Feature Articles - Women and WWI - Women at the Front: The Home Front: Suffrage and Work

Constance Markievicz Women were not the dumb creatures waiting at home blind to the horrors of war portrayed in the bitter poems of Siegfried Sassoon like Glory of Women.  They weren't either the gleeful, liberated working girls and professional women that American feminist scholar Sandra Gilbert described in her seminal article Soldier's Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War (1988), callously happy to see their menfolk fall for a patriarchal system that made cannon fodder of them.

There may have been women of both types but there is not a single image that corresponds to all women, in the same way the sensitive men who wrote most testimonials about the war - mainly upper and middle-class educated officers - do not represent the troops at large.  If it is high time to acknowledge that women were an important part of World War I it is also high time to acknowledge the diversity of their responses to it and the variety of stances they undertook.

The same principle that applied at the front applied back home when it came to making the most of upper and middle-class women's willingness to work for no money contributing to the war effort.  The same pragmatism, by no means any wish to alter gender roles, made the Government lure working-class women into munitions factories and all the other jobs so far done by men that were absolutely necessary to ensure the success of Britain as a nation at war.

In any case, the culminating point for women's lives in relation to the Great War was the passage of the Qualification of Women Act of 1917 and the Representation of the People Act of 1918, by which in the general election of 1918 women over 30 could for the first time vote and be elected MPs.

Constance Markievicz, a Sinn Fein candidate, was the first to be elected although, since she renounced her seat out of nationalist convictions, the honour of being the first woman MP went to Nancy Astor in 1919.  Ten years later, Margaret Bonfield became the first woman minister ever (of Labour) in Ramsay McDonald's cabinet.

Next - Feminist and Non-Feminist Women: Between Collaboration and Pacifist Resistance

'Alleyman' was British slang for a German soldier.

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Women and WWI