The history of World War I - since there was no II then, it was simply The Great War - is well-known. Volumes have been written about why European monarchs, related to each other, nonetheless rolled "the iron dice" and sent millions of young men to their deaths. The technological and medical advances, and America's emergence as the decision-maker in geopolitics, have also been exhaustively examined.

Yet the role of women, not so much. World War II was another matter; from Rosie the Riveter to WACs, empowered female imagery was common. World War I, on the other hand, caused  progress on universal suffrage to go backward, and the role of women challenged the concept of femininity that existed.  

When 65 million soldiers went to fight, industries had to resort to women to sustain production. Many of them couldn't even vote. 430,000 French women and 800,000 British women went from being housewives to factory workers and many took part in the war.  Russia even created the first exclusively female combat unit, the Women's Battalion of Death, which comprised 2,000 volunteers trained by Maria Leontievna Bochkareva, better known by her nickname, Yashka. Most narratives don't mention it. 

Credit: Imperial War Museum

Two scholars from the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Castilla-La Mancha have studied documentation about the history of women in World War I and written a paper in Historia y Comunicación Social.

"The social and political consequences of the war changed the traditional gender stereotypes and gave way to a new modern woman, who was not limited to living in the private setting of the home. However, when the cities were rebuilt after the war, it was as if it had never happened", Graciela Padilla Castillo, co-author of the study and member of the Feminist Research Institute at the Complutense University of Madrid explained to SINC.

According to the researchers, most treatises overlooked the figure of women and the work done by those during World War I who remained on the rearguard, "but not at all in the background", added Javier Rodríguez Torres, of the University of Castilla-La Mancha and co-author of the study.

The decisive step for women's rights would not arrive until 1947, when the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women created a draft with the intention of it being a legal instrument that united the rights of men and women.

"Many women lived in the shadow of their husbands in this period, because even their work and progress had to be conceded to the latter so that the man published them and not the woman," said Rodríguez.

The research is focused on the countries involved in the conflict: Germany, Great Britain and France, since they were the countries most affected by the war.

"Until wartime, progress had been made towards new rights for women, such as universal suffrage and education. With the outbreak of war, this was brought to a halt. Curiously, there was a break with patriarchal traditions, but after the war, it was vital to rebuild cities and attend to the wounded and mutilated soldiers, and this became an obstacle for many things, amongst them the situation of women," says Padilla.

Women in the trenches

Data from the Henry Dunant Institute indicate that over 5,000 years of history, more than 14,000 wars have been fought, which have been responsible for the deaths of 5 billion human beings.

"Women, as part of the civilian population and overlooked in terms of decision-making, have become, above all, victims and in general they are the people who, silently, in periods of war, guaranteed the survival of their families and even their communities," write the authors. "In Germany, without participating directly in combat units, they contributed to the war effort, working in arms factories and carrying out various tasks near the battle front: supplies, ammunition depots, etc. Not long before the war ended, almost 68,000 women had replaced the men who were on the front,"

According to Padilla, "women demonstrated that they could perform completely new roles. Before the Great War, it was said that women could not carry out the same work due to physical and psychological differences and this perception was fortunately broken".

In England, women also participated in the war as paid or unpaid civilians. In fact, 80,000 women enrolled as auxiliaries in the female units of the armed forces. Many others served as nurses.

There was also progress in Spain, but very far removed from that of the countries involved in the conflict. "If we were going to compare it with our civil war - said the expert - there is practically no relationship. Similar cases were seen only in education, but in the First World War, we were quite far behind other countries. There were no female commandos or soldier units. Or if they existed, we have found no evidence of them in our research".

At this time, the Spanish had already lost the last territories of their colonial empire, and as such, they were removed from the continental affairs that occupied the diplomatic keys of this period. "It was a small power with reduced interests in the north of Africa, in the shadow of the colonial interests of the European powers".

Change of the female stereotype

World War I brought with it the first modern concepts about women and society: the emergence, for the first time in the history of Europe, of a mixed society.

Women occupied men's positions and were able to maintain a public and private life that promoted their personal and professional development. Likewise, a break with the customs of the era caused substantial changes in family and marital relationships and even aesthetic changes that continued to boost their emancipation.

"The best example of this political change was in Great Britain. There, the suffragettes lost battles with parliament for the right to vote fourteen times. However, their empowerment as a result of their contribution to the Great War was decisive in obtaining it", the researchers stress. They finally achieved it in 1928.

Spain would follow this example with its Constitution of 1931, during the Second Republic. Spanish women exercised their right to vote for the first time in the 1933 elections. This also supports the idea that the country did not participate directly in the Great War but was involved in it ideologically, with its negative and positive consequences, such as in achieving the vote for women. Franco's dictatorship nullified it again until 1975.

Citation: Graciela Padilla Castillo and Javier Rodríguez Torres. "La I Guerra Mundial en la retaguardia: la mujer protagonista", Historia y Comunicación Social 18: 191-206, 2013.