By Tae H. Kim
Before the World War I, women were typically housewives, regarded for their looks and not their abilities. Women had worked in textile industries since the Industrial Revolution, but they were barred from positions of responsibility.
As men left to serve their country in war overseas, women replaced them at their jobs. Women also held many jobs created by wartime needs.
War emergency jobs
During 1917 and 1918, there was demand for female stenographers, telegraphers, and phone operators. Women were willing to take more responsible jobs and become skillful workers.
The Red Cross organized women to aid in relief work. Many women joined the Red Cross as nurses. Women also went overseas as members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment. The Patriotic League organized girls in social service work and war services. The Young Women Christian Association trained girls to take the place of the men in jobs. These jobs all brought women out of the house and into the public.
During World War I, women worked in almost every field of industry. They replaced men as railroad workers, auto drivers, and other machine operators. They also filled positions of doctors, lawyers, bankers, and civil servants. Harvesting grain, running businesses, and driving trucks were all common jobs for women to take. Because of the war demands, the role of women and attitudes changed.
Working conditions of female workers
Labor unions fought against hiring women in factories. Women were paid half the wages of men and worked in conditions that were sometimes dangerous and unhealthy. Few employers provided childcare for working mothers or even set aside toilets for female workers. Female workers were also less unionized than male workers, and existing unions were often hostile to female workers.
Young women and girls worked as nurses during the war. The number of Navy nurses increased more than eight-fold. Female nurses went to the war zone where they gave wounded soldiers basic medical treatment. Women also drove ambulances and ran soup kitchens for the soldiers.
The Women’s Land Army
The Women's Land Army played a crucial role in agricultural harvests and keeping farms running.
Some of the most important work done by women was in the ammunition factories. Women also worked as power machine operators and in naval station machine shops. Schools were set up to train women in work requiring skilled operatives. One factory manager said, “Women were seen as quick learners and in some departments they are more efficient than men.”
World War I was a turning point for women. Before the war, women had no socio-economic power at all. By the end of the war, women had proved that they were important to the war effort. There was a clear trend of a broader acceptance of women’s role in America. Women finally had the opportunity to show the world that they could take on as much responsibility as men.
Source: Where Women Worked During World War I
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