The Debates in Historiography

Both contemporary narratives and historiography at least until the 1980s have emphasized the idea that World War I was a watershed in gender relations in European societies: women had given their services to the nation and had been rewarded with the vote in several countries; the war thus represented the dawn of a new era.[1] Evaluations of the war’s significance for women’s citizenship,[2] however, did not remain as euphoric.

Françoise Thébaud has distinguished three historiographical periods:[3] Initially, early, especially British, studies from the 1960s and 1970s rediscovered the new roles women had been called to take over during the war.[4] They became heads of households in the absence of their fighting husbands and the belligerent states saw a rise in employed women, including from upper and middle classes. Women also entered military service as nurses or army auxiliaries. Working women’s employment was said to have expanded enormously in industrial labour, especially munitions factories, in agricultural labour and in the public transport system, where they were especially visible as conductresses. As a consequence, these historians argued that women also presented their new role in public, going out to dine alone or smoking cigarettes in public, and enjoying sexual promiscuity.[5] While recent research has challenged this view,[6] oral history interviews with women from the 1980s tended to underline the view of the war as an impetus for women’s emancipation from traditional gender roles due to their experience of economic and social independence and “new mobility and self-confidence”.[7]

A second phase in historiography in the late 1970s and 1980s took, according to Thébaud, a less optimistic perspective and noted the short-term and superficial character of this change that consigned women back to the home after the war. Equality had never been an issue during the war as, for example, women’s wages demonstrated. While they did improve, they never equalled those of men. States expected women to cede their jobs to the returning men during post-war demobilization. And the post-war discourse on gender roles still emphasized the traditional pre-war scheme of life for women: marriage and motherhood “as a national duty and the source of feminine fulfilment”.[8] This continuity was noted especially by Margaret R. Higonnet and Patrice L.-R. Higonnet in their article “The Double Helix”, which brought a conspicuous metaphor into the discussion.[9] They used the double helix with its two intertwined strands to symbolize the constant subordinate position of women in gender relations, a fact exacerbated during the war. While the form of the double helix may have had a limited value as a symbol of hierarchy, it did serve well as a metaphor for the paradox of “progress and regress that has characterized women’s status and representation” during the war.[10] Although mobilization propelled women into important functions in the economy and state bureaucracy, unequal gender relations prevailed and continued to do so after the war.

The volume in which “The Double Helix” was published − Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars − collected papers presented at a workshop at Harvard University in 1984. It took up both of the previously mentioned positions in historiography and thus has provided an outline of the historiography that studied both the watershed and the continuity positions more carefully and critically. Joan Scott in particular questioned the issue of change by pointing out that any analysis of long- and short-term impacts of the war would need to define and measure “improved status”. However, which indicators should be applied?[11] Thus, the paradoxes between the realities of daily life and traditional gender discourse on the one hand and actual changes in women’s status on the other prevailed in these debates, indicating the necessity to question change in regard to pre-war gender relations and characterizing the interwar period as one in transition.[12]

The idea of the war as a watershed in regard to the mobilization of women’s labour was convincingly modified by the 1990s.[13] As Susan Grayzel has emphasized, “[t]he novelty [of mobilization] lay not in the entrance of women to the world of waged work but in the types of work performed and the repercussions of these changes”.[14] While women had already been important in the pre-1914 labour force, the war brought a redistribution of women’s labour. Furthermore, the overall increase in female employment was not as large as earlier historiography had concluded, although war-related industry did rise significantly. Specifically, the different tasks women now performed in wage labour confronted gender relations: “Women’s role in manufacturing weapons challenged a powerful gendered taboo, as women now seemed to be participating in the culture of death instead of performing their ‘natural’ roles as givers of life”.[15] The watershed thesis was also contradicted by post-war demobilization that brought a backlash in women’s employment:[16] male breadwinners had the right to work, women were to return to their “natural” sphere, the family.

The second major issue that permeated all debates on war-related changes of gender relations was the enfranchisement of women. As Martin Pugh has aptly summed up, “[i]t has traditionally been believed that women’s role in the war effort decisively changed opinion in their favour and led politicians in several countries to enfranchise them at, or soon after, the end of the First World War”.[17] Britain has been cited as the paramount example for this argument.[18] As feminist historians, however, soon criticized, this view implies a devalorization of the pre-war struggle of suffrage movements.[19] Nevertheless, studies focussing on women’s and gender history of World War I at first remained rather speculative on the issue. This may be because the actual legislative circumstances of women’s (non-) enfranchisement were not included in analyses in several countries. Martin Pugh was the first to investigate these more closely in Britain and to dismiss some of the myths surrounding electoral reform in 1917/18.[20] Similar studies for other countries emerged slowly in the 1980s and 1990s and have only recently started to cover Eastern European nations. In this context comparative research on citizenship clearly has become more nuanced since the 1990s and, while rejecting the idea of a watershed, has emphasized a notion of the war as a possible catalyst of change for citizenship status, albeit with differing impacts in different states.[21] Furthermore, new cultural history has helped to re-evaluate the connections between war and new understandings of citizenship.[22]

This outline of the historiographical debate on war-related changes has revealed the vast number of issues we need to examine in order to reach an understanding of the actual impact of war on gender relations. The following remarks will concentrate on women’s political rights, while the problem of change in women’s labour is discussed more fully in the entry on “Women, Work, and Politics”. Women’s enfranchisement has frequently been viewed as the key link between war and changed gender relations, ranging from emphases on an emancipatory process to seeing war as a setback for women’s citizenship. The following sections will outline this issue in a comparative survey of women’s suffrage, setting the stage at the outbreak of the war, then following discourses of women’s citizenship during the war and giving a short overview of women’s enfranchisement in the wake of war. The question of women’s citizenship will finally be reviewed briefly in relation to the interwar period.

Women’s Movements and Citizenship at the Outset of the War

When World War I broke out all belligerent nations looked back on a longer history of women’s demands for political, civil, and economic rights, such as equality for married women, the right to own property and full legal capacity, higher education, employment and equal pay, and equal guardianship. Some demands had begun to be realized before 1914, many were still being fought for after the war. Parts of the women’s movements had perceived the vote to be the necessary foundation to achieve all other rights and focused their activities on enfranchisement. Especially Britain and the United States, which founded their first societies for women’s suffrage in the 1860s, already had several decades of suffrage campaigns behind them. Other countries had formed suffrage societies more recently, often in response to developments in the international women’s movement, especially the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), founded in 1904. In some countries, such as Germany or the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire, working women organized in Social Democratic or Socialist Parties had been decisive in keeping women’s political rights on the agenda. The Socialist International had proclaimed equal political rights for adult women and men as one of its main goals in 1891. Women’s movements had already been successful in some countries before the war: New Zealand was the first nation to enfranchise women in 1893, followed by some of the Australian colonies and then the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902, Finland in 1906 and Norway in 1913. Specific political settings connected to modern nation building formed the impetus for electoral reform.

Suffragists had, on the one hand, based their claims to suffrage on the idea of the vote as a natural right and employed the famous battle-cry of the disenfranchised, “No taxation without representation!”. On the other hand, they applied the dominant essentialist ideology of distinct but complementary qualities of women and men for their own purposes to counter opponents’ insistence on sustaining separate gendered spheres which assigned women to the home.[23] Drawing upon a concept of “social motherhood” they emphasized that women’s feminine qualities would benefit both women and society once they had been admitted to political life. In their view, female values such as morality, dedication, and above all motherliness not only made women fit for politics; they helped to achieve a peaceful and united state and a better, more just society.

Female Suffrage in Wartime

Most suffrage organizations supported the women’s movements’ commitment to war service once the war broke out, especially by raising funds, getting involved in nursing, sending soldiers gifts, and by managing women’s and child welfare, training and employment for women, and food distribution. Suffragists were thus often recognized as valuable organizers on the home front and served on government councils.[24] Initially, they suspended their suffrage campaigns, albeit only for a short period.

By 1915 women’s suffrage was being debated again, though at a reduced level. Occupied countries such as Belgium or Lithuania had to postpone debates until after the war. Generally, however, suffrage activities were not insignificant during World War I.[25] Especially the crisis year of 1917 brought increased demands for the vote. The suffrage campaign was not even necessarily interrupted by the war at all, as seen in the United States where the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) continued its Winning Plan, focusing on referendum campaigns at state level despite the nation’s entry into the war in April 1917. Here, even non-violent militant tactics began in the context of war, with pickets at the White House, criticizing President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) for waging a war in Europe for democracy but not supporting full democracy at home. In Britain, on the other hand, the war certainly formed a breach regarding militant tactics. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) ceded its violent militancy that had escalated to attacks on public and private property before the war and now geared its resources to mobilizing women for the munitions industry and circulating patriotic, anti-German, and anti-Bolshevist propaganda.[26]

Patriotism and Motherhood

Patriotism was generally manifest in the women’s movements’ support for war welfare and became an important element in suffragists’ wartime discourse on women’s citizenship. Using the war as a means to emphasize women’s right to political equality was not an entirely new argument. British women had connected war and citizenship already during the South African War of 1899-1902. While opponents of the war had underlined the principle that government rested on the consent of the people and that women therefore had a right to voice their opinion on entering the war, supporters of the war, notably the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) Millicent G. Fawcett (1847-1929), emphasized the necessary inclusion of women in the “imperial mission”. As Laura Nym Mayhall has pointed out, “the war represented an opportunity for British women to demonstrate their fitness for citizenship by their willingness to perform services for the nation and empire in its hour of need”.[27]

Thereby, British women tapped into a long history of women’s organized support in times of upheaval and war throughout Europe. In the context of the nation-building process since the late 18th century, states had started to welcome women’s aid and to recognize their potential, for example in the French levée en masse of 1793.[28] Nevertheless, while states might employ women’s support in times of need, the dominant idea of citizenship prevailed in the 19th century. It assigned women the role of “passive citizens” who could not claim any active participation in state affairs, while economically independent men who had a material interest in public affairs achieved full citizen rights. This idea of citizenship could include the republican concept of the citizen soldier who, as a defender of the nation, was endowed with full rights, especially political rights. In political rhetoric this concept implied that physical force was a necessary qualification for the vote.[29] Therefore during World War I numerous minorities, among them European Jews, African and Native Americans, and indigenous societies under colonial rule, formed hopes of attaining full citizenship and becoming accepted as equal citizens in the nation’s eyes by joining the armed forces.[30]

Suffragists were thus one of many groups who recognized the opportunity to claim citizenship and to emphasize women’s service to the nation during the war. They expanded the idea of citizenship to include themselves as active, not passive members of the nation and argued that women were “citizens with duties towards the general public”.[31] Their relief work was proof of their “patriotism and their fitness for citizenship”;[32] they were the “soldiers on the home front”.[33]

The new discourse on patriotism, however, also carried grave consequences, forcing suffragists to distance themselves from those perceived to be unpatriotic, both their pacifist sisters in their own movement, who rejected any relation between war commitment and citizenship and addressed women’s votes at the International Congress of Women which convened for peace at The Hague in 1915,[34] and conscientious objectors or foreigners. The British WSPU, for example, now linked its demands to anti-alien campaigns,[35] and at a Congressional hearing in January 1918, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) critically pointed out that “every ‘slacker’ [...]; every newly-made citizen; every pro-German who cannot be trusted with any kind of war service; every peace-at-any-price man; every conscientious objector and even the alien enemy” had a vote, while the votes of the “millions of loyal men” sent to war were not replaced “by those of the loyal women left at home”.[36]

While the references to women’s war service and their patriotism were present throughout Europe and North America, the Labour movement was doubtful about taking the war service argument too far, though also they usually supported the war effort. Marion Phillips (1881-1932) of the British Women’s Labour League did concede that women’s war service “had kept the nation going” and had strengthened women’s claim to the vote, but women’s war effort certainly did not form their qualification for citizenship.[37] Similarly, Austrian Social Democrats stated in 1917 that enfranchisement had to follow society’s heavy demands on women’s war services − not as a reward, but as a right.[38]

Responses to the discourse on patriotism were not always favourable, just as women’s mobilization was generally not always met with enthusiasm. Pre-war worries about the threat to normative gender relations that the diminishing boundary between the separate gendered spheres would entail and about an ultimate “masculinization” of women were fed by the state’s appeal to women to enter the war.[39] The ensuing impossibility of fully complying with gender norms on the frontlines and the home front could culminate in gender trouble. However, the state made clear that women’s mobilization would only be a temporary arrangement in the exceptional situation of war.[40]

Furthermore, both war propaganda and women’s organizations appealed to pre-war gender relations. The concept of motherhood especially served to alleviate any fears that gender roles would be undermined too far. Nursing was specifically displayed as a motherly function providing comfort and relief and embodying self-sacrifice.[41] On the other hand, the state appealed to mothers to be loyal and send their sons to the battlefields; mothers were to heroically bear this “crown of agony”.[42] Suffragists claimed that this sacrifice made mothers into true citizens.[43]

Women’s primary function in the eyes of the nation was to replenish, in Ute Daniel’s words, “the growing shortage in human resources” by new babies.[44] Thus, pronatalist policies gained momentum in the interwar period. During the war states focused on support of soldiers’ families through government subsidies that expanded the foundations already laid for the early welfare state. This expansion of social rights was hardly to be valued as an extension of citizenship to women, though, as the state did not issue the grants to them in their own capacity but rather as wives; by replacing the wages of the absent husband and father the state acted as a so-called “surrogate husband”.[45]

Votes for Women Realized

Did the connections made during the war between discourses on patriotism or motherhood and citizenship rights relate to women’s enfranchisement after the war at all? The answer depends on the contexts in which states actually took up electoral reform. In most European countries and both Canada and the United States women’s political rights became an issue during or shortly after the war. As the following brief outline shows, women’s suffrage was usually realized in some form when political upheaval ushered in democracy or electoral reform for men was discussed. Rarely was specific legislation that dealt only with women’s votes successful in legislative bodies.[46]

Revolutionary Contexts and the Formation of New States

Revolutionary unrest and the formation of new states brought about by the war proved to be the dominant political contexts in which women’s suffrage was successfully introduced. The revolutionary parties – Social Democrats or Socialists who had equal political rights inscribed into their party platforms – pushed the issue through. In Russia, suffragists nevertheless had to work hard in demanding the vote from the Provisional Government after the February Revolution of 1917. They were enfranchised in July 1917.[47] In Germany and Austria Social Democrats championed women’s votes in November and December 1918 as a measure of pacification in the face of violent uprisings and thus overrode their own fears of women’s potential conservatism.[48] The other, formerly opposing parties were pressured to comply within the atmosphere of political unrest. Newly independent states forming in the wake of the restructuring of Russia after the October Revolution and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire − Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia − also introduced women’s suffrage, recognizing women’s commitment to the national movements and emphasizing the ideal of equality for nation-building.[49] In Hungary, however, suffrage legislation differentiated women from men from the outset.[50] Literacy requirements and higher age limits for women also continued to characterize the multiple electoral reforms of the following decades, which were branded by right-wing radicalism, until women were finally enfranchised on an equal footing with men in 1945.

General Electoral Reform

Social unrest was not a driving force for women’s suffrage in Britain and Belgium. Here, votes for women were discussed in the context of measures to introduce adult suffrage for men, and suffrage debates as well as legislation were strongly influenced by a new understanding of political rights in the context of the war. They therefore need to be discussed in a little more detail. In Britain, which still included Ireland at this time, electoral reform became an issue early in 1916 in face of the necessity to prepare a new voting register that included soldiers fighting abroad. Suffragists quickly urged that women’s enfranchisement should be included if this reform brought new voters onto the register.

As Nicoletta F. Gullace has shown, the Representation of the People Act of February 1918 defined manhood in a new way in the context of the war:[51] Adult suffrage was introduced for men with a minimum age of twenty-one years. Military men who had been in active service (including Red Cross personnel) were already enfranchised if at least nineteen years old. Conscientious objectors, however, were excluded, emphasizing how active service and patriotism marked this new election law. While women were included in the military service franchise (e.g. members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps), women’s enfranchisement in general rested on qualifications distinct from men and partly depended on men:[52] For parliamentary elections female voters had to be at least thirty years old and entitled to be registered as a local government elector based on land or premises with a yearly value of at least five pounds or a dwelling-house. They could also claim the vote as wife of a husband enfranchised for local government elections.[53] Approximately 8.5 million women were enfranchised in England, Scotland and Wales for the parliamentary elections of 1918, as opposed to nearly 13 million men. Over 3,000 women were registered as military voters.[54] None of the women’s organizations were happy with this result, but their campaigns to have at least the female industrial workers considered who had been crucial for the war economy but were excluded by the age requirement, proved fruitless. All women received the right to be elected under the same terms as men, at twenty-one years of age, only a few months later in November 1918. Equal suffrage was finally introduced under a conservative government in 1928.

Overall, specific political circumstances had smoothed the way to enfranchisement. Home Rule was no issue that forced Irish Nationalists to oppose women’s votes any longer and the House of Lords did not emerge as a dangerous opponent, as its power had been curtailed before the war. Most importantly, the reduced measure helped MPs to acquiesce. The age limit secured political stability: especially married women who might balance adult male suffrage were enfranchised, and not the young female workers enlisted in the war industry who might present problems regarding demobilization after the war. Fawcett commented that the act could “almost be regarded as a motherhood franchise”,[55] the age limit effectively reduced women’s voting potential.[56]

In Belgium the national coalition government took up the unsettled pre-war question of adult suffrage without plural votes, which had been introduced in 1893, as soon as German occupation ended. Here, quarrels among the political parties nearly led to a state crisis, as the Catholics persisted in demanding women’s enfranchisement as a balance to universal suffrage. In the light of fears that women’s votes would serve as an advantage to the Catholics, the Socialists and Liberals argued for women’s better education and higher wages first and only gradual enfranchisement of women. The climax of the disputes was reached in the spring of 1919 and resulted in an exceptional compromise closely related to the war and the discourse of patriotism: In exchange for state subsidies for private elementary schools (usually Catholic) it promised local government suffrage to women aged twenty-one and older at the next elections and introduced the parliamentary franchise for the widows or mothers of Belgians killed in action as well as for women who had been imprisoned for patriotic reasons during the German occupation. The parliamentary vote did not actually cede any power to women, as only 0.6 percent of the voters in the 1919 elections were female. Nevertheless, Belgian suffragists supported the compromise as a first step towards full citizenship. Incidentally, a similar deal bartering equal public support of public and private schools against universal male suffrage, the right of women to be elected and the removal of any obstacles to future universal female suffrage had been issued in 1917 in the Netherlands, which did not participate in the war. Women finally received the full right to vote there in 1919.[57]

In Belgium, however, the Catholics encountered strong opposition when they attempted to realize the local government franchise for women as agreed on in the compromise. It was finally introduced in 1920, with prostitutes excluded. Further developments in women’s suffrage followed the step-by-step strategy the Socialists and Liberals had supported. In 1921 women became eligible for local and provincial councils, while the compromise measure of women’s suffrage for the chamber was extended to the senate and the provincial elections. Women finally received equal suffrage with men in 1948.

Specific Legislation

The Catholic parliamentarian Paul Segers (1870-1946) had introduced the compromise measure in the Belgian Chamber as the “vote of the dead”[58] which reminds of the French familial vote that nationalist politician Maurice Barrès (1862-1923) had presented in L’Écho de Paris in February 1916. Barrès conceded that the widows or mothers of soldiers killed in action for their country should receive the ballot to safeguard the interests of the family the soldier had left behind.[59] The familial vote was not successful in France. The chamber did accept full political rights for women in May 1919, but the senate delayed discussion and then rejected women’s suffrage in November 1922. Subsequent attempts to enfranchise women, for instance by combining it with a family vote in various forms, floundered. Radicals especially feared women’s alleged clericalism, while Catholics gave support to the demand in a similar way as in Belgium. French women finally received the right to vote by decree in the context of a new war in 1944.[60]

Special legislation for women’s suffrage was quite difficult to achieve in countries which had already introduced adult suffrage for men before, as in France in 1848. In Italy the issue also at first appeared to be successful in the Chamber of Deputies, which acknowledged the suffrage movement’s demands that it had raised immediately after the war in July 1919. After elections in the same year, support collapsed and Italian women had to wait until 1946 to gain the vote.[61] In Canada, on the other hand, women with male relatives in the armed forces and those serving in the military were called to vote at the federal elections of 1917. The rationale for this very specific measure in suffrage history was the prime minister’s hope that the enfranchised women would champion his controversial conscription plans, arguing that more soldiers would mean stronger support for husbands and sons at the front.[62] Women received equal suffrage in Canada in 1918.

The case of the United States is very different, as women had already enjoyed universal suffrage both on the federal and the state levels here in a number of states shortly before America entered World War I. By the end of 1917 they were enfranchised in six states for presidential elections only (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island) and had full suffrage in thirteen states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming). Thus, American women already exercised considerable voting power before the war. The NAWSA campaigned both on the state level, where the referendum on women’s suffrage in New York in November 1917 proved to be a special success, and lobbied Congress for a constitutional amendment during the war. At the same time the National Woman’s Party (NWP), an organization founded in 1916 on the model of the British WSPU, began to picket the White House with special references to the nation’s war aim of democracy as, for example, on its so-called Kaiser Wilson-Banner of 14 August 1917. Such tactics provoked the patriotic public and led to scuffles with the police and imprisonment of the campaigning women. However, they also tied war and women’s suffrage together, and President Wilson finally was prepared to advocate the women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution as a war measure, as “vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged”.[63] Whether the president’s support was a reaction to the NWP campaigns or due to a speculated deal with the NWP is, however, unknown.[64] Women were finally enfranchised by the nineteenth constitutional amendment in August 1920, but racist discrimination excluded many in practice.

Conclusion: War-related Women's Citizenship?

The examples outlined above have shown how specific local political contexts determined the accomplishment of women’s political rights. We can generally conclude that the war served as a catalyst for women’s political emancipation by putting electoral reform on the political agenda.[65] In other contexts the war, especially imminent defeat, served as a catalyst to fundamentally restructure states and societies regarding freedom, inner peace, and political participation, including political rights for women.[66] Nevertheless, the war did not necessarily function as a catalyst in all cases. While several states did concede equal political rights in 1918-20, others did so only in a restricted manner or not at all. Also, objections to women’s full citizenship prevailed in states with equal voting rights.[67]

Enfranchisement, in the end, hardly figured as a reward for women’s war effort, as has been maintained by a number of historians in the past,[68] and cultural changes in understandings of citizenship due to the war did not translate into political rights everywhere. Nevertheless, references to women’s support of the war did play a major role in suffrage discourse in all legislative debates once electoral reform had become an issue.[69] Both long-term supporters of the female vote and politicians now won over stated that the “physical force” argument denying women political rights because of their alleged unfitness to carry arms had been proven false.[70] Wartime rhetoric had de-radicalized women’s enfranchisement. As Susan Grayzel has argued, it recast gender ideology by emphasizing a definition of political rights over “cultural and social understandings of their [women’s] contributions to the ‘public’ and ‘national’ good”.[71] This was specifically effective in the British context where militancy had discredited the suffragists’ cause in the decade before the war. Former British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) and other politicians throughout Europe and North America not only pointed out that women had worked out their “salvation” during the war, but also called attention to reconstruction after the war; women should have “the power and the right of making their voice directly heard [...] in the new ordering of things”.[72]

It is difficult to assess whether politicians really changed their minds about equal citizenship and has been shown to be improbable in the British case.[73] Asquith’s sceptical remarks on the “dim, impenetrable, for the most part ungettable” women voters at a by-election in Paisley in 1920, “of whom all that one knows is that they are for the most part hopelessly ignorant of politics, credulous to the last degree, and flickering with gusts of sentiment like a candle in the wind...,”[74] lead to the conclusion that political expediency governed discourse on women’s suffrage rather than any true recognition of women’s national service. Many politicians felt uncomfortable with the prospect of a constituency consisting of a majority of women and searched for means to diminish the impact of women’s votes. The British example of the age limit guided, for instance, propositions to manipulate women’s enfranchisement to party advantage in Austria.[75] None were realized in the end. However, Austria did introduce a directive to cast men’s and women’s votes in differently coloured envelopes in 1920, thus providing statistics of women’s electoral preferences.[76]

The myth of a female bloc did not materialize. Furthermore, women were successfully kept from political power in legislative bodies. Consequently, feminists who continued to commit themselves to women’s rights in the interwar period found themselves in a dilemma.[77] They had entered the public sphere during the war in a way acceptable to the state and society without really challenging male and elite political power. After the war they had to find ways to push their goals through, convinced that the war and suffrage had changed everything and disappointed when they felt the limits to their political influence.[78] Compared to the pre-war feminist discourse, their differences in argumentation now became more distinctive. While many continued to argue within the framework of gender complementarity and social motherhood, others, especially a younger generation of feminists, now emphasized equal rights more strongly and stressed full equality with men as the only way for women to gain sovereignty and finally achieve full citizenship.[79]

Finally, let us come back to a more general level of the issue of war-related changes in gender relations. The “illusionary nature of wartime change”, as the Higonnets have phrased it,[80] not only expressed itself in the difficulties women encountered in being accepted as equals in politics, but also in other aspects of women’s legal status. While constitutions of many newly founded states included equality for both men and women, the definition of what that actually meant for women’s citizenship was only starting to be debated in a wider context. While women’s labour eventually did expand in specific sectors,[81] unequal payment, encouragement or necessity to leave especially white-collar work on marriage, and absent representation by unions were some of the problems employed women faced.[82] Only a few improvements were achieved in family law in the interwar period, including equal guardianship that had begun to be awarded to women in a number of countries due to the exigencies of the war and some of the attempts to retain women’s nationality upon marriage. Otherwise the state was interested in restoring the pre-war gender order that was governed by the image and the special needs of mothers.[83] Emancipated women − the garconne or flapper − were perceived as a threat.[84] Reproduction and domesticity remained central to the nation and were not to be jeopardized by a disorder of gender relations. This is underlined by early postwar election propaganda which mainly focussed on the figure of the mother[85] and later by the pronatalist policies that prevailed in the 1930s and 1940s and introduced child or family allowances.[86] The state’s interest was supported by soldiers returning home who just wanted to resume pre-war domestic life. Their integration into civil society and families nonetheless proved difficult.[87]

Nevertheless, not only the perspective on the state is relevant regarding the emancipatory effects of the war and enfranchisement. Historians have also shown an interest in the subjective views of women on their social, economic, and political possibilities after the war.[88] They have generally arrived at the conclusion that this issue needs a nuanced discussion,[89] based on personal narratives and taking differentiations based on class, age, ethnic, national, and religious affiliations, locality (urban or rural areas), war experiences and losses due to war into account. The war and what came after it was “a far from unitary experience”, as Janet S. K. Watson has maintained, and memory further reworked constructions of experiences.[90] In contrast to the public discourse geared towards the reconstruction of pre-war gender relations, research has also tended to emphasize that women developed “a new consciousness”.[91] As Joanna Bourke has argued, “... most people in the 1920s believed that the war had dramatically altered the relationship between the sexes”.[92] Some went so far as to detect a crisis of masculinity triggered by the supremacy of women over men. In a subjective view gender relations were certainly in flux. Thus, in referring to the “new metropolitan woman” of the 1920s in the German Weimar republic, Kathleen Canning has argued “that women’s acquisition of citizenship rights opened possibilities for the emergence of new female subjectivities and self-representations which at the very least made gender a site of continuous contention throughout the history of the republic”.[93]

Birgitta Bader-Zaar, Universität Wien

Section Editor: Christa Hämmerle