Mobilisation of Women during the Second World War
Word Count: 1,506
During the Second World War, the role of women changed dramatically as they took on various responsibilities that had once been filled by men. Historians research the extent to which the Axis powers had militarised the women and how this impacted their role in society. Nations mobilised their available resources, especially women to contribute to the war effort in various aspects. Before the war, there were clear-cut gender boundaries, but during wartime, a new standard of participation by the female population blurred these boundaries. In Germany, the number of women in the workforce increased dramatically, but Hester Vaizey argues this newfound independence was short-lived and did not bring forth radical change. In Benito Mussolini’s Italy, the women’s role in society was strictly confined to the home and subordination to their male counterparts. The gender stratification was a societal norm; however, historians explore how the role of women threatened social stability in Germany and Italy during the Second World War.
The Nazi regime summarised the ideal role of a woman with the “Kinder, Kirche, Küche” slogan, meaning children, church and kitchen.1 This main focus of this model woman should be marriage and motherhood. Although it was frowned upon for both the man and woman of a household to work, many wives were forced to work due to financial necessity, so the “3 Ks” Nazi ideology was not the reality for many families. Despite Hitler’s hesitancy to draft women into work when the war broke out, many were drawn into areas of the war economy that were traditionally occupied by men.2 This was a rare opportunity for women to participate in society and contribute to the war effort. Unmarried, young women undertook most of the work, especially the working class who were left with the gruelling tasks.
When German men were enlisted in the army during the Second World War, the women were left responsible for managing their families. Simultaneously, many women enter the workforce to fill gaps positions previously occupied by men. In 1949, the Das Blatt der Hausfrau magazine published advice for women claiming soldiers did not want to return from war to “a secretary, a teacher, a politician, a governess or a shopkeeper.”3 The female population was encouraged to revert to the old role divisions and accept the traditional role of wife and mother. Vaizey argues women want society to return to the gender roles that preceded the war because it represents normality and familiarity. During the men’s’ absence, women were forced to manage the responsibilities of running a household and working at the same time.4 This was not viewed as a liberating experience, but rather a double burden.
An excerpt from a Brigitte article published in December 1955 states, “Does anyone think that it is fun for women to get up at six, take their children to playschool and then hurry on to the factory or office? And then in the evenings shop, cook and afterwards wash up?” Women continued with these tasks out of obligation and duty. Women believed their lives would be simplified with the reinstatement of the pre-war gender dynamic, rather than disrupt traditional roles. Some scholars argue that the absence of men strengthened women’s independence and created a self-reliant female symbol. This period was referred to as the “hour of the woman,” in which women were given the opportunity to gain freedom from patriarchal control.
In West Germany, politicians were concerned that the pre-war gender roles had been undermined by the independence and employment opportunities afforded to women when the men were absent. In particular, Franz-Josef Würmeling referred to a state crisis, fearing the collapse of the nuclear family as an ideal.5 Given that women proved to be capable of taking on the role of breadwinner and an authoritative figure in a family dynamic, societal stability was being threatened. Magazines like Das Blatt der Hausfrau suggest that the number of women choosing to remain single was increasing. However, statistics point out that the proportion of women marrying in West Germany during the post-war era is similar to the number in the decades preceding the war. 6 This concludes that the war did not bring about radical change to the attitude regarding gender roles, and female independence was a brief phase brought about by necessity and practicality.
The role of women in Mussolini’s Italy, maintaining that women’s’ lives were tied to the policies of the dictatorship. During the nineteenth century, Mussolini presumed that an effective fascist state must have specific roles for women. 7 Given his ambition for domination and imperialism, an abundant supply of troops was required but the Italian population was shrinking. He implemented legislation that aimed at re-establishing patriarchal authority and confining women to procreating for the welfare of the state. De Grazia points out the first holiday observance of Giornata della Madre e dell’Infanzia on which Mussolini celebrated women by “the number of her live births.” 8 Women’s role was to bear new Italians, so the Rocco Criminal Code of 1932 reinforced the legal bans on birth control, sterilisation and abortion.9 Mussolini was adamant about restricting women to the role of a traditional housewife.
The Fascist regime legislated with the intent to confine women to traditional ways of life, but the implementation was contradictory, thus modernising women in the process. The young generation of women was enjoying more relaxed societal norms.10 Pauley explores how Fascist legislation affected women.11 Schools taught traditional concepts of domesticity, but many women pursued an education beyond primary school. Moreover, Italian universities saw an increase from a 6% enrolment in 1913-1914 to 20% in 1938. Particularly in the middle class, girls were allowed to attend school for longer due to a lack of jobs; in 1938, a law permitted no more than 10% of the female population to hold a job. Although the state attempted to subdue women’s involvement in society, the laws were not successful when the Second World War broke out, as women were compelled to join the workforce to replace the men.12
When the First World War ended, women did not have the right to vote yet. A suffrage movement existed, but the participation levels were low. 13 Ironically, before coming into power, the Fascist movement promised women the right to vote. Once in power, Mussolini granted women the right to vote in local elections in 1925, and then abolished local elections in 1926, rendering this new right to vote useless. Teresa Noce was an activist that played a crucial role in directing the women’s movement against Fascism to bring about “equal pay for equal work, economic independence, and rights to divorce and legal abortion” and to put an end to “women’s slavery in the home.”14 This movement was called the Resistance, which aimed to end the war and create a democratic Italy.
In Germany, the participation of women in the workforce was at an all-time high. Society became reliant on the female population to fulfil various jobs, so more men were freed to join the frontlines. Vaizey argued, however, women who maintained both a household and job were burdened by these hardships. Although this gave rise to an independent and self-reliant image, some women yearned for the re-emergence of traditional family structure. In Italy, Mussolini deemed females as intellectually, physically, and morally inferior to their male population. Women found themselves trapped between the state’s desire to maintain traditional gender roles, but also the modernisation of women.