Women's contribution to both wars was significant; though the attitudes towards their contribution were typically paternalistic.
While some women managed to receive a tertiary education and others to go into non-traditional career paths, for the most part women were expected to be primarily involved in "duties at home" and "women's work". Before 1914, only a few countries (New Zealand, Australia, and several Scandinavian nations) had given the right to vote to women (see Women's suffrage), and apart from these countries women were little involved in the political process.
More than any previous wars, World Wars I and II hinged as much on industrial production as they did on battlefield clashes. With millions of men away fighting and with the inevitable horrendous casualties, there was a severe shortage of labour in a range of industries, from rural and farm work to city office jobs.
During both World War I and World War II, women were called on, by necessity, to do work and to take on roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations. In Great Britain this was known as a process of "Dilution" and was strongly contested by the trade unions, particularly in the engineering and ship building industries. Women did, for the duration of both World Wars, take on jobs that were traditionally regarded as skilled "men's work". However, in accordance with the agreement negotiated with the trade unions, women undertaking jobs covered by the Dilution agreement lost their jobs at the end of the First World War.
By 1914 nearly 5.9 million were working out of the 23.8 million females in Britain.
In World War I, for example, thousands of women worked in munitions factories, offices and large hangars used to build aircraft. Women were also involved in knitting socks and preparing hampers for the soldiers on the front, as well as other voluntary work, but as a matter of survival women had to work for paid employment for the sake of their families.
Nursing became the one and only area of female contribution that involved being at the front and experiencing the horror of war. In Britain the Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and Voluntary Aid Detachment were all started before World War I. The VADs were not allowed in the front line until 1915.
Not only did they have to keep ‘the home fires burning’ but they took on voluntary and paid employment that was diverse in scope and showed that women were highly capable in diverse fields of endeavor. There is little doubt that this expanded view of the role of women in society did change the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. However the extent of this change is open to historical debate.
The role of women tended to differ in scope and importance between World War I and World War II.
Many women worked as volunteers serving at the Red Cross and encouraging the sale of bonds and the planting of "victory gardens".
With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, women's roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. By 1945, more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries in the U.S., building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. In the Allied countries thousands of women enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving in the military itself, particularly in the Red Army (see below).
This necessity to use the skills and the time of women was heightened by the nature of the war itself. While World War I was mainly fought in France and was a war arguably without clear aggressor or villain, World War II was truly a global conflict where countries were invaded or under the threat of invasion from leaders in Germany (Adolf Hitler) and Japan that had ambitions of world domination. In these circumstances the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labour of women was symbolized in the United States by the figure of Rosie the Riveter.
American women also saw combat during World War II, firstly as the nurses in the Army Nurses Corps and United States Navy Nurse Corps during the Pearl Harbor attacks on 7 December 1941. The Woman’s Naval Reserve and United States Marine Corps Women's Reserve were also created for women performing auxiliary roles. In July 1943 a bill was signed making the Women's Army Corps an official part of the regular army, but not in combat units. In 1944 WAC’s arrived in the Pacific and were landing in Normandy on D-Day. During the war, 67 Army nurses and 16 Navy nurses were captured and spent three years as Japanese prisoners of war. 350,000 American women served during World War Two and 16 were killed in action. American women also performed many varieties of non-combat military service in special units such as the WAVES, Women's Army Corps, and Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Indeed World War II also marked milestones for women in the US military, Carmen Contreras-Bozak, who became the first Hispanic to join the WAC's, serving in Algiers under General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Minnie Spotted-Wolf the first female Native American woman to enlist in the United States Marines. In 1943, the first female officer of the United States Marine Corps was commissioned, and the first detachment of female marines was sent to Hawaii for duty in 1945. Women also joined the federal government in massive numbers during World War II. Nearly a million "government girls" were recruited for war work.
In Britain, women were not recruited into regular combat units, but the Special Operations Executive (SOE) did. They were used as agents and radio operators in Nazi occupied Europe.
The Second World War began in 1939 so many housewives joined the war effort and took over the men who joined the army’s jobs.
The most common job for women was in domestic service, which about one and a half million women worked. Some domestic servants lived in attics and worked long hours as cleaners, cooks or chamber maids. They would be typically paid £5 or £10 a year. Often domestic servants would get half a day off a week however some only got half a day a month. This style of work was very appealing to young girls as the schools leaving age was twelve and domestic service didn’t require a high level of education. Nine-hundred thousand women worked in textiles. The textile industry was a major employer of women as they could supervise the spinning and weaving machines as effectively as men. Pay was of course much lower for women than it was for men. Five-hundred thousand worked in the ‘sweat trades’ where they would work excessive hours of work for very low pay in unsanitary conditions. The worst examples of the sweated industry were clothing and dress making, where women worked in workshops in the home of their employers. Some women however worked from home and were paid piece rates (paid for every item they made). Women were easy targets for sweatshop owners as they could not afford to complain for fear of losing their jobs, and it was almost impossible to set up trade unions as the number of workers per shop was very low. Women were usually paid two-thirds of a man's wage, or even less and were rarely ever promoted above men.
Women usually weren’t as well educated as men as some families educated their sons and not daughters because they assumed that women would get married and have children. The school leaving age was twelve and staying at school after that meant having to pay school fees or winning a scholarship; sometimes if a girl won a scholarship her parents would refuse it as they needed her wages. As a result 10 per cent of children attended school after twelve and 10 per cent of them were girls. Before the war effort middle and upper-class women were not expected to work. Middle-class women would sometimes work as secretaries or in posh shops as assistants before they were married.
In occupied Poland, as elsewhere, women played a major role in the resistance movement, putting them in the front line. Their most important role was as couriers carrying messages between cells of the resistance movement and distributing news broadsheets and operating clandestine printing presses. During partisan attacks on Nazi forces and installations they served as scouts.
During the Warsaw Rising of 1944, female members of the Home Army were couriers and medics, but many carried weapons and took part in the fighting. Among the more notable women of the Home Army was Wanda Gertz who created and commanded DYSK (Women's sabotage unit). For her bravery in these activities and later in the Warsaw Uprising she was awarded Poland's highest awards - Virtuti Militari and Polonia Restituta. One of the articles of the capitulation was that the German Army recognized them as full members of the armed forces and needed to set up separate Prisoner-of-war camps to hold over 2000 women prisoners-of-war..
- "Government Girls of World War II" 2004 film by Leslie Sewell