How many female soldiers were in World War I.

The First World War

Wolfgang Kruse

Apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kruse, born in 1957, is an academic senior counselor and adjunct professor in the field of Modern German and European History at the Historical Institute of the Distance University in Hagen. His main research interests include the history of the First World War, the history of the French Revolution, the history of the German and international labor movement and the history of the political cult of the dead. Among others, von Kruse has published: Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War, Darmstadt 2009 (history compact of the WBG).

The First World War has long been considered an engine of emancipation. The war efforts of women on the "home front" seemed not only to have brought about an enormous development in female gainful employment, but also to have strengthened the public image of women. According to this reading, the introduction of women's suffrage in 1919 is the logical consequence of a development. Research into social and cultural history has recently put this monocausal interpretation into perspective.

Women in a German armaments factory in 1917. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

The First World War has long been considered an engine of women's emancipation. The war efforts of women on the "home front" in the increasingly total war not only seemed to have brought about an enormous expansion of female gainful employment. They also seemed to have strengthened the role of women in public and ultimately brought about their political equality with the introduction of women's suffrage. This apparently clear picture has been put into perspective and revised by recent social and cultural history research.

Development of gainful employment

Studies of social security membership have shown that the number and proportion of women in employment increased between 1914 and 1918, but the increase was less than in the pre-war years. The increase in female employment was therefore a long-term development that was slowed down rather than accelerated by the First World War. After the start of the war, many women were unemployed because many jobs were lost due to the crisis in transition to the war. In the war industries, there was an enormous increase in the number of women employed in the period that followed. However, it was essentially a matter of shifts within the group of employed women who had lost some of their previous jobs in the consumer goods industries, but also in the domestic service, in order to take on better-paid jobs than women workers in the war industries. On the other hand, women who were previously inactive could only be induced to work in the war industry to a limited extent, despite various efforts.

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Working women in the German Reich

Membership movement in the health insurance funds from 1914 to 1919
Women, June 1, 1914 = 100

As of 1.191419151916191719181919
January o.A.85,3 97,1 107,5 116,5 o.A.
February88,9 85,9 97,3 107,8 115,4 101,5
March92,2 88,2 97,8 108,5 115,1 97,2
April 94,3 90,0 99,4 109,9 115,2 95,7
May98,4 93,3 101,7 113,0 117,8 97,9
June100 94,1 103,3 114,9 117,4 97,9
July99,7 94,4 102,9 115,1 116,7 100,2
August97,8 95,6 103,3 115,3 115,4 100,5
September80 96,4 104,0 116,1 116,6 100,4
October80,6 96,4 104,4 116,6 116,0 100,4
November83,6 98,1 106,1 117,5 110,7 100,9
December 85,4 98,8 108,1 118,5 108,7 101,9

Source: Ute Daniel, Workers' Women in War Society, page 38.


Employment of adult female workers in the German Reich by branches of industry 1914-1918
March 1914 = 100

IndustriesSept. 1914March 1915March 1916March 1917March 1918
Stone and earth industry 67,267,4 74,682,8 87,0
Metal industry 58,3117,4 492,4745,5 846,7
Machine industry 83,2309,81414,83381,7 3520,4
Electrical industry 57,1102,3 299,7856,4 813,8
Chemical industry 84,992,7171,8314,0 436,2
Textile industry89,0108,1 66,966,962,6
Paper industry 53,878,9 101,3136,7 149,8
Leather and rubber industry 67,757,3 57,889,1 96,8
Wood and carving industry 24,689,9 148,5109,5 115,7
Food and luxury food industry139,7133,2 155,7159,0 146,5
Clothing industry 66,374,7 83,458,1 55,5
Copying industry 62,782,5 84,982,1 90,1

Source: Stefan Bajohr, Half of the Factory, page 125.

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The working conditions in war production were extremely difficult and often extremely dangerous to health. Since all protective regulations for female workers had been lifted at the beginning of the war, the working hours per shift were usually eleven to twelve hours. In the fast-moving production facilities for weapons and ammunition, dangerous substances were generally used without any special protective measures, and serious and sometimes fatal accidents occurred among the quickly trained workers. From the women's point of view, such employment relationships usually did not represent a step towards emancipation, but were only entered into to ensure survival for themselves and for the family. They were out of the question for women from the higher social classes anyway, and working-class women with children also generally preferred to supplement their modest war support with activities in the home environment such as cleaning, childcare or working from home. When the Supreme Army Command therefore demanded female service in 1916, the Reich government rejected this request because it saw the traditional role of housewife and mother at risk. Instead, the decision was made to employ factory nurses and to set up more opportunities for public childcare, without, however, being able to bring about any particular expansion of voluntary work by women.

Changed gender roles

"Greetings from Osnabrück" - historical postcard
With reference to the slow and trendy increase in female employment and the difficult working conditions in the war industry, it does not mean that the war could not have brought about processes of emancipation nonetheless. It is true that the war did not result in an extraordinary increase in women's labor overall. But women were now doing jobs on many levels that were previously reserved for men, and they were publicizing them much more clearly than was previously the case: women now worked in heavy industry, they operated machines and were, for example, tram drivers or active as chimney sweeps. Young women in particular were also given the opportunity to get into employment early, to live more independently or to leave their parents' home entirely as nurses and stage helpers. All of this created the impression that women during the war were no longer limited to their supposedly traditional positions in the household and family as well as related fields of activity, such as teachers, but carried out the same work as men and thus at the same time an independent life beyond the domestic sphere and without them could lead men drafted to the front. Some women even managed to take on management positions, especially educated women from the bourgeois women's movement who took on positions in the military authorities in the organization of social welfare for working mothers and in some cases rose to the ranks of officers.

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Size and composition of the German workforce in 1913 and 1918

Size and composition of the German workforce
In industrial companies with 10 or more employees
Absolute numbers in each case in 1000 workers; relative changes in percent

19131918change
Men and women overall7387 6787 -8%
of it grow up6816 6185-9%
of which under 16571602+6%
Men overall5794 4467-23%
of it grow up5410 4046 -25%
of which under 16384 421+10%
Women overall1593 2320 +46%
of it grow up1406 2139+52%
of which under 16187181-3%

Source: Jürgen Kocka, Class Society in War. German social history 1914-1918, Frankf./M. 1988, p. 27.

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The war engagement of the women's movement

Shortly after the start of the war, leading representatives of the bourgeois women's movement made representations to the Prussian War Ministry and, with the latter's consent, set up a "National Women's Service", in which the social democratic women also took part under the sign of the truce. The women saw their main task in the social military service on the home front, i. H. in the alleviation of the rapidly spreading misery, especially of the lower classes of the population. This took place primarily out of national war involvement, but it was also connected with the hope of being able to demonstrate the importance of the female sex for the state and nation and to improve the position of women in this way.

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Memorandum of the Federation of German Women's Associations on the reorientation 1917

The inclusion of women in active voting in community and state is essential to build women's influence in the state across the breadth of actual women's life.
In a community based on the universal suffrage of men - be it municipality or state - the areas of interest close to women will only be emphatically represented if women participate in the right to vote. Women's suffrage appears as one side of our political ways of life, which is increasingly necessary to develop through the social situation of both the working woman and the family, a consequence of changed economic and political conditions that must be drawn in Germany as well as in For the active right to vote of women in the municipality, the beginnings of the active right to vote of women in the municipality exist in most of the rural municipality regulations and in some also for the cities, their expansion through the general granting of municipal electoral rights to women the next requirement would be reorientation.

The manifold tasks of the war economy and war welfare led during the war to a considerably increased attraction of women in municipal administrative bodies, deputations and commissions, food and labor offices, etc. At the same time, large administrative bodies of the Reich and the federal states, the War Food Office and the corresponding federal organizations, the War Office, the Reich Committee for the Welfare of War Disabled Persons and others. Women used as advisory boards and employees. Thus, under the pressure of the war, which forced the appropriate forms of organization for itself without lengthy wars of principles, the insight has been put into practice at various points that the great questions of people's nutrition, women's work, and social welfare should be involved to the greatest possible extent from women at a central point. During the war, administrations of large Prussian cities decided on their own initiative, in unabashed recognition of the war work done by women, to include women in a large number of permanent deputations. In order to give these women the civil rights demanded by the city ordinance for such offices, but denied them, they went to the Landtag with their own petitions. As a result, the desire of the city administrations to maintain the cooperation of women for peace that had proven itself during the war, and even to secure it to a greater extent, was expressed, which was so naturally pioneered during the war without any agitation by the women's movement, needs legal support through a "reorientation" that initially grants women the right to stand as a candidate for municipal councils and thus the right to belong to all municipal commissions and deputations. But also in the larger circle of state and empire, the war has given women a right of consultation in areas that are close to them. The tasks of the transitional economy and the reconstruction are as difficult to solve without them as the domestic achievement during the war. According to the conviction of the Federation of German Women's Associations, the eligibility of women to be elected to the parliament is the only sure guarantee in the long run that the affairs of women and the circle of mothers are given sufficient consideration in legislation and administration. Developments so far, both in economic conditions and social forms of life, as well as the participation of women in public life and in state tasks, have made this goal of women's participation in popular representation clearly evident. Even before the active and passive women's right to vote in Germany provides a broad basis for women's participation in the state, their participation in the tasks that are particularly close to them should be ensured. The path to this is taken through the War Food Office and the War Office. Women are to be consulted for the preparation, initiation and implementation of all government measures that have to do with matters relating to their specific sphere of life: with questions of women's work; consumption, housing policy, youth welfare, health care, population policy, etc. Women are to be drawn into such parliamentary commissions in which the same questions are discussed.


From: Women's tasks in the future Germany. Yearbook of the BDF, Leipzig 1918.

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Especially in the second half of the war, when the public was increasingly discussing a reform of the Prussian three-class suffrage, the women's movement began to demand the introduction of women's suffrage more clearly than before. Unlike in England, however, Germany did not succeed in enforcing the legal introduction of women's suffrage during the war. This only happened after the revolution by the Social Democratic Council of People's Representatives, which did not necessarily react to the war involvement of women, but implemented a decades-old demand of the Social Democrats.

The anti-feminist discourse

In fact, however, the war-specific activities and changes brought women in the male-dominated public by no means only approval and recognition. Rather, the number of voices also increased who saw this as a dissolution of the traditional gender order and, against it, advocated aggressive anti-feminism. A crisis of masculinity, which seemed to manifest itself in the growing emancipation of women, the excessive demands of men due to the demands of modern society and, last but not least, in the decline in the number of births, was already mentioned more and more often before the First World War. But in view of the changes caused by the war, especially the multiple crippling of the men at the front on the one hand and the increasing importance of women on the "home front" on the other hand, the view was now more and more radically expressed that at the latest after the end of the war the supposedly natural separation gender roles should be restored. The military service of the men at the front, who risked their lives for their homeland, which was perceived as female, was heroized and thus acquired all the more the claim to assume a social priority again in the future. In Germany this view was reinforced by the interpretation of the outcome of the war. Because the legend of the "stab in the back" of the homeland in the back of the front troops "undefeated in the field" reinforced the idea that only the men of the front were suitable to determine the fate of Germany.

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Letter from the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army v. Hindenburg to Chancellor v. Bethmann Hollweg, October 23, 1916

In my opinion, it is also correct that women's work should not be overestimated.
Almost all the intellectual work, the heavy physical work, as well as all actually producing work will still weigh on the men - besides the whole warfare. It would be good if this fact were also clearly expressed in public and the female agitation for equality in would put a stop to all professions, and thus of course also in political relation. I also fully agree with Your Excellency that female service is a misguided measure. After the war we need women as wives and mothers. I can only agree to the endeavors aimed at this through law, privileges, material aid, etc. In spite of the strong resistance, action will have to be taken here in order to eliminate the family-disruptive influence of female competition. Your Excellency would like to see from this that I, too, do not look to the war, but rather that I am aware that social conditions are healthy for the further development of our people after the war, i. H. primarily the protection of the family, are necessary. If, nevertheless, now and for the duration of the war, I urge the extension of compulsory work to all women who are unemployed or who work in secondary professions, I do so because, in my opinion, women’s work is still being used to a greater extent than before in many areas and this frees men for other work can be made. However, industry and agriculture must be encouraged even more to employ women; moreover, the choice of occupation must not be left to women alone, but it must be regulated according to ability, educational background and position in life.In particular, I emphasize once again that I consider it particularly wrong to keep the higher schools and universities open for women only, after these institutions have almost all been deprived of their men through the extension of compulsory military service. It is worthless because the scientific gain is small, also because the competition to be fought against the family is brought up, and finally because it means the grossest injustice to push the young man who gives everything for his fatherland back behind the woman. From this point of view, I do not see any disadvantage of the closure of the universities that have been robbed of the men. [...]


From: Erich Ludendorf (ed.), Documents of the Supreme Army Command on their activities in 1916/18, 2nd edition Berlin 1921, p. 78f.

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Impoverishment and willingness to protest of the working class women

For most of the German women, especially among the workers, the total war resulted in total overexertion and impoverishment. In addition to the double burden of gainful employment and housework, there were the problems of bringing up children and the supply of food and consumer goods. The adolescents were poorly cared for, they often developed without parental supervision and they could quickly get on the wrong track in the gray areas of war society. And the longer the war lasted, the more the situation worsened: food rations became scarcer, clothes and shoes could hardly be replaced, and the poorer sections of the population were unable to compete on the booming black market. The "food polonaises", the often hours-long queuing in front of grocery stores and public dispensaries, were a burden, especially for women. Rumors quickly made the rounds here, and the widespread dissatisfaction quickly turned into open uproar, especially when the queuing was unsuccessful in the end because there were no more goods despite ration cards. The long isolated but diverse social protests of working class women and young people increasingly became an integral part of the proletarian anti-war movements of 1917/18, which ultimately led to the overthrow of the German Empire.

War and Emancipation? One conclusion

Before it even makes sense to think about the possible emancipatory effects of war, it must first be noted that the war brought most women hardship and suffering. For the women, supposed advances such as taking on jobs previously reserved for men were by no means a departure to new shores; on the contrary, they were a consequence of hardships and necessities of life, and they brought about exploitation and wear and tear that had no national or feminist enthusiasm , but aroused dissatisfaction and a willingness to protest. In her study of working-class women in war society, the historian Ute Daniel therefore argued that, from a subjective female point of view, the war did not bring about emancipation in the state, but only emancipation from the state, which was ultimately without duration. However justified it is to emphasize the war-related upheavals and counter-tendencies towards female emancipation, it should be noted that the war mobilization of women in the First World War led to structural and conscious changes in gender relations that could not be revised at all levels. Just one example of this is the proportion of female union members, which was permanently and significantly higher after 1918 than before the start of the war in 1914.

Selected literature:

Stefan Bajohr, Half of the Factory. History of women's work in Germany 1914-1945, Marburg 1979.

Ute Daniel, working women in war society. Job, family and politics in the First World War, Göttingen 1989.

Ulrike von Gersdorf, women in military service 1914-1945, Stuttgart 1969.

Birte Kundrus, "warrior women". Family policy and gender relations in the First and Second World War, Hamburg 1995.

Susanne Rouette, Social Policy as Gender Policy. The regulation of women's labor after the First World War, Frankf./M. 1993.