Women’s Roles in World War I

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Women’s roles in World War I were limited because of the gender roles constructed in society at the time. In support of this, Janet Lee, who wrote The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry provides information on women’s roles around the time of World War I and demonstrates the stereotypes that were present. Lee says that at the end of the nineteenth century women were considered “passive, submissive, emotional, and self-sacrificing” which led to their assumed inferiority at the time (Lee 144). Another scholar, Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, who wrote New Women in Early Twentieth Century, talks about the various female identities and how they changed with the progression of women’s movements. Fox describes that by the turn of the nineteenth century, women’s movements began to grow, including the rise of the Gibson Girl. The Gibson girl was a new image of female identity.

This idealistic, slim, white woman, was often depicted engaging in leisure activities such as sports, or other outdoor activities. This was an improvement in the image of women at the time because it gave them more freedoms which allowed for the possibility that their long held domestic images were malleable after all. This newfound identity would pave the path for women to “transform what women might negotiate for themselves as they sought to enter the public world” (Lee 140). With the onset of World War I, men leaving for war left job positions open to be filled by women. With this, women were able to take on more positions in the homefront while simultaneously allowing for an expansion of roles in the military, through “ideals of womanhood and women’s unique nurturing and civilising qualities [which] supported claims for equality and civil rights” (Vining and Hacker 335). Women were able to take on roles of care in the war as ambulance drivers and nurses, which is depicted in Radclyffe Hall’s short story “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” (1934). Additionally, some women who weren’t able to take on these roles instead supported the war effort in a different way, as is illustrated in “I Sit and I Sew” (1918) by Alice Moore Dunbar- Nelson.

Even though this progression seemed to be a major advancement for women, men would not relinquish the power they held in society. Men had long held the positions of control and were able to make most of the decisions surrounding laws that worked to maintain their power. The state, composed of majority of men, did not want to allow women to enter the war because it would send a message that they were acknowledging women’s rights as citizens, and therefore their ability to make decisions that would affect all of society. Considering the stigma that women were “passive” and “emotional,” they were certainly not seen fit to make these types of decisions. Nevertheless, women’s movements were advancing their agenda with the onset of the political New Woman. Unlike the previous ideal of womanhood associated with the Gibson Girl, the New Woman was “mainly associated with the growing influence of women in politics and reform movements, especially the struggle for women’s rights” (Fox 6). Fictional women such as Miss Ogilvy and the woman in the poem “I Sit and I Sew” countered the social constructs of gender by contributing to the war effort despite attempts to hold them back. I argue that their contributions allowed them to challenge their traditional roles but did not allow for a complete revision of gender in society.

In a poem written by Wilfred Owen in 1921, called “Dulce Et Decorum Est” the atrocities that occurred during World War I are described. World War I saw the onset of both trench and chemical warfare making it one of the most gruesome wars in history. With the onset of new technology enabling less soldiers to be on the front today, we often forget those who stood on the ground fighting with all of the brutalities of earlier methods of warfare. Because of this, poems that describe war, such as “Dulce Et Decorum Est” are important because they give the reader some insight on the experiences of war, including details of the chemical warfare: “Gas! GAS! Quick-boys! An ecstasy of fumbling/ Fitting the clumsy helmets on just in time, but someone was yelling out and stumbling/And floundering like a man in fire of lime” (ll. 9-12).

In this quote, Owen describes the chaos of war, and his own experiences seeing men dying. Women in the home front were much aware of what was going on with the war and wanted to help fight. The fictional character Miss Ogilvy demonstrates proof of this in the short story “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”. Miss Ogilvy struggles with the social constructs present at the time, keeping her from fighting alongside her equal male counterparts. She describes how she felt not being allowed to take part in the war, how she “wished to go up to the front-line trenches, she wished to be actually under fire, she informed the harassed officials” (Hall 11). This quote tells the reader of Miss Ogilvy’s passion to fight in the war, not caring how gruesome it might be. Miss Ogilvy counters ideals of femininity at the time by demonstrating the “very image of [women] as soldier[s]….was fundamentally ‘disturbing to wartime definitions of both femininity and masculinity’ (Watson 2004, 57)” (Lee 145).

Allowing women to enter the war whilst simultaneously enforcing concepts of femininity at the time, threatened both male and female ideas of gender roles. On one hand, men were considered brave for facing the brutalities of war and “Women’s military service disrupted the logic that only men were sacrificed as combatants, therefore only men might qualify for political citizenship” (Lee 142). By allowing females, who were not considered functional outside of their domestic ability, to engage in the same acts that men were, it takes away from men’s perceived “braveness”. On the other hand, it allowed women to demonstrate their capabilities in handling the same brutalities that men had always been glorified for, and thus supported women’s movements towards equality.

Women like Miss Ogilvy countered the stigmas by directly participating in the war. Miss Ogilvy formed an ambulance unit, which saw as much of the battle as those on the frontline without the same recognition. According to scholars Margaret Vining and Barton C. Hacker, in an article entitled From Camp Follower to Lady in Uniform, women in the late 1800s continued to push the bounds on what they were allowed to do in war and began forming organizations such as the Red Cross and others, that sought to include all classes of women, providing them with more leadership opportunities. Their increased roles “raised to a new level the debate over the proper role of women in modern democratic society” (Vining and Hacker 362).

Real women, such as Vining and Hacker discuss, and fictional women like Miss Ogilvy set an example for women to follow, sparking the thought process that if one woman could do it, so could another. Radclyffe Hall provides evidence of this in “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself” when she describes how Miss Ogilvy went to London and “it was really surprising how many cropped heads had suddenly appeared as if it were out of space; how many Miss Ogilvies, losing their shyness had come forward, asserting their right to serve, asserting their claim to attention” (12). This quote tells the reader that there were many women who thought the same way Miss Ogilvy did, and with numbers comes more strength.

According to the article by Vining and Hacker, because women were so well organized on their own, when the war did begin, they took on active roles in the American Red Cross, which was one of the most far-reaching relief organizations during the war with eight million female volunteers. Because women were set up when the war began, men had no choice but to accept their help, allowing women to take some of the control that men had previously held. Contributions of women such as Miss Ogilvy and others like her allowed for a group of women to come together and push the bounds on what men would permit them to do. Women who were not able to help with the war effort in this way, seemed to have lesser involvement; in reality their influence made just as much of an impact to countering ideas of femininity as those who were directly involved.

Some women seemed to be subdued in the roles society had provided; however, a quiet revolution was brewing in their minds. In the poem “I Sit and I Sew” by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, the narrator dreams of being allowed to participate in the war but is not able to because of the societal constructs that chain her to domestic duties. The speaker describes how she is forced to stay at home, which was common at the time because of the “middle-class ideal of femininity inherited from the Victorian era [that] might locate respectable womanhood in the leisured activities of the domestic household and see it as unnatural for women to function outside this sphere” (Lee 140). In the poem, the woman dreams of joining war but is constrained by gender roles and must sew, “The little useless seem, the idle patch” (Dunbar-Nelson 15-16). The monotony of the woman’s task causes her to question why she can’t do the same things that men are allowed to do in terms of war. Questioning her own roles shows that she is no longer agreeing with them.

Men recognized that once women started a movement, they would continue to push their agendas until their results of equal status were conceived, and wanted to keep them from actively trying to achieve this goal by keeping them busy with other things, such as sewing, knitting or gardening. The men keeping them oppressed did not realize that despite their hands being occupied, their minds were busy with plans and thoughts of war. Men did not consider their thoughts because of the belief that thinking of battle might invoke a “passive” and “emotional” response in women. Dunbar-Nelson describes “wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things/ Once men.” ( ll. 10-11). Because she conveys war in this way, it shows that the speaker does not glorify war. Just like Miss Ogilvy, she knows exactly what she would be getting into by joining the war.

This is an attitude of nationality that men did not support women having. Enabling them to have this mindset would only reinforce the women’s movements about equal rights because it would “[instill] women with a sense of duty to society and nation” (Vining and Hacker 359). This thought would threaten the existing structure of power because it implies that women will fight for what they want at all costs instead of being repressed as they once had been. The woman in “ I Sit and I Sew” had this mindset and although she does not get to join the war effort in the poem, her contribution of thoughts helped make an impact on the minds of women around her, helping to further the growing movement of women’s rights. However, both texts seem to imply that although their contributions were significant, society was never completely changed.

In “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” there is a moment when the story shifts, and Miss Ogilvy travels back in time and becomes a male Neanderthal who has a female partner. During this chunk of the story, there is a battle going on between the two tribes. This portion is different from the rest of the tale because it exaggerates the gender roles present in Miss Ogilvy’s society. Hall’s use of gender swapping seems to imply the exact opposite of what Miss Ogilvy counters throughout the rest of the story. The Neanderthal man (Miss Ogilvy) refers to the female partner as his “small berry”(Hall 29), implying that she is weak and fragile, a stereotype of women during Miss Ogilvy’s time. Miss Ogilvy finds herself in the position of power she has craved all along.

Finally able to fight and attain power in this fictional society, something which she was never able to achieve in her real world. Miss Ogilvy’s fantasy shows her as the ultimate contributor to the war by allowing her to be a male who dominates over females, and thus gaining not only the status to fight on the front line but also to make decisions concerning others. Miss Ogilvy’s ideal mate being the exact stereotype that she is fighting against seems to suggest that women will never gain any real power simply because they are women. Only the changing of sex into a male will allow them to achieve power in society. Hall could have portrayed Miss Ogilvy’s fantasy as a changing society in which women are allowed to fight and men are those that are stereotyped as weak. Because she did not do so, it shows that both Hall and the fictional character Miss Ogilvy believe that their status as women in society makes them eternally doomed to succumb to a power complex that will not change. Similarly, in the Dunbar-Nelson poem “I Sit and I Sew,” although the woman imagines herself in battle, she remains confined to the domestic duties that she is unable to escape.

Both Dunbar-Nelson and Hall seem to suggest that although women are able to make contributions to the changing of society, they fail to alter it completely. These texts challenge stereotypes of the time by placing the characters in contexts that don’t agree with their predetermined gender roles, but they fail to bring forward a changing of society. Ultimately, the reader learns that fighting for a cause you truly believe in can only get you so far. Miss Ogilvy winds up dead by the end of her fantasy, and never returns to her real world. This proposes that the only way for her to escape the bounds of society is to disappear permanently, offering no resolution to the changing of gender roles. This is an issue that carries on decades after the war ended.

Gender roles that were established before the nineteenth century have lasting impacts on what women are able to do in society today. Societal constructs created in the past, influence what jobs women are able to attain, pay they receive and many other aspects. Fictional characters like Miss Ogilvy and the woman in “I Sit and I Sew” demonstrate the ongoing battle to achieve equal status that women faced in the past and are still relevant in the present. Miss Ogilvy and the woman in “I Sit and I Sew” as well as real nineteenth century women, showed how their contributions to World War I challenged typical gender roles of society at the time. The poem and short story fail to bring forward a changing of society, showing that the battle for gender revision in society has not been won. Women are still faced with this issue today and will continue to fight modern ideas of gender construction just as those before them.

Cite this paper

Women’s Roles in World War I. (2021, Oct 25). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/womens-roles-in-world-war-i/

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