Women’s Roles in WWI & WWII

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Often considered to be the only good thing to come out of the most devastating wars in history (alongside the UN), the emancipation of women picked up a lot of pace due to their role in the two instances of mass mayhem.

With nations throwing everything at the war effort, entire communities were stripped of their male populations.

This meant that there was no longer anybody to work in the factories making ammunition for the soldiers. That there was no longer anybody making clothing or farming for the nation. It meant that unless something radical was done, most of the participating nations would be on their knees.

So, many of the countries at war, then of the opinion that women could only sow, turned to their female populations for assistance in the war effort. For the first time in history, women would be making a big and official entry into the war machine. And they took their chance.

Millions of millions of women took up jobs that were literally tailored for men back then, such as shipbuilding and shell-making. Even though they weren’t paid as much as men, women proved themselves capable of multi-tasking during the World War years because although they were now employed, they still had to carry out traditional women’s roles like taking care of children. The men were still out fighting, and nobody could replace them at home. Many of them also took up voluntary work for their nations.

The heavy involvement of women in turning countries into war mechanisms was lauded and eventually led to the strengthening of the position of the many women’s rights activists. They now had leverage to demand equal rights, and so, the first barriers to equality were knocked down after humanity’s bloodiest war (up to then).

However, up until WWI, Russia was the only country that had deployed a large female fighting contingent. The other countries only offered paramilitary training for guard duty and/or nursing jobs. Most women were still not active on the front line.

In fact, in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government created several “Women’s Battalions”.

The women’s battalions were created in hopes of re-invigorating a war-weary male fighting force. Results were going very poorly for the large European nation and they were desperately seeking effective war propaganda that would re-invigorate their fighters. By sending young women to fight, not only would the men be ashamed to see them fighting so valiantly, they would also cajole them into action!

The plan made sense, but unfortunately, the Russian soldiers were just too sick and tired of fighting and blood-shed. Nothing would make them eager to see blood again, and not least the massacre of innocent young women.

Maria Bochkareva was the commander of the 1st of 15 battalions, and one of only two to be deployed to the front – the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death. 2,000 women tried to enlist, but Bochkareva’s strict discipline and banning of community battalions drove away 1,700. The last 300 would be the first of 5,000 women in the female contingents.

In their first deployment, the peasant-turned-commander took her legendary troops to a trench near Smorgon. When the men were failed to go over the top and launch an offensive, they refused; trench warfare is one of the most traumatic forms of war – ever.

But the brave young women rose to the challenge and took 3 German trenches. They found a stash of vodka which they tried to annihilate before the men got their hands on it. Ground had been gained by the revolutionary forces, but all of it was lost because Russian relief troops were stretched too thin.

Eventually, the troop was disbanded because of a lack of resources and because of friction between them and the male soldiers – they were completely crushed to bits by the war and they resented the women for carrying it on. They wanted to go home.

But when WWII (which was on a whole other scale) arrived, the women of the war-torn countries knew what they had to do. Many more women started to work this time, and many countries assimilated females into the armed forces. Casualties were minimal as they were still reserve fighters, but they were officially part of the fighting contingent. Anti-aircraft units employed many women and they were fighters too.

After the end of WWII, it became much more acceptable for women to be fighters. The world had awakened to the reality that women soldiers were going to be needed in the future, if armies were to perform better.

On the 7th of June 1948, the USA passed a law called the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. This law gave women the legal right to take serve as active members of the US military. Although Russia had allowed women to take part in war as active combatants ages ago, the passing of the bill in the USA consequently influenced a change in the mentality of Western countries. Since the USA emerged from the war as the greatest non-communist power in the world, taking those steps would lay a path for other Western countries to follow suit. Countries under the communist umbrella were definitely not as foreign to the idea as the traditional Western super-powers were when it was introduced.

In fact, even in WWII Russia employed several female regiments as combatants. Russian military governance had a small but significant female presence, and women were clearly a part of the fighting.



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