For women, remaining single today doesn’t carry the same stigma as it did 100 years ago. You know the words associated with single women—spinster, old maid, dependent aunt, family drudge.
Single women were pretty much seen as a burden to the household. Yes, single women could hold jobs. Jobs they were forced to quit when they married. Yet even while single, they were usually not given a livable wage and their behavior was under constant scrutiny by others.
But war changes many things, and on this, the centennial of the outbreak of The Great War (World War 1) let’s look back and see how far we’ve come.
True, prior to the outbreak of the war, women worked in factories. They were paid worse than a pittance because their work was seen as the work women usually did for families, so it wasn’t as valued as a man’s labor. Some of the women saw a spike in their wages because those companies who accepted government contracts were required to pay the women a man’s wage. This wasn’t benevolence on the company’s part, it was because the government wanted to make certain the men would get their jobs back after the war (and not be undercut by cheap labor).
The introduction of the typewriter coupled with the shortage of men allowed women to move into the office. Of course, this was seen as an extension of the woman managing a household, allowing some bosses to rationalize their demand for bedroom rights. Even so, office work was safer than factory work and had shorter hours.
While we in the US think of nursing as an honorable profession since the Civil War, most of Europe considered it only fit for nuns. This was in part because of their exposure to the nude male form, but also because of the rather horrible male behaviors the nurse would be exposed to. In fact, nurses both secular and nonsecular were referred to as Sisters until after World War 2 (some Commonwealth countries may still use this language).
During the war, women served on the front lines, but not as regular enlisted. They were civilian telegraph operators, ambulance drivers, and couriers. Most of the officers preferred them to their male counterparts. Sadly, this made women who risked their lives to support the military targets of soldiers’ frustrations and envy. Their civilian status also meant they didn’t receive any veteran’s benefits. In fact it wasn’t until President Clinton’s term in office that their service was even recognized. There were not many survivors left at the time.
To thank women for their contributions, women received the right to vote. In the US, the 19th Amendment gave women over 21 voting rights in 1920. In England, all women over 30 received the right to vote in 1918 (by 1928, women over 21 could vote). Germany allowed women to vote in 1918. Austria followed in 1919. Australia and New Zealand women could vote at the end of the 19th century (roughly 1895). Canadian women won the vote from 1916 to 1940 depending on where they lived. French women weren’t fully enfranchised until 1944; Belgium 1946. Italy 1946. Ireland was 1922.
A hundred years ago, an archduke’s assassination led to a war that killed 10 million men in uniform and wounded millions more. It is estimated that 30 million women of that generation were either widowed or forced to remain single because of the casualties. The rights and privileges that so many of us take for granted are because of the men and women who came before us.
As we remember the Great War, let us also be thankful that their legacy isn’t just of carnage but of rights, liberties, and opportunities that all peoples of all nations can celebrate.