Throughout history, mankind has gained social, political and economic sovereignty through warfare. Ancient civilizations were mostly characterized by great battles, as were the cases of Mesopotamia or Ancient Greece, since opposing nations have historically used the battlefield in order to settle their political disputes (Mark, 2009). In this context, war has been historically conceived and designed specifically for men, not for women, but the history of armed conflicts during the 20th century was able to demonstrate the key role that could be played by women, even if it was against the social and cultural notions of the time.
Women in 19th Century Society
In the nineteenth century, the roles of both women and men were well defined in society: the man was the one expected to work and maintain the home, while the woman had to play the role of mother, wife and housewife, among other tasks. These occupations were, however, also determiend by social status.
All women were always expected to be - as Wayne (2007) mentions -, "the light of the home" (p. 5), but this expectation varied and amplified depending on the social position they had. Whereas women of higher class had their duties fully focused on their endeavors as mothers and housekeepers, those from lower classes were expected, in addition to this, to work to help their husbands, often being forced to take on more than one position in the case they were widows or they had husbands who were unable to work for themselves.
Hughes (2014) notes that women were believed to be more fragile than men, but also to possess superior morals. These characteristics were considered ideal for domestic tasks and were used to justify the denial of the right to vote on the grounds that women had too much influence in the household. However, Indrasari & Abbas (2020) expose how women's power was actually quite limited when it concerned their own lives:
"Women simply did not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, including the rights to education and work. Women were expected to submit to the demands of their father (then husband) and could rarely be independent" (p.215)
With the passage of time, and due to transformations in the community and in social values, opportunities arose for women to begin to fight and to demand their rights through demonstrations such as the Suffrage Movement and through events such as the Industrial Revolution and the coming war conflicts, which were spaces that were previously reserved and dominated by men but that were now made available for women to occupy. Wayne (2007) describes the effects that these industralization processes had on working women:
"The separation of skilled from unskilled and workshop labor from domestic production greatly influenced the role of women in the home and family. As a result of the industrialization of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the home ceased to be the center of all economic activity, and the daily experiences and working life of men and women were increasingly separated" (p.6)
Times of Prejudice and Social Imaginaries
To understand the role of women during the war, especially in the field of communications, one must first understand the whole context in which it all happened. Between 1913 and 1918, society underwent a transformation; The Great War forced the creation of new social concepts and, as Kastoriadis (1975) mentions, these social and historical constructs became norms and symbols which were then translated into reality, thus creating certain restrictions and changes on a cultural level. Consequently, the new social concepts that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century managed to eliminate many prejudices and provide new levels of freedom.
One of the first events that generated a strong change in the social imaginaries up until then applied to women was the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913:
"Thousands of women gathered in Washington D.C. to ask for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee women the right to vote. Although women had been fighting for suffrage for more than 60 years, this was the movement's first major national event." Cohen (2016) (p.1)
As this parade demonstrates, women were in a constant struggle for their freedom, since at that time they were restricted from engaging in a variety of social activities and/or rights, such as: voting, accessing the public office, working in positions not suitable or segregated to women and, in relation to the latter, gaining a salary equivalent to those of men inside the same field.
A year after the Suffrage, in 1914, the First World War broke out. As Newman (2014) mentions, "the events that unfolded after the declaration of war irrevocably changed the lives of countless women" (p.23); just being able to perform tasks that were distinctly masculine, such as work in the fields and factories, opened up a world of possibilities for them on a social and economic level. Given the circumstances on the battlefield, vacancies also opened up in areas such as warfare that had never been thought of as being performed by women before.
Morselli (2016) dwelves into the matter in order to aid understanding the difficulty women found to play a new role within society:
"If women could participate in war, they could participate in political debates. However, although this represented a major step forward in the recognition of women's rights, their participation in "unusual" social contexts was not well received by many, especially due to concerns about women's moral misconduct with soldiers" (p.7)
Wartime: Women as a Communicative Resource
When the First World War began in 1914, men, especially young boys able to fight on the fronts, were often forced to serve their country and join the armed forces. It was not a question of social sense and belonging to the cause, but rather was something purely political. Those who were between 18 and 41 years old had to present themselves to pass the different tests while, on the contrary, women were used as a communicative and propaganda resource, as defined by Newman (2014):
"Many accepted the propaganda that told them it was their patriotic duty to encourage a man, however well liked, to enlist in the cause of the empire. Posters and leaflets often appropriated a woman's, even a mother's, voice" (p.23).
All these new social constructs brought by the war somehow were triggers for the development of new perceptions and social imaginaries constructed by women themselves, as Morselli (2016) goes on to explain:
"What motivated women to volunteer to fight during the First World War? This is, of course, difficult to establish with certainty, since to some extent it has to do with psychological traits and personal decisions. However, it must be recognized that the new social and cultural context and the new role of women in society play a crucial role in determining individual choices" (p.8).
Although initially intended as a communicative instrument to support the cause, it was women who managed to demonstrate through the events that unfolded throughout the war process the ability to play roles that were at that time purely masculine.
Women's Role in Communication during the First World War
When the First World War came and women began to develop a role different from that of housewife, they were a force that offered suport both in the rear and on the battlefield, as they became the labor force of many nations that were in crisis due to the lack of male force to perform jobs ranging from agriculture, construction and factories. The general ideas and social imaginaries, however, played against them, something to which Palmieri and Herrmann say that "whether for ideological or traditional reasons, the countries of the Pact of Steel were more reluctant to hire female labor than the allied countries, since the war did not seem to be sufficient reason to overlook a policy dictated by the custom of segregating women" (p.14).
As Hermann and Palmieri (2019) continue to explain, it was common to see some women working as nurses and helping soldiers on many bases, an image that became very important in the representation of women in this era and, moreover, that was seen in many cultures as a traditionally feminine activity. However, this feature does not include many memorable roles played by women on the battle front, nor in many other fields:
"The number of German women employed in the metalworking industry increased from 63,570 before the war to 266,530 in September 1916 - an increase of 319%, all the efforts of the German government and administration were to mobilize female workers in order to decrease the labor shortage" (Morselli, 2016, p.17)
Throughout the world there were cases of women who began to be part of the armies that were at war, one of them being the French women who formed an auxiliary military service that provided personnel to hospitals and administrative areas, creatingwhat was called Office central de l'activité féminine and an Association pour l'enrôlement volontaire des Françaises au service de la patrie, which approximately 70,000 women were a part of (Morselli, 2016). The British Army, in the same line, created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which acted as naval and air force auxiliaries. By the end of the war, some 100,000 women had served in the British paramilitary and auxiliary military corps.
One of the most significant examples is that of a famous group of women from the American army called "Hello Girls", which was in charge of telephone communications. At first they arrived to replace the men who were assigned to this work and ultimately failed to perform it in an agile way, which Frahm (2016) attempts to explain in basis to this gender distinction:
"Soldiers tried to serve as operators, but they were neither motivated nor sufficiently trained to work at the speed required by the army. In addition, most of the U.S. soldiers did not speak French, which was vital since many calls were over French phone lines" (p.5)
As also mentioned in Frahm's article (2016), the army did not have in mind to use women for this important work because it was thought that soldiers were more aptly trained to do it. No one properly estimated the due diligence of these women who, despite difficulties such as bombardments and problems with the lines, among others, eventually managed to generate impeccable communication processes, thus resulting in them becoming key members on the battlefield. This is how they were later assigned to form a crucial part in the front. It was so important and impeccable the work that women achieved in the field of communication that they were deemed to be fundamental; as Boissoneault (2017) mentions, "women were by far the best operators. At the beginning of the 20th century, 80% of all telephone operators were women, and they could usually connect five calls in the time it took a man to make one".
At the beginning it was believed that women would wish to be far away from the war, but when advertisements were published in newspapers seeking young women who spoke different languages to perform these tasks, there was a large number of volunteers, as "more than 7,000 women volunteered for the signal corps; approximately 400 were accepted and 250 were immediately assigned to six units and sent to training centers where they perfected their operational skills and learned army terminology" (Zeinert, 2001).
Communication and Other Realities
As mentioned by Thébaud (2014), "traditionally, war has been considered a phenomenon that only concerns men, since they are usually the only ones who carry weapons and fight" (p.1 ), but with the aforementioned events, and although women had to struggle enough to be able to take up space in the world of the great wars, being victims of prejudices and social stigmatizations of the time, they managed to play important roles.
Other women, nonetheless, were not so renowned for their labors, as was the case of those who, because of their physical characteristics and knowledge, played roles as spies or auxiliaries, both in industrial and pre-industrial societies (Palmieri and Herrmann, 2010); and although there were great spies such as Mata Hari, many are completely unaware of the existence and the important work of these women. In this same line, another very important function in wartime communication was the publicity and communications created during the Second World War, where women played the star role: beautiful and famous women were used to deliver messages of hope, struggle and patriotism to the soldiers, and were therefore used as advertising tools to reflect a friendlier and warmer image to the soldiers.
"Men invented war to be without women and among men" - Jean Giraudoux
Despite the fact that the war was created by men and women had been commonly kept away from the battlefield, they managed to demonstrate how important their role and work could be. It can be said that communication is fundamental for the development of battles, of confrontations, given that it is fundamental to know the territory and the position of the enemy. Without communication, how could the troops advance? Taking this into account, women were the ones who achieved an impeccable and fast work in the connection and transmission of messages and fundamental information, mimicking the enemy lines to provide data that would change the course of the wars.
Those courageous women who made up the different squads within the armies either as nurses, in charge of communications, assistants, secretaries or spies, those who demonstrated to societies that they could be brave and important within the different social realities, were, in conclusion, in charge of creating new social and cultural imaginaries that changed our history forever.
ALLEN, E. (2016). World War I: Conscription Laws. Library of Congress Blogs. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2016/09/world-war-i-conscription-laws/
BOISSONEAULT, L. (2017a). Women On the Frontlines of WWI Came to Operate Telephones. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/women-frontlines-wwi-came-operate-telephones-180962687/
CASTORIADIS, C. (1987). The Imaginary Institution of Society. Regno Unito: MIT Press.
COHEN, D. (2016). This Day in History: The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. The White House. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/03/03/this-day-history-1913-womens-suffrage-parade
FRAHM, J. (2016). Women Telephone Operators in World War I France. Center for Cryptologic History.
MORSELLI, F., LEHMANN, J. (2016). Women During the First World War. CENDARI Archival Research Guide.
HERMANN, I., PALMIERI, D. (2010). Between Amazons and Sabines: a historical approach to women and war. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 92, Num. 877.
Hughes, K. (2014). Gender roles in the 19th century. Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century
WAYNE, T. (2007). Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-century America. Greenwood press.
NEWMAN, V. (2014). We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War. Regno Unito: Pen & Sword Books.
HILL, A. (2021). “Hello Girls” – Women Telephone Operators during WWI. The Unwritten Record. https://unwritten-record.blogs.archives.gov/2021/03/30/hello-girls-women-telephone-operators-during-wwi/
THÉBAUD, F. (2014). Understanding twentieth-century wars through women and gender: forty years of historiography. Journals Open Edition. https://journals.openedition.org/cliowgh/538#quotation
GREENWALD, M. (1990). Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United State. Cornell University Press.
ZEINERT, K. (1998). Those Extraordinary Women of World War I. Connecticut, The Millbrook Press.
Cover Image: U.S. Army Signal Corp. (1918). Harvard University Press. https://www.npr.org/2017/04/06/522596006/the-hello-girls-chronicles-the-women-who-fought-for-america-and-for-recognition
Figure 1: Walker, D. (1890). Ragazze in stile edoardiano. Istock. https://www.istockphoto.com/it/foto/vecchia-foto-ragazze-in-stile-edoardiano-gm157509825-11015055
Figure 2: Women working in a tannery in Nottingham. (1996). Diane Atkinson. https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/women-s-war-work-and-1918-s-representation-of-the-people-act/
Figure 3: Women March. (1920). New York Historical Society. https://www.talktotucker.com/talk/community/why-the-history-and-significance-of-womens-suffrage-matters-today/
Figure 4: Women's Suffrage Campaigners. (1917). Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing photograph collection. https://www.loc.gov/resource/hec.09404/
Figure 5: Women's Suffrage Parade in New York City. (1912). United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs.https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Youngest_parader_in_New_York_City_suffragist_parade_LCCN97500068_%28cropped%29.jpg
Figure 6: Women of Britain say GO (1915). Auckland War Memorial Museum. https://www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/collections/topics/empire-calling-first-world-war-recruitment-posters
Figure 7: WAC Cpl. Alma Bradley operates the switchboard. (1945). National Archives. https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/potsdam-womens-army-corps
Figure 8: Hello Girls. (n.d.). Veterans Memorial Museum. https://www.wyohistory.org/education/toolkit/women-and-world-war-
Figure 9: American female telephone operators. (n.d.). National Archives. https://eu.jsonline.com/story/news/local/wisconsin/2018/02/12/wisconsin-filmmaker-creates-documentary-wwi-female-telephone-operators/327668002/
Figure 10: Women in wars. (n.d.). World WWI Centennial. https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/edu-home/edu-topics/588-americans-at-war/4996-women.html