First and Second World Wars and Women Enfranchisement

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In this essay I plan to explore how the national patriotism engendered by the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars may have been more effective in achieving women’s suffrage than the comparatively impotent methods attempted prior by Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. I will be studying the social perception of women before, during and after the wars, and comparing these views to gender treatments enacted in other countries. As a capricious issue pning many decades and with no definitive date at which women’s enfranchisement was granted, I consider this to be an intriguing subject, and potentially a positive outcome that can be drawn from the bleak horrors of the war-time period. To ensure an objective analysis of this matter I have utilized a range of source material, including both detached, encyclopaedic annals of the topic, as well as more emotive diatribes from the women this subject personally affected.


“The war that has traditionally been defined as an apocalypse of masculinism seems to have led to an apotheosis of femaleness” (Gilbert 1983: p.424-425)

Little erodes the order of a status quo quite like war, a time where superficial social prejudices must be cast aside in order to unite in the name of preserving national identity. They can be regarded as “discontinuities”, moments or periods where “assumptions, rules or possibilities are so altered by events that the future, whatever it proves to be, cannot be the same as the past” (Butler and Bonnett 2007: p.18), and the two World Wars that stretched European and American resources and willpower to their most taut serve as archetypes of this rule. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian Nationalist Gavrilo Princip in 1914 led to events which would leave European nations at their most insecure. World War I consumed over 70 million military personnel, and the Second World War 100 million, separated by an uneasy 21 year truce under the precarious demands of the Treaty of Versailles. It is unsurprising, then, that with all manpower mobilized in battle, and the manufacture of military resources at their most crucial, that gender discriminations should be lifted, and for women to be provided the same opportunities as men. This did not just result in increased aggregates of steel and munitions – this epitomized the change women had been actively pursuing for almost 50 years.

Chapter 1 – The Suffragettes:

The struggle for women’s suffrage had been prevalent since the inauguration of the 1832 Reform Act which prohibited women from voting, but until the outbreak of the First World War campaigns had been largely ineffectual. This was likely due to the contrasting extremist approaches undertaken by the two leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union during this period; Millicent Fawcett believed in the merits of a patient, non-violent protest which, though maintaining a composed logic to the women’s arguments, simply was not forceful enough to convince the men in Parliament to allow women into the electoral process, and Emmeline Pankhurst who took control in 1903 encouraged militant tactics, including arson, hunger strikes and violent demonstrations, significantly raising influential attention, but proportionately more controversy to the cause. Whilst it is fair to say that campaigns for women’s enfranchisement have been controversial since their inception, taking the form of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 treatise ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ , feminist propaganda which “earned her considerable criticism as she dared to acknowledge the existence of women’s sexual desires” (Shukla 2006: p.7), the actions under the Pankhursts were amongst the most combative, forcing the Government to pass the Cat and Mouse Act which permitted the force feeding and imprisonment of those women undertaking hunger strikes. The suffrage efforts were disbanded by Pankhurst at the outbreak of the First World War, deeming it more important to conserve a robust nationalistic stance supporting the British government, and it was actually in working in the war effort that women proved the redundancy of sexual prejudice that they had been campaigning against.

Chapter 2 – War-time efforts:

World War I saw a significant shortage of British manpower, and hence with the majority of able-bodied men embroiled in conflict, it fell to the women to take on stereotypically masculine roles. The ability of women to comfortably tackle physically demanding jobs in ship yards, steel mills, foundries and munitions plants, “exercising springs of resourcefulness and courage without showing off or indulging in macho behaviour” (Stikker 2002: p.209), revolutionized the perception of what women were capable of achieving. Under the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, garbed in work overalls and polka-dot bandana, women were motivated towards and celebrated for “their ability to excel in a man’s world” (Butler and Bonnett 2007: p.12), not only in labour-intense positions of production, but also economic roles such as bank-tellers and cashiers, as well as the millions more who volunteered through the Red Cross and other such organizations. Meanwhile, the prior efforts of the Suffragettes had almost been forgotten amongst the newfound sense of national allegiance, which had the WSPU replacing their published The Suffragette journal with Britannia.

In recognition of the efforts exerted by women during this period, in 1918 an act was granted that allowed female householders and graduates to vote, and full suffrage to all women was endorsed in the United Kingdom 10 years later. With women’s enfranchisement already solidly grounded by 1939, the Second World War allowed an even greater permeation of women into men’s roles, with female patrols being absorbed into First World Metropolitan Police Officers, giving “women police the chance to show that they were capable of performing every type of duty” (Majumdar 2005: p.146). The World Wars, then, were vastly more effective in securing women’s rights in Britain than the preceding Suffragette demonstrations.

Chapter 3 – Women’s rights elsewhere:

In other nations, however, women’s independence was not so permanent. Russia, for instance, saw Lenin and then Stalin appointing women to high status roles concerning family matters, only to have the male-orientated hierarchy abolish these policies in 1929 once their practicality had been exhausted. Mussolini promised improvements for women in Italy, but limited within a Catholic, family-centred ideology, making it inarguably evident that “he considered women different to men”, and only permitting Fasci Femminili, the women’s wing of the Fascist party, authority over “women’s issues” (Stikker 2002: p.211). Germany, meanwhile, was too overwhelmed following the First World War by the severe retributions enforced by the Treaty of Versailles, and thus attributed little significance to the consideration of women’s issues. Although Hitler during World War II asserted the value of women in the maintenance of an Aryan race, all matters of women and motherhood within the Nazi party regime were ultimately under male leadership. Consequently it seems reasonable to believe that the supposed recognition of women by these States actually possessed greater imperial motives – women’s labour was utilized not to equalize employment opportunities but rather “to supply cheap labour for their… economies, to back their military build-up and to add their demographic ‘weight’ in Europe”, and their “exaltation of motherhood” was actually in response to a ‘population problem’ harboured by the nations, attempting to counter declining birth rates which had arisen from increased practice of contraception and family planning. Once feminine value had depleted, it was back to the “macho nature of totalitarian systems” (Stikker 2002: p.212).


Although other nations may have disbanded positions of female power, Britain maintained gender equality as a direct response to women’s efforts during the war. Whilst it is true that as post-war manpower returned to swell employment figures many women lost their jobs to the pre-existing male masses, the critical part they played was not forgotten and served as a paradigm for the attitude towards women’s working roles. Although wartime women succeeded in achieving suffrage as well as equal employment opportunities, it was really the next generation of women who could appreciate this social change. Returning to domesticity, women never neglected the “economic hardship and social disruption during the Depression and World War II” and, wary of what the capricious future might hold, subsequently “encouraged their daughters to attend college and acquire employment skills” (Butler and Bonnett 2007: p.16). As a result, the current state of British gender isonomy can be traced back to the industrious efforts of women during the First and Second World Wars, periods when the nation could not afford to be discriminatory, and women were first allowed a true opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities.


  1. Bonnet, K. and Butler, M., 2007. Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation tells its story. Iaso Books.
  2. Gilbert, S.M., 1983. Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War. Signs: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Majumdar, M., 2005. Encyclopaedia of Gender Equality through Women Empowerment. Sarup & Sons.
  4. Shukla, B.A., 2006. Women on Women: A feminist study. Sarup & Sons.
  5. Stikker, A., 2002. Closing the gap: Exploring the history of gender relations.

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