By Soyeon Park
Exactly 100 years ago, one of the world’s most brutal wars ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day on the 11th month. Last Sunday, 11 November 2018 saw the 100th World War I(WWI) commemoration day with events all around the world.
One of the biggest impacts of the war was on women. It completely transformed the role and social identity of women both during the war and after it.
The public’s perception of women in WWI mostly comes in the form of them working in military hospitals as nurses. Indeed, tens of thousands of women treated injuries of soldiers in field hospitals near the front line.
However, during the course of war, most women contributed by filling workforce shortages. As male workers left the industry to fight, women, who were previously confined to domestic lifestyle, took over their place in munitions factories, farms, and railways, their role covering from tram and bus drivers to police patrols.
In fact, the number of women in the workforce in Britain skyrocketed from 3 million to 5 million between the four year-long war and they were employed in munitions factories and TNT plants at unprecedented wage rates. Wartime female workers constantly had to face dangers of explosive accidents and health problems from chemical exposure, but were significant in that they could now support themselves with their own earnings. Many got the nickname “Canaries” as the chemical turned their hair yellow. Many also were made sterile.
The transition of women’s work from housework to industrial operations brought changes in their fashion. Since they had to carry out arduous and repetitive works in confined areas, women started to replace long, cumbersome skirts and tight corsets with shorter skirts and trousers along with shorter hair. This was also to avoid catching their hair and clothes in the machinery. During the years of WWI, makeup and jewelry also became more established since women could afford them with more economic power.
The fact that they independently earned their own living encouraged them to step out for more rights and more opportunities. The suffragette movement that had been making little to no advancements started to be realized throughout Europe as countries recognized women’s help in war efforts.
Britain was the first to take action in 1918 with its Representation of the People Act, giving voting rights to women over the age of 30. It was followed by Germany in the same year and Canada and the US in 1920, with exception of France and Italy joining the trend much later in 1945 after World War II.
Although electoral inequality persisted with systems giving all men over 21 the right to vote and just one woman elected to parliament, WWI marked an important step in women’s struggle for equal gender rights.
World War I served as the first opportunity for women to participate and come out into the society. Options that were previously limited suddenly started opening up as they proved to be just as capable as men for occupations across the economy. Despite the fact that most women were expected to return to their domestic life when the war ended, World War I began to change the society’s attitudes towards traditional gender roles and ultimately shape the status of modern women.