The role of women in the First World War

A new AHRC-funded network is taking the lead in recording women’s activism after the First World War, drawing together scholars from diverse disciplines and employing a comparative and transnational perspective.

Principal investigator Dr Ingrid Sharp, senior lecturer in German at the University of Leeds, began to develop the idea of the network almost a decade ago before formalising it in 2011.

“It started off initially with a research question in 2005 – I know what the German women were doing during the First World War, but what about everyone else? I had no idea,” she explains.

“I thought the best thing I could do was get together with a colleague who worked on France, and we had a conference, inviting people from all over the place.

“We were very lucky, because people did come, and we suddenly found ourselves finding out about what all these women were doing.”

Gaining accounts of women’s experience of the First World War across different countries was a starting point; the next step was to explore what happened immediately afterwards within the women’s rights movement.

Although scholars have shown a great deal of interest in the period of transition from war to peace, very little has been written specifically on the role of women’s movements and individual female activists, except within closed national contexts.

Traditionally, academic research into the immediate post-First World War period has been neglected in favour of more sweeping surveys of the interwar period – but Sharp and the network argue that the post-First World war period is distinctive in its own right, with a window of opportunity to make real changes.

“We thought that concentrating on the organised women’s movement was important because it would give focus,” explains Sharp. “They were well-established enough to have journals and had a habit of writing things down, so you have access to what they thought they were doing at the time, and you’ve also got access to how they presented what they were doing – their own diaries and memoirs and minutes of meetings – and the public face of things, where they were able to contribute to the press.”

She explains that many women in these movements were deeply patriotic, and found themselves breaking international bonds that had built up prior to 1914 with other women.

“There had been a discourse of sisterhood, of pacifism, and that broke down almost immediately,” she says.

The role of women in these ideas about peace is significant; ‘anti-militarism’ and peacefulness   are typically associated with the feminine. However, the network’s research shows that the extent of nationalism and hatred of the enemy among some groups in every nation is startling, as is the rift between women who previously worked together in international feminist organisations.

“It was, ‘Yes, OK, women are normally pacifists, but this is a time of war; we are supporting our countries to the hilt,’” she explains. “There must have been an awkward moment in 1918 when the activists were reunited, and some ended up on the losing side, and everyone’s husbands and sons and men had been killing the loved ones of the others.”

This highlights the impossibility of establishing a collective wartime experience for 'women', even within a relatively homogenous group of women’s rights activists.

“Trying to talk about the ‘experience of women’ is too massive,” says Sharp. “It’s like saying, ‘What’s the men’s experience of war?’ It depends very, very much what you were doing – if you were 67 and retired it was a very different war experience than if you were 17 and just joined up.”

The AHRC networking grant has funded a series of workshops at Leeds, in the USA, and in Hungary, all for academics; but also events for the wider public.

“We’ve had network meetings, where we were able to follow on from email conversations, and a conference where people who were unknown to the network could see if there was a way to get further involved and if there were areas that we hadn’t really looked at.

“Through doing that in America, we were able to attract people from Canada and the US, and then moving over to Budapest, that enabled people working in Central and Eastern Europe to travel, and we were able to build on that.

“We have a really good opportunity to introduce the English-speaking world to this information, but also to see if it raises different questions,” says Sharp. “We felt that what we wanted to do was move through the network to a position beyond parallel accounts. We wanted to identify the themes and commonalities and differences — and that has only really been possible by working with a close-knit network, which has snowballed.”

The development of contacts have helped to encourage collaborative work beyond the network itself.  A number of them are taking part in a summer school in Portugal and are talking to interested colleagues about the role of women in the period; some are contributing to the work of an Austrian war commemorative committee; and others have been invited to give various talks on their specialist areas in the months to come.

And there’s also a unique co-authored and co-edited book to be published in 2016, demonstrating the network’s extensive comparison of the impact of the war and its immediate aftermath on politically-conscious women across countries.

“This is not really normal in the humanities — it’s much more common in the natural sciences and social sciences and psychology,” says Sharp. “It’s a big step, but because we’ve been working together for the two years of the network and in some cases from 2005, there’s a willingness to suspend the barriers to working together in this way.”

Sharp is excited about this new method of working, but more than that she’s excited about the network’s output so far — and its future. Indeed, with publications, talks and conferences planned, there promises to be a continuing stream of work that is both distinctive and distinguished.

For further information, visit the network website

Article by Carrie Dunn

Image: Unknown Artist, Women Urgently Wanted for the WAAC (1917). Lithograph on paper. Imperial War Museum PST 5476.

Return to features