While you’ve probably seen hundreds of images of women working in factories during World War II, that wasn’t the first time women joined the workforce to help fill in for the millions of men sent out to fight. In fact, many people credit the freedoms given to women during The Great War for both women’s suffrage and the popularity of both the lifestyle and fashion of the flapper.
The impact of women going off to work was more pronounced in certain countries. For example, the UK joined the war in 1914 while the US waited until 1917 to enter the fray, meaning the United Kingdom had far more need for women to enter the workforce to fill in for the missing soldiers. In many cases, women from all countries involved even volunteered to enter the service as non-combative soldiers. There they would be assigned a variety of duties; for example, this image, taken by John Warwick Brooke in 1916, features women serving in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) who were asked to build wooden huts out of old wooden crates to provide shelters on the front lines.
The women of the QMAAC were resourceful and talented, as you can see in this image featuring the construction of a wartime workshop by volunteers. Thanks in part to these 1916 images by John Warwick Brooke, the corps did very well in World War I and, by the end, it had more than 57,000 female volunteers.
Women who volunteered weren’t just limited to working at the bottom ranks of the military, as this 1916 image by Ernest Brooks shows. Here is one woman who was promoted to be foreman of her division’s project. Yes, these women would only be put in charge of other women, but the fact that they could become supervisors of all-female teams was certainly a sign of respect.
Not all women on the front lines were part of the military though; many were volunteers offering their help to medical services such as the Red Cross. This woman served as an ambulance driver with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, an offshoot of the Red Cross. Unlike most ambulance drivers, though, those who operated the vehicles on the front lines had to know how to repair and service their cars, as you see this woman doing in this image by Ernest Brooks shot in 1916.
Similarly, while some women weren’t quite ready to work on vehicles themselves, they were eager to be trained about auto parts so they could help out in the vehicle parts warehouse. These QMAAC volunteers photographed by David McLellan in 1917 had to learn a lot about car parts, given that there was so little vehicle standardization at the beginning of the war, leaving them to memorize the parts for many different models and makes in order to operate efficiently in the warehouse.
Of course, some women did prefer to continue performing tasks they were already comfortable with – albeit on a much, much larger scale, like these women working to cook up enough food for all the men stationed at their base. While some of the women preparing the food would be volunteers from the Voluntary Aid Department or other such groups, many were simply civilians hired from the closest town, like these four women photographed by Ernest Brooks.
Since so much fighting took place in France and so many men left to fight in the war, women of the country were left doing much of the work – including uniform repair. In this image by John Warwick Brooke, seven women clean military boots with dirty water and brushes so they can be repaired.
After the first set of women cleaned the boots, a second team would then repair cracks in the boots’ leather and soles. Since the soldiers in the war spent most of their time in the trenches, their boots got pretty beat up and needed to be repaired regularly. The women working at this shop, set up on the Western Front, would service 30,000 pairs of boots a week.
Not all female volunteers were shipped off to the front lines. Some stayed behind to help the military from home, like these English women who worked in the British Naval yards to help build new vessels.
For many suffragettes, the war provided an opportunity to show that women were just as capable as men. The Women’s Defense League helped train, recruit, and employ women in war-related work such as telegraph operators, phone operators, and physical laborers during the war as a means to push forward the idea that women were entirely able to perform the same tasks as men, voting included.
Just as they would in WWII, women also filled in at factories back home in the States, although on a much smaller scale. Here you see a team of women wrapping rockets that would go on to be sent off to the front lines, as photographed by Irving Underhill.
If you're looking for more World War I history, our own Erik Sass is covering the events that led up to The Great War, exactly 100 years after they happened.