Rambling through five years of humanity’s darkest hours, focused on the details, I’ve contrived to ignore or virtually ignore certain broader areas. They haven’t all needed input from me. I make no apology, for instance, for leaving the heritage industry to shine a ‘human interest’ spotlight on the Western Front, poets and all, or for paying only passing attention to most acts of carnage and derring-do.
On the other hand, I have pretty much left alone some heritage orthodoxies that need challenging, usually because I’ve been too lazy for extra research or because I haven’t felt qualified to pontificate. On the latter tip, take racism. Racism (the comprehensive kind that heritage history pretends began with the Nazis) informed every white nation involved in the Great War, and the world is still living with the consequences of its practice and impacts – but I’ve been a bit shy about shouting that out because I’m a white, middle-class Brit. I am also male and that’s about my only excuse for saying so little about another big wartime ‘ism’.
From a British heritage perspective, the story of feminism during the First World War is simple and uplifting. Women were brought into the industrial workforce as never before, and they were enfranchised. You might find discussion of the way they were summarily removed from the workforce to make way for returning veterans after the War, and recognition that only some women were given the vote – but you’d have to play close attention to notice that the feminist struggle for representation predated and was largely inhibited by the War.
For that matter, you’d have to go read a book to realise that the Pankhurst family, while undoubtedly the struggle’s most effective lobbyists, were by no means its only or most convincing heroes. Emmeline Pankhurst, still the poster girl for most modern commentators, can be best described as a self-serving opportunist who used feminism as a platform for personal improvement, and her daughter Christabel was a spoiled version of the same. Only Sylvia, Emmeline’s other daughter and as much a socialist as a feminist, gets my vote as a dedicated campaigner worth posterity’s acclaim, but of course her work for two causes has encouraged both to understate her legacy.
From a popular British viewpoint, pre-war and wartime suffragism (and feminism in general) tend to be seen from an Anglo-American perspective. Because I can do it without extra research or political risk, a quick look around the feminist world at war seems a useful idea – but I will take the well-documented, much-vaunted US and British experiences as starting points.
Feminism was a strong force in the pre-War United States. Four states had enfranchised women during the 1890s, and the first congresswoman took her seat in 1914. The war years had some effect on the northeast of the country, where 30,000 women entered industrial jobs, but had little political impact on women in other regions, and the enfranchisement of women across the USA in 1920 was the product of decades of well-organised, middle-class agitation rather than the First World War.
The same was essentially true in Britain, where the fight for female suffrage was in full swing, principally in its many large towns and cities, when war broke out in 1914. Emmeline Pankhurst, whose enthusiasm for the war dominated her behaviour for the next four years, helped organise an informal truce for the duration, but by then the British government was anyway close to sanctioning female suffrage, so that hunger strikes, fence chaining and other dramatic individual gestures soon lost their cachet in the circumstances of ‘total war’.
By August 1916 the British war economy was employing around 1.1 million full-time women workers, two-thirds of them in jobs previously performed by men, and by the spring of 1918 another quarter of a million were doing agricultural work with the Land Army. The obvious importance of working women to the war effort, and the fact that they were paid on average 30 percent less than men for the same work, made wage discrimination the main focus of wartime feminist protest, although demonstrations also took place for the ‘right to serve’, a demand fulfilled by the formation of non-combat female armed forces in 1917.
Propertied women over 30 were duly given the vote in December 1918, but the majority of employed women were put out of work over the next couple of years, as men returned to their jobs and war industries closed. Like many other social developments hot-housed in Britain by the demands of total war, female emancipation was kicked into reverse by the post-War reset, but the seed of change had been planted all the same. Thanks to Britain’s desperate wartime need for industrial workers, to its urbanised, relatively close-knit infrastructure and to the Land Army, it had been planted across the nation.
French society was structured rather differently. Although the conflict forced rapid industrial expansion, France remained overwhelmingly rural in 1919. The vast majority of French women had spent the War labouring in fields without their menfolk for no financial, political or social reward – and with little sense of change. The experience of women in French industrialised cities was broadly similar to that of their British counterparts – plenty of work in jobs previously reserved for men, gross inequality in the workplace, and mass post-War redundancy – but feminism had accumulated much less political traction when the War began.
A Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes (UFSF) had been founded in 1909 and had grown rapidly, but it could only muster some 12,000 members by 1914, tended to avoid militant action and declared a formal truce when war broke out. Spared anything but small-scale feminist pressure for the duration, and understandably preoccupied with the enemy at the gates, the French government left women in political stasis. Women were never allowed to serve in the armed forces during wartime, and although the lower parliamentary house did pass a bill enfranchising females in 1919, it was blocked in the upper house, the Senate, which repeated the trick throughout the inter-war period, finally giving women the right to vote in 1944.
In Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, feminist progress was stymied by the same broad cultural divide. While a small minority of politically aware, politically impatient urban women in northern Italy, parts of Austria and future Czechoslovakia moved into previously male-dominated employment, an infrastructurally isolated rural majority was far too busy toiling in the fields to broaden its horizons. Women were permitted to vote in Austria and Czechoslovakia from 1918, and given limited voting rights in largely rural, landowner-controlled Hungary from 1920, but restrictions on female educational opportunities were imposed shortly afterwards in Hungary, and Hungarian women would not receive full voting rights until 1945. The same was true for Italian women, who were eventually given the right to vote in local elections by the Mussolini regime in 1925 but had to wait another twenty years for full voting rights.
The Ottoman Empire was predominantly rural, embraced lands governed by strict Islamic traditions and, on the whole, left reform well alone throughout the War – but the aggressively secular Young Turk regime ensured that things were very different in Constantinople. From the moment the Empire entered the War, liberal (male) intellectuals in Constantinople began criticising the veiling and seclusion of women as a waste of resources, and the next three years saw women working in the city’s offices, hospitals and schools for the first time. Women were also employed in various menial jobs, including street cleaning, while the number of girls’ schools in the city mushroomed during the War and lynching of ‘fallen women’ all but stopped. The Ottoman Army – another bastion of secular thinking – organised a female labour exchange at the start of the War and formed its first female battalion in February 1918, although Ottoman women’s greatest military contribution to the war effort came on the Caucasian Front, where they played a vital role as ammunition carriers.
Young Turk reforms, carried out against a constant backdrop of criticism from religious conservatives, weren’t feminist in origin, but were part of the all-male political struggle between religious and secular authorities that characterised Constantinople during the Empire’s last years. The same would be true of the more comprehensive reforms enacted by the Ataturk regime in Turkey, which gave equal rights to women in all but suffrage in 1926 and eventually granted full voting rights to Turkish women in 1934.
In Germany, women’s attitudes towards feminism reflected the country’s stark political division between right and left. By 1914, some 175,000 women were members of the moderate socialist SDP, but an equal number belonged to the conservative, traditionalist German Women’s League, which had the support of the nationalist, expansionist forces – military, industrial and political – that were running the country. Women flocked to work in wartime factories and public services, and they received official encouragement once Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command took control in the second half of 1916 – but they were (broadly speaking) motivated by patriotism and financial need rather than feminist politics. Demands for the enfranchisement of women were the province of small feminist pressure groups and the far left, both of which were easily and completely ignored by policy makers.
The collapse of the regime in late 1918, and the German revolutions that followed, transformed the situation. Women received the right to vote on the day after the Armistice – a victory generally described as a ‘gift’ of the revolutions by left-wing commentators, but reclaimed by modern feminists as, at least in part, the product of persistent lobbying by their predecessors. The 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic went much further, establishing equal opportunity for women in education and the civil service, along with equal pay in the professions. This put German women in a far stronger position than women in the US or Britain, let alone France. By 1926, thirty-five women formed 6.7% of Reichstag membership, against the thirteen women that constituted about 2% of the British House of Commons, but feminism’s relatively rapid progress was reversed after the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.
Although New Zealand had given women full voting rights in 1893, and several Scandinavian countries were well ahead of the contemporary curve when the War broke out, nothing in the developed world could match the freedoms given to women in the Soviet Union during the First World War – in theory. The Russian Empire (which had authorised voting for women in the semi-autonomous province of Finland in 1906) was forced to employ women in its industrial centres during the War, in increasing numbers and in very bad conditions. Industry was concentrated around St. Petersburg and Moscow, as was political power, and radicalised women workers in both cities played a prominent role in the February Revolution of 1917. The subsequent triumph of the radical left, which had always preached complete gender equality, saw women promised full and unconditional equality in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution. The USSR was as good as its word, and Soviet women enjoyed equal pay and opportunities in every walk of Russian life, including the military, along with full civil and political rights. All good, except that equal rights in the Soviet Union soon amounted to equality of oppression.
In Japan – industrialised, urbanised and involved in the fighting – women were thoroughly oppressed throughout the War. They had been banned from all political activity in 1900, and what little agitation existed on their behalf virtually disappeared after the suppression of Japanese socialists in 1910. Japanese feminism was reborn a decade later with the New Women’s Movement, which won the right to hold political meetings in 1922, but the right to vote would be denied until after the Second World War.
In many ways, the experience of Japanese women is more typical of the world in 1919 than that of British or North American women. Though the First World War is often trumpeted as a watershed in the socio-political history of women, its effects made a real difference in very few places. In Germany, Russia and some of the central European states emerging from the wreck of Austria-Hungary, collapse of restrictive regimes gave an enormous boost to the feminist cause, but the experience of war merely hastened the processes of emancipation already underway in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia (but not South Africa, which eventually gave women the vote in 1930). Italian and French women made only minor gains in the aftermath of the War and, like those in most future Warsaw Pact countries, would not achieve real freedoms until after the Second World War.
Elsewhere, women in Turkey saw the first cracks in the traditions that still keep them socio-politically separate from men in Islamic countries, but nothing much changed for the vast majority of women in the vast majority of other countries. Many of them found their lives altered by economic fluctuations, the removal of menfolk or both, but the War had no important effects on their social, political or constitutional emancipation. So, let’s whoop and cheer for those few women released into the political world during the first years of peace, but let’s be aware that we’re celebrating something essentially Anglophone, and that some of the icons we commemorate were middle-class experts in self-promotion. I’m middle-class and British, so I think I’m allowed to say that.