Military conflicts often align with significant social changes within states due to the underlying causes of confrontation and the changes that occur during their management. World War I is one of the most common examples of how social changes were propelled by the necessity to fight the oppressor and consolidate when addressing a global threat. Due to the need for Great Britain to unite and mobilize all of its resources to survive the devastating effect of WWI, the social role and the opportunities for employment changed drastically for British women.
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Due to the lack of men among civilians during WWI, women had to take the job positions that were typically associated with masculinity, thus challenging the stereotypical image of a woman. As a result, the difficulties that the British economy was suffering during WWI facilitated the reconsideration of gender roles and the introduction of women into the workforce, thus providing significant support for the movement aimed at women’s liberation.
Impact of WWI on Women’s Employment Options
While the changes in the societal perception of women in Britain occurred parallel to the rise in the job openings for the specified category of population, the economic change may have affected social attitudes to a significant extent. Therefore, considering the economic changes will be the first step toward embracing the shift in the role that women played in Britain in the early 20th century. The rising need for extra workforce was one of the key characteristics of how the WWI influenced the British environment (Loughran, p. 729). Consequently, women started to be seen as potential candidates for the jobs that were in desperate need for being filled. According to Loughran,
Women’s historians who emphasised the potential of war to liberate women contrasted the constricted space of the trenches, and the consequent restriction of men’s minds, bodies and possibilities, with the opening out of women’s lives and opportunities in wartime as they entered the public realm of work and citizenship.
The increase in demand for women in jobs that were deemed as predominantly male was mostly caused by the absence of male candidates, who were recruited as soldiers. Nonetheless, the further experience has shown that women could handle jobs typically claimed to be male-oriented, which resulted in the empowerment of women in Great Britain and served as massive support for the feminist movement.
Effects of WWI on Social Attitudes toward Women
In contrast to the economic shift in the roles that women played in the society, which could be easily pinpointed on the WWI timescale, the social perception of women in Great Britain was rather fluid, with no specific event serving as the starting point for women’s liberation. However, by proving that they could perform the roles that were traditionally assigned to men, women of Great Britain demolished the social stereotypes that persisted in the specified setting for centuries. As Smith explains, the feminist statement “shifted, it modified, it metamorphosed, but the ardent desire to win the vote that had fuelled it for the decade leading up to the outbreak of the war remained as powerful as ever”. Thus, the social change occurring in British society affected the perception of women’s role and the image thereof. Since the obstacles on women’s way to participate more actively in the economic and sociopolitical landscape of Great Britain in the early 20th century were partially removed, the support for prejudices against the expansion of women’s role started to dissolve, leading to a gradual societal change. As a result, British society started changing the traditional image of a woman, introducing new elements to it, such as women being active agents in the economic development and political management of the state (Tickner and True, p. 221). While the participation of women in military actions was still not allowed, the concept of women’s social role was expanded from that one of a mother and a wife to the one of a contributor to the economic and political growth of the state (Smith 2). Consequently, the WWI has shaped the way in which women were seen in the British society significantly.
Notably, the observed change was not endemic to the social environment of Great Britain. In addition to the alterations in the perception of women’s image in British society, the role of women was changing rapidly across Europe and in the U.S. the observed change could be attributed to the vast scale of the WWI and the effects that it had on every facet of the global society (Loughran, p. 732). Nonetheless, the British suffragette movement that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century was among the most well-known forces behind the development of feminist ideas and their further promotion across the globe.
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However, it would be a mistake to claim that the WWI allowed the women’s liberation movement to attain key goals and introduce gender equality into every aspect of social interactions. Despite the active introduction of women into the realm of economy and industry, as well as other domains of employment that were typically occupied by men, social stereotypes were still quite persistent in the target environment (Smith 2). The WWI did not serve as the cause of women’s liberation movement to develop; instead, it instigated it and became an important impetus in shaping the public’s opinion concerning the role of women and the image thereof.
Caused by the increasing need in qualified personnel and the continuous support of the workforce, the increase in employment opportunities of women aligned with the rapid reconsideration of their role in British society. As a result, greater opportunities for promoting feminist ideas and encouraging a shift in the traditional perception of gender norms appeared, affecting the relationships within British society. The economic and political implications of participating in the WWI for Britain suggested that the state should embrace the concept of gender equality, which led to drastic social and economic changes. Although the opportunities that women could enjoy were still limited, the premise for encouraging a vast change was created.
The observed phenomenon should not suggest that the WWI became the foundation for the liberation of women; instead, it simply created the environment in which British society was left with no other choice but to introduce female labor force to the tasks that were traditionally deemed as masculine. As a result, the harsh setting that the WWI created served as the catalyst for the changes in people’s vision of women and the role that they played in society. The observed alteration in the public attitude toward women did not imply that women were denied the traditional concept of motherhood and the related roles; instead, the range of opportunities that women could enjoy in the WWI British society was expanded significantly.
Loughran, Tracey. “A Crisis of Masculinity? Re-Writing the History of Shell-Shock and Gender in First World War Britain.” History Compass, vol. 11, no. 9, 2013, pp. 727–738. doi:10.1111/hic3.12082.
Smith, Angela K. Suffrage Discourse in Britain during the First World War. Routledge, 2016.
Tickner, J. Ann, and Jacqui True. “A Century of International Relations Feminism: From World War I Women’s Peace Pragmatism to the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.” International Studies Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2, 2018, pp. 221-233.