Effects of World War I on Gender Relations Essay

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  4
Wordcount:  953 Words
Date:  2022-03-29

The First World War had significant effects on the gender relations. In particular, the war is attributed to have caused the increased involvement and takeover of men's roles by women. In addition, the war is believed to have helped in strengthening feminist campaigns especially those about suffrage and equality. However, recent historians point out a rather different and conflicting perspective on how the war affected gender relations. In particular, Mary Roberts, the author of Civilization Without Sexes (1994), points out that while the war contributed to the strengthening of feminist campaigns, the effects are exaggerated especially those on increased women participation in the workforce due to the increased hostility of men toward feminism.

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The changes in gender relations in France especially how women had become involved in men's roles were understood in traditional terms. The society was rigid to these changes and many believed the changes to be temporary and would soon fade after the end of the war. Others downplayed the changes and limited them to only a small percentage of women in Paris. However, the effects of the war on women were so profound that they were forced to abandon passive lives and join active life especially paid work. The war was perceived as emancipation for women because many of the jobs and professions that were reserved for men were now open for women. They also increasingly became involved in higher education. The number of women in the workforce and the unions rose from 89,300 in 1914 to 239,000 in 1920 (Roberts, 1994). However, this led to the decline of textile industry and domestic service as many women abandoned their homes as places of work.

Women also enjoyed increased personal freedom in hairstyle, dress, and in marriage. Before the war, there were strict policies on the dress behaviour and conduct of women. In fact, a lone woman traveller was perceived as immoral. Such notions were no longer welcome especially at a time when women had been either free or forced to travel on their own. In addition, the onset of the war led to the tendency of men marrying older women. This tendency gave women more freedom and equality in the marriage. In cases where a woman perceived the marriage did not work, divorce was granted. Statistics show that there were 15,450 divorce filings in 1913 but the figures increased to 32,557 in 1921 (Roberts, 1994). Importantly, sex became a less traumatic issue because there were many official sources of information than before the war. Before the war, sexual education for women was perceived as a taboo but that changed after the war when renowned sociologists, doctors, and academicians started to talk about it openly.

These changes were important because they changed the day to day life of a Frenchwoman after the First World War. However, the changes do not indicate that the war brought about a radical evolution of gender relations and attitudes. In fact, Roberts (1994) indicates that the effects of the war such as a decrease in the population were used against women by men who were unhappy with the new strong woman. Like other warring nations, France realized that a large population and army were fundamental to sustaining or even winning any war. As a result, legislations were passed that outlawed the use of contraceptives or carrying out abortion. While the proponents of these laws argued that they were aimed at increasing the birth rate, Roberts (1994) highlights how the conservatives that opposed women voting rights suggested that countries that had allowed it recorded low birth rates. As a result, they called for the strengthening of legislations that barred women from voting. However, that was only a pretext because many conservatives opposed to the working woman wanted them to return to their homes and assume their traditional role of bearing children. In fact, some conservatives went as far as viewing women without big breasts and hips as rebels of motherhood and nourishment. That campaign for increased birth rate and motherhood led to the closing of many day care and nursing facilities.

A closer look at the campaign for motherhood and population decrease suggests that the issue was exaggerated and was just a tool for achieving other political interests such as the elimination of women from the workplace. In fact, there were very few legislations passed after 1920 that prohibited antinatalist agenda. Roberts (1994) argues that the laws were not focused exclusively on women but rather sought to regulate and control women's sexual practices by targeting abortion and contraceptives. Roberts' argument is justified by the lack of legislations that controlled male forms of birth control. In addition, the leaders that led the enactment of these laws themselves had few children.


In conclusion, the First World War elicited many debates on gender relations. Mostly, these debates were because of the vacuum created by men who went to war leaving women at home who assumed their roles. On returning home after the end of the war, the conservatives were unhappy with the new status quo of a strong woman who worked and had more knowledge about her rights. The new status quo also saw more women in higher education and increased feminist activists that demanded women suffrage. In what is perceived as retaliation and defiance to the "new woman", the conservatives passed legislations with the aim of increasing birth rate but this was only a pretext because they wanted to remove women from the workplace. Despite such efforts, the new woman was enlightened and empowered and could not be held back anymore. The period after World War is undoubtedly the turning point of the fight for equality, a fight that still goes in the modern day.


Roberts, Mary Louise. 1994. Civilization without sexes: reconstructing gender in postwar France, 1917-1927. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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