belligerent countries was caused by separation from loved ones or grieving for them, and for having to take on all the family tasks and responsibilities, including the provision of food, in a context of hardship and shortages of all kinds. Moreover, the crimes and abuses committed during the months of invasion and the years of occupation on the Western Front (northern France and Belgium) essentially affected women, who were directly confronted with the experience of war. They faced rape, forced labour, and deportation, whether they were in zones already occupied by the enemy or whether they were accused of resisting the enemy during the invasion.


Bibliography / Webography

  • 14–18. Le magazine de la Grande Guerre, No. 1, April-May, 2001.
  • Antier, Chantal, "Espionnage et espionnes de la Grande Guerre," Revue historique des armées, No. 247, "Dossier Le renseignement," 2007, pp. 42-51.
  • Ripa, Yannick, "Aux femmes la patrie peu reconnaissante," L’Histoire, No. 61: 14–18. La catastrophe, October 2013.
  • Thébaud, Françoise, "Penser la guerre à partir des femmes et du genre: l’exemple de la Grande Guerre," Astérion (electronic journal), No. 2, "Dossier Barbarisation et humanisation de la guerre," ENS Éditions, 2004.
  • Thébaud, Françoise, "Femmes et genre dans la guerre," in Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Jean-Jacques Becker (ed.), Encyclopédie de la Grande Guerre, Montrouge (92), Bayard, 2004, pp. 613-625 (centenary edition, 2014, reprinted by Perrin, coll. "Tempus," 2012).
  • Thébaud, Françoise, "La guerre, et après," in Évelyne Morin-Rotureau (ed.), 1914–1918: combats de femmes, Paris: Autrement/Ministère de la Défense, 2004, pp. 185-199.
  • "Les femmes et la Première Guerre mondiale" in the  Réseau Canopé website.
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