War and Women

Title page: Max Glage, Das Weib schweige in der Gemeinde
Max Glage, Women should be silent in the community, title page, 1915
German National Library, First World War Collection, signature: 1916 B 263

War and Wom­en

The First World War not only changed drastically the lives of countless men, but also posed new challenges to women. These women, whose domain had always been in the private sphere, according to the traditional understanding of roles, and whose main function was to raise children and support the adult family members, were suddenly faced with unfamiliar tasks, but also new opportunities. Following the enlistment of the men, many women experienced having their own money for the first time, which they could manage alone. From that point on they were regarded as the providers and heads of the family and they discovered that they too were able to perform work that had previously been seen as exclusively male activities. Wives became “Warrior Wives”, widows, agricultural and industrial workers, single mothers and sexually active people. 

The new freedoms made women the object of particular care and observation on the part of the authorities. Support payments, offers of advice, enlightenment about protection against sexually transmitted diseases and other measures breathed the spirit of the caring devotion of the state to the “Warrior Wives”, but at the same time it was clear that those in power mistrusted the allegedly wasteful, lazy and suspiciously immoral “war wife”. 

A flood of books and brochures reminded the women of their traditional role as wives and mothers, to which they would have to return without complaint after the war. Industrial firms that employed women in men’s jobs made them sign a clause according to which the woman would have to surrender the workplace once more, as soon as the soldiers returned. 

Nor did women enjoy political participation as a result of the war. While in France and Great Britain women had little or no voting rights, post-war Germany introduced full suffrage for women in 1919; however, this was less a consequence of the war than of the November Revolution. Women should be silent in the community – that was the programmatic title of one of many writings that considerable influenced the public debate in German wartime society. 

Thus this war caused women not only numerous privations and problems, but also presented new possibilities and previously unknown freedoms. In general, however, the emancipation of women, which had been growing in strength since the turn of the century, was curbed in the years from 1914 to 1918, as they were once more allocated roles and functions within wartime society that had already been revealed as a social construct before 1914 and widely discussed.