Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women in War and Peace, 1914-1945

Sandi E. Cooper examined the experiences of women in European countries during World War I through the “normalizing” period after World War II. Her main argument focused on the transformation of gender roles for women during that time which created a changed that never returned to “normal.” As the men went off to fight in the wars, women were expected to take the place of male workers in society and continue the motherly duties they had been performing for years. Cooper called the war’s effect on gender roles “the quintessential breakdown of patriarchal law and order” (441). The patriarchal society was thrown into the blender with women taking on roles once classified for men. Such was the case in France during World War I where employment regulations for women were loosened and they answered the call to work (443). During World War II, European women worked in military and auxiliary positions which included spies, assassinators, and parachuters (452).

Once the wars had ended, women were expected to forgo the advancement they had experienced and return to the home. Cooper stated, “In wartime, women could do anything; in peacetime, they had to climb back on the pedestal, descending only to keep the house clean” (456). However, these two wars had a lasting impact that helped shape gender roles to how we know them today.

This article emphasized the breakdown of socially constructed gender roles during the war, but also showed that war affected almost every theme that we are studying this semester:
  • Marriage & family: women in some countries were to repopulate for the needs of the state rather than their own families
  •  Employment & work: many women worked outside of the home in positions once held by men; they lost many of these jobs after the wars 
  • Citizenship: women led war protests and women activists put peace into their platforms
  • Categories of difference: women in war-touched countries had vastly different experiences than those untouched by war


  1. It is interesting to think that war and the massive burden placed upon women during most any war-situation is heralded so often as a benefit for women. Nothing is black and white, of course, and it's hard to refute that these sorts of situations didn't empower women in many ways. However to say that war was GREAT because it finally LET women into the workplace is like saying, "I'm so glad my window got smashed in that hail storm so I can finally understand what hail feels like as it's hitting me in the forehead." A new experience, sure, one from which European women were to draw important and valuable lessons. The lessons weren't, however, that "sewing is lame, man I miss the fighting."

  2. What I enjoyed most about this section was the change in women's role. At first, I did not realize that there had been many women before the war that were in the workplace. The novelty of wartime is that everyone was involved from rationing goods to making the ammunition for the front lines. Women traditionally in the hope went to the factories to fill the positions of the men that now stood on the front line. Because of this change, women would soon gain the vote due to their hard work and dedication. Women were already in the workplace but this situation alerted all of society that women were capable of doing the same labor as men and making equally legitimate decisions.

  3. I have always wondered what it was like for those women who were so readily accepted in the workplace during the wars, but were expected to instantly change back to being housewives after the fighting stopped. Like in the case of Nelly Last, she experienced more freedom and realized that she was a "clever woman" instead of the socially stereotyped "uneducated woman" (454). However, to my surprise, not all women felt this way. In contrast, Cooper mentions the effect of war-time work on the working-class woman: "it was just another way to be bone-tired" (454). Sounds like the war had a positive and negative effect on a woman's feeling of liberation.

  4. It doesn’t surprise me that women didn’t want to keep their jobs after the war. During the war, women took these jobs, but it was almost assumed that the jobs would be given back to the men once the war was over. If you look at the types of jobs that these women had, they were mostly jobs in factories and many women worked with explosives or other harmful materials that could lead to their death and the death of others if they weren’t careful. I think that women wanted to have more opportunities outside of the home, but the opportunities they had during the war wasn’t what they had in mind. I think that most women were relieved when the war was over and they could return to their traditional roles and the men could take the jobs that these women really didn’t want to have.

  5. It is so ironic that the burden and scare of war to a nation seems to free the women of societal bounds. What about war changes things so much? I guess when a nation is in survival mode the last thing people care about are social norms and gender roles. If a women can help her nation in a desperate time of need so be it, even if it seems to be beyond her typical sphere of womanhood. Society seems to no longer be "male" and "female" during war, but as united "national citizens" all trying to make their world as peaceful as it once was.

  6. I think it's sad that at times of war, while women were encouraged to enter the workforce as a support to the nation, some were also used for their reproductive ability. Political leaders first won women's affections as they pleaded for their aid in the war effort, then used this allegiance to their advantage in order to repopulate the state with loyal citizens. It is unfortunate that motherhood was degraded in this manner in order to sustain a cause that was aided greatly by women.