The Role of American Women Before, During & After WWI

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  • 0:04 Importance of Women's History
  • 0:52 Women Before World War I
  • 2:48 Women During World War I
  • 3:42 Women After World War I
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine the role of American women before, during, and after World War I. We will identify the central themes and developments surrounding women's history during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Importance of Women's History

The month of March has been designated Women's History Month. If you follow organizations like the National Archives or the Smithsonian Institute on social media, you'll often see them use the #womenshistorymonth hashtag throughout the month of March. Women's history is important and historically has often been overlooked, though this has largely changed. This is because a lot of attention is given to wars and politics throughout the history of, well, history courses, and while it's interesting to learn about great generals and political figures, we should also be mindful of the role women have played in American society, and the world for that matter, throughout the course of history. In this lesson we will look at women in the early 20th century, specifically before, during, and after World War I. Let's dig in!

Women Before World War I

Let's now take a closer look at two of the major factors that existed in female life before the opening salvos of the Great War.

  1. The Suffragettes: The Women's Suffrage Movement, which was a political movement aimed at granting women the right to vote, began in the 1840s and gained momentum throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. Popular early suffrage leaders, or suffragettes as they were called, included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. By the end of the 19th century, numerous states had passed laws granting women the right to vote. Western states were among the first states to grant women voting equality. Even so, it would be another two decades before women had 'the vote' nationwide.
    A group of suffragettes in 1913
    women
  2. The Victorian Era: While women were making gradual and modest strides toward equality in the area of voting, the late 19th century as a whole was a time with clearly defined gender roles and expectations. This mid- to late-19th century time period is sometimes called the Victorian Era, after British Queen Victoria. This period lasted from 1837 through 1901. Victorian culture wasn't just limited to Europe; it was alive and well in the U.S. Under the social mores of Victorian culture, women wore long dresses and corsets underneath them. Women were understood to be the keepers of the home. Their lives were centered around domestic affairs like cooking, cleaning, tending to children, and among the wealthy, entertaining. Most women, especially among the middle and upper classes, did not work outside the home and were generally not as educated as men. All of this gradually began to change with the onset of the 20th century. Women were increasingly demanding greater political voice. They were even engaging in men's activities like riding a bicycle. By the early 1900s, the 'first-wave' of feminism was underway.

Women During World War I

War tends to disrupt traditional norms surrounding gender and sexuality, and the First World War between 1914 and 1918 was no exception. Keep in mind, though, the U.S. didn't become involved in the war until 1917.

During World War I, many women entered the workforce for the first time. With significant numbers of men away in Europe, women were needed in various capacities. It's believed over 20,000 women worked as nurses during the war. Others worked in clerical positions for the U.S. government. Telephone and radio operators were also common positions for women.

On the home front, women assumed greater responsibility in public life as significant portions of the male population were 'over there' (as Europe was referred to during that time). Women too young or unable to work helped the war effort in various ways, such as planting 'victory' gardens.

A World War I poster featuring a young woman
woman

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