UNI lecture examines the women of World War I

Before Rosie the Riveter ever rolled up her sleeves, there were the women of World War I.

Women like Maria Botchkareva, a Russian Army officer who formed the Women’s Battalion of Death, an all-female combat unit that won respect for their toughness fighting on the front lines. Or Edith Cavell, a British nurse working in German-occupied Belgium who helped hundreds of Allied soldiers escape the country. 

The roles these women and many others played in one of the largest and deadliest conflicts in human history were highlighted recently in a lecture from Emily Machen, UNI associate professor of history, titled “Warriors, Caregivers, and Patriots: Women’s Experiences in the First World War.” The lecture was part of World War I: Lessons and Legacies, an ongoing special exhibit on display at the Rod Library that runs through Feb. 15.

“Women had played a role in wars before World War I, but their involvement in World War I is much better organized and more expansive,” Machen said. “It was the first time that women were officially connected with militaries, nursing had improved and become much more organized and professional, and women moved into civilian jobs that they had never held before.”

On the homefront, women worked in agriculture and as police officers and factory workers. They formed home defense leagues. They were also munitions workers, a dangerous job where one wrong hammer strike could spark an explosion. Hundreds of women died in factory explosions. Those who worked often with TNT would see their skin turn yellow and the front of their hair turn orange.

On the frontlines, women were ambulance drivers, mechanics and nurses. 

“Some of these nurses were women who had not been let out on the streets without a chaperone, and now they’re in the fields of France trying to put together these broken bodies of men,” Machen said. “It was very shocking and traumatic.”

By the end of 1914, there were a million dead, and some of the women felt intense guilt for persuading men to join the slaughter by participating in efforts such as the White Feather Campaign, which publicly shamed men into enlisting by giving them a white feather signifying cowardice, Machen said. Millions more would die before the war ended a year later.

But no matter how they participated in the war effort, women faced criticism. Those serving on the frontlines were seen to be seizing an opportunity to run away and meet a French man, Machen said. On the homefront, where women started to work jobs that paid well, they were accused of living it up back home and having affairs with the slackers who wouldn’t fight, she  said.

“It was a no-win situation for women,” Machen said.

In the aftermath of the conflict, the legacy of the role of women in World War I is difficult to assess, Machen said.

“Many women gained experience and confidence from their wartime engagement, and some of them used that experience to demand greater rights and recognition after the war,” Machen said. “Other women were happy to go back to ‘normal’ and be wives and mothers.”