Gender Roles of Women in

Post-WW I Britain and France and the

Effects of the First World War Thereof

European History: 1890-1939


June 31/99

The First World War was a tumultuous time for Europeans of all countries. The war ravished many of the social institutions of European society, including: the family, gender roles, economic structures, and the work place. The nature of “total-war” would change European society forever, creating the modern women of the 1920’s and the subsequent gender war. World War I was unprecedented to previous European war experiences. No continental war had been fought with the modern weaponry and strategy that WW I entailed. Because of this uproarious change to European life, it is no surprise that social institutions and especially questions regarding women, begun previously to the war, would begin to surface.

Britain and France, after WW I, were as well, both experiencing dramatic social changes. The working women of the war and gender separation (the homefront vs. the battlefront) confused and blurred traditional gender roles in both countries. These four years of female independence in the workplace made a lasting impact on British and French society, shown through literature, journalism, the arts, and the work place. However, differences such as religion, economics, and political heritage, made French and British women’s history distinct. Pop culture had a definite impact on the perceptions of women, through the various mediums listed above. While most things stayed the same for women in both countries, WW I’s greatest contribution to feminism, was its psychological impact on British and French society, essential to the continuing feminist movement.

One of the most dramatic effects of the Great War was the introduction of women into male dominated work environments. Because many men were off fighting the war in France, women in Britain began taking on their vacant positions. While statistics vary, one source shows full time employment for women was raised by 22% or 1.3 million women in Britain.[1] This was a substantial increase in the amount of women in the workforce. Furthermore, many of these women were under thirty, during a value forming age of their lives. The experiences of young women in the workforce without men would tend to shape many of these women to embrace feminist ideals. It is this experience of freedom that would later contribute to feminist ideals in both Britain and France. Francoise Thebaud comments, “Most working women recognized their skills and valued their new financial independence. Wartime work was well paid, particularly in munitions factories, where women could often earn twice what they made in traditional female occupations.”[2] These new occupations tended to destroy myths of female fragility and dependence. After the war, women would continue to struggle. Much of the jobs they had been given during the war, were taken and given to men. Also, fluctuations in employment, in post-war Britain (1921-31) meant that women’s role in the work place also fluctuated.[3] It remained difficult to establish women’s independence, when the economy, in essence, limited it. Women were garnered some protection from their involvement in unions. In 1921 over one million women had joined unions (one sixth of total membership).[4]

In Britain, women’s contributions to the war would “earn” them the vote. On February 6, 1918, women over the age of thirty and all men were given the vote. This legislation could be viewed as either partial defeat or victory. While it was not egalitarian, it was an important step towards universal suffrage. M. Pugh comments that, “The politicians had little desire to give votes to the spinsters and the young women factory workers whom they suspected of harboring feminist views and of being career-minded. They felt much safer with the mature married women.”[5] Even in the giving of the vote, politicians were concerned about the trend towards feminism. A common fear, resulting from post-war male insecurities to be explored later.

France would experience much the same problems as Britain, but also with notable differences. British married women typically did not work.[6] Contrasted with France, in which over half of the women workers were married.[7] This high percentage of married working women is owed to two factors. France was not as industrialized as England and was more dependent upon agriculture. As well, France had a