Women and World War One

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The outpouring of voluntary service by Britain’s women during World War I was extraordinary, especially when seen from the vantage point of the contemporary western world in which we leave the particulars of war to the paid professionals. Our militaries have developed their capabilities to the point where volunteer help is rarely, if ever, needed. In contrast to our own contemporary situation, the flood of volunteers in 1914 to help with the war effort was immediate and necessary. Just hours after the official war declaration, social and civic organizations all across the land offered to help. Within days, dozens of new organizations appeared to fill the many gaps in the mobilization process.

The Women at Work Collection in the Imperial War Museum offers researchers an abundance of materials on women’s volunteer organizations and philanthropic activities during the war. While the sections on Belgium (1-16) and Benevolent Organisations (1-8) contain the most concentrated collection of materials, other relevant documents are scattered throughout. One might also wish to explore the materials relating to women’s voluntary medical service in the sections on the British Red Cross (1-27), their efforts to maintain a healthy and well-fed home front in the section on Food (1-6), Land (1-9) and Local Records (1-460), as well as their voluntary military service, chronicled in the section on Munitions (I-VII).

The very act of preserving documents for the Women at Work Collection is evidence of the critical role of women’s voluntarism during World War I. At the beginning of the war, with little government recognition of their potential for service, women enjoyed unprecedented freedom and scope for organizing. The ad hoc nature of most women’s voluntary efforts is striking; women simply responded, out of a sense of duty to their country and communities, in the ways they were able, utilizing the skills they had acquired in peacetime, such as raising money, running charities, knitting, sewing, gardening, cooking. Gradually, as the contributions of these groups became essential, the government began to coordinate and regulate their efforts.

The mobilization of volunteers in Britain benefited from a pre-war membership boom in women’s social, service and political organizations, which provided what sociologists today call the “social capital” necessary for winning war. Prior to the war, women donated their time and connected with their communities through their parish organizations, the Mother’s Union, the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, or one of the hundreds of other service organizations staffed and run by women. Thousands of girls and young women belonged to the Girl Guides, Girls’ Friendly Society, and the YWCA, which imbued them with leadership skills, civic consciousness, and a commitment to service. In addition, tens of thousands of members of the women’s suffrage societies had developed during their years of campaigning a finely tuned sense of their place within the nation. For these women, the step to war service was relatively easy.

Scholars have focused less attention on women’s voluntarism during World War I than they have on women’s entrance into waged work, even though voluntary service was the main way (aside from sacrificing husbands and sons) in which middle and upper-class women contributed to the war effort. [Braybon, Grayzel, Gullace, Marwick, Wilson] Historians still debate the significance of women’s voluntarism to the progress of women’s emancipation from restricted Victorian roles. Some historians view women’s service sceptically, pointing to their knitting and sewing as simply an extension of their traditionally subservient roles. Others argue that the leadership and ingenuity demonstrated by volunteers was personally liberating and contributed to women’s newly recognized status within the nation at the war’s end. Leaders of the women’s movement at the time were certainly eager to...
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