Today, troops from New Zealand occupy German Samoa in the Pacific. Their landing is covered by ships from Japan, which has officially been at war with Germany for six days. At Guise, the French 5th Army turns and attacks the German 2nd Army; though they only hold up the German advance for a day, the Kaiser’s troops are already lagging and footsore, and after today they will progressively abandon the Schlieffen Plan by turning to the east of Paris in search of a climactic battle with the French army.
But it is the battle on the British homefront that occupies us today, because the Women’s Defense Relief Corps is officially formed. Along with Voluntary Aid Detachments and First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, it is one of three female auxiliary units to be formed this month by Lord Kitchener himself. All controversy about this ceases with the first zeppelin raids, for this is the age of ‘total war,’ wherein nations must turn their entire societies in engines of conflict — and spare neither mother nor child from either danger or responsibility.
It is also the beginning of a new century that will be greatly defined by women as they win the right to vote, unshackle themselves from traditional gender roles, and forge a greater role in the life of nations. Just as this war begins the process of destroying the old world’s grip on its colonies, it also becomes a great leap forward — even a revolution — in the emancipation of women.
It is safe to say that British women are at least as empowered by these four years of war as they have been by the previous four decades of suffragist activism — and for the simple reason that they are desperately needed. As it becomes more and more clear that the war will not be short after all, and casualty lists decimate the ranks of former laborers, manpower shortages become a serious problem for all kinds of production. The shell crisis of 1915, when British manufacturing is unable to keep up with critical ammunition demands from the Western Front, finally ends all doubt, and the government forces trade unions to accept women for the first time.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the liberating effects of the war is in women’s clothing: when British women march for the right to work in 1915, skirt hemlines have already been raised eight inches to save on fabric, and entire layers have been discarded. By 1917, women are working side by side with men in factories, mines, and farms while wearing clothes that have previously been reserved for men, such as trousers. After the war, women would be stuffed back into more feminine clothing again, but the torturous corsets are forever gone, and hemlines will still trend upward for another half-century while trousers stubbornly return. This genie will never be put back in the bottle.
Yet the war will also split the British suffrage movement. In the July Crisis, they marched together to discourage the Asquith government from going to war. After war was declared, Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), endorsed the war effort in the pages of the suffragette Common Cause newspaper. Hardly a warmonger, in 1901 she had personally verified the atrocious conditions in Britain’s concentration camps during the Second Boer War. Now she sees an opportunity for women to advance by filling the void that has been left by all the men going “over there.”
The discontent of pacifists finally comes to a crossroads when the 100,000-member NUWSS decides not to attend the Women’s Peace Conference at the Hague in 1915, and the radicals of international sisterhood split off to form the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Though it never exceeds four thousand members before the end of the war, WILPF still exists today, the grandmother of modern pacifist organizations.
NUWSS, on the other hand, is long gone because its purpose was fulfilled. By the end of the war, British women have driven ambulances, carried dispatches, and even borne arms to guard the home front. More importantly, they have won the right to vote. Granted only with restrictions, their franchise is incomplete for another decade, but for all that Britain has lost in this war, the women of Britain have their victory.
It has not been an easy road. We now tend to forget that both women and men felt very challenged by the suffrage movement, which before the war had constantly been accused of militancy and radicalism. Official repression of suffragettes in Britain was popular, widespread, and brutal, for the government refused to accord them status as political prisoners. When the suffragists responded with hunger strikes, jailers force-fed them. When the women spat out the food, jailers pushed tubes down their prisoners’ nostrils and used funnels to enforce a liquid diet.
These abuses are only now receding when the war begins; by its end, they are on their way to becoming unthinkable. That is a victory for everyone.