The World War II was fought on a large scale and demanded a lot of resources. At the beginning of the war men dominantly participated in the combat. Women were left to undertake light duties at home. As the war progressed, there was a strain on the resources which were available forcing nations to seek ways of replenishing their supplies.
This need saw women introduced actively into the war through campaigns such the “dig for victory” campaign where women specialized in carrying out farming for the purpose of feeding the troops and the nation. With time it also became evident that women could play some roles so well just like men, for instance being snipers, while in some other roles they even excelled the performance of men for instance being spies.
The information which was obtained from the women spies was very important in understanding the movement and plans of the enemies making it very easy for effective countermeasures to be taken.
The involvement of women in the war was quite significant to the women as they were able to have a strong arguing point after the war and this made it possible for the women to be allowed to enjoy many privileges that they did not enjoy before.
The two world wars brought about some of the most radical changes in the world. The UN came into existence through after the Second World War after the League of Nations collapsing after the First World War. The Second World War was more intense and literary affected almost all members of the society.
In this article the role and significance of women in World War II will be examined. This paper will mainly focus on the women in Europe and the roles they took in the course of the war. The importance of these roles will also be examined by discussing the significance of their participation in the war.
Women were indispensable in the World War II
The Second World War immensely drew a lot of resources from the different societies that were involved in the war. Efforts were made to recruit more men in the armies and this immensely affected the economies of the nations straining everyday live activities. The little resources which were available were significantly channeled towards fuelling the war.
At the war front there was a continuous need for more personnel while at the same a need arose fueling the war. This situation pushed women who had been relatively inactive to engage in some roles that they had not engaged before. Women took up jobs that were previously reserved for men – they worked in industries and some of them got engaged in the real battle field.
In many of the European countries women countries played a very significant role of fighting alongside the men though not, in most cases, directly in the battle field. As unexpected some of the women displayed great abilities which greatly were advantageous to the home armies.
Women provided moral support to soldiers who returning from the battle field in form of entertainment and through composing of songs which undermined the enemy army. The following sections will systematical examine how women participated in the war in different European countries.
Women in Britain
In many of the European Countries women who were left at home got involved in civil defense. In Britain women got engaged in the women’s Land army1 which is said to have greatly changed the direction of the war. The women Land army was formed because of the lessons that Britain had learned from world war one.
So many people had shifted to factory jobs and with the war being obvious it was obvious that there would be a shortage of supplies. The Women Land Army was very significant because it supplied Britain with food at such a moment when a shortage in food would bring defeat to the country. The role of the Land Army has been described as thus:
To describe every job that the Land Girls did would be impossible because they did everything that had to be done on the land. Not only did they plant and harvest wheat; they milked cows and delivered the milk by pony and trap to local houses; they picked sprouts; they dug potatoes; they tended flocks of sheep; looked after pigs and poultry; they picked fruit.
There were specialists who were trained in rat-catching and there was the Timber Corps, which felled, hauled and milled Britain’s commercial forests.2
Through the conscription, women joined the armed forces.3 Women were, however, not allowed to actively get involved in war but instead participated in several non combat units: “Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Auxiliary territorial Service (ATS), Air Transport Auxiliary, Special Operations Executive (SOE) – women as agents, women as radio operators in areas of Nazi occupation.”4
War and spying go hand in hand. Most of the European countries made use of spies in trying to decipher the movements of the enemy armies. Women were found to be quite vital in playing the role of spies.
In Britain the following have been named as being “the most notorious spies: Lillian Rolfe Denise Bloch, and Violette Szabo.”5 Cicily Margot has been noted for her effort in allowing their home to be used to organize underground resistance. Spielvogel (2008) noted that the British women were actively involved in the factory work particularly in the production of munitions for the war.6
Women in Finland
Women in Finland are said to have played similar roles as those played by women in Britain. The roles that the Finland women played included “Nursing, air raid signaling, hospitalization, rationing among others.”7 Women in Finland formed organizations, for instance, Lotta Svard organization which is said to have held the soviet army with the help of the conventional Finland army.8
The women who were members of the Lotta Svard organization did not engage in the actual battle nevertheless they are said to have played important roles in ensuring that the Finland arm succeeded.
Women in Poland
Women in Poland are said to have played an extensive role in war. The women here are said to have played a significant role in resisting enemy army and actually in some cases they are said to have taken an active role in the actual war field. It has been noted that women played a vital role in the Warsaw Rising in 1944.9
For instance, it is known that women dressed as males and got to the battle field to engage in war. One such woman who led a sabotage unit was Wanda Gertz.10 Wanda Gertz is said to have engaged in many war activities during the World War II:
She participated in the Polish defense war of 1939: participated in defense of Warsaw; was a member of the SZP (Polish Victory Service); and organized and commanded the DYSK (women’s sabotage unit).11
Women in Germany
Germany is said to have benefited much from the services of women during the WW II. The third Reich, in power during the World War II, is said to have offered many position to women to participate in the war. There were many women units in the Germany army and they included: “Auxiliary units called Aufseherin; Majority of women at Ravensbruck (concentration camp).”12
Mellitta Schenk was a pilot in the Germany army. It is claimed that it was the role that she played as a pilot that saved her and her family from the concentration camp: “her professional aviation abilities saved her and her family from sent to concentration camps.”13 Women in Germany also participated in other auxiliary duties to enable the troops’ progress with the war.14
Women in the Soviet Union
Women are said to have played the most significant role in the Soviet Union when they are compared to other women in the countries in the Europe: it is claimed that the number of women who fought in the war in one or another way was 800, 000. Soviet was the first country to allow women pilot in the war: “Marina Raskova was the first woman pilot in the soviet air force.”15
In the Soviet Army women were allowed to serve in the following units: “5896th Fighter Aviation Regiment; 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Regiment; 256th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment.”16 It was also noted that Russian women were great snipers who greatly coordinated their eyes & hands and it is claimed that acting as snipers, “Nina Alexayevna Lobkovskaya and Lyudmila Pavlichenko killed over 300 German soldiers”.17
It is also said that Russian women acted as “machine gunners, medics, political officers, tank drivers and communication personnel.”18 It is claimed that women alone flew more than thirty thousand missions during the war.
Russian women are said to have played a significant role in the aiding resistance against the Germany army for instance Zinaida Portnova and Zoya Kopsmodemyanskaya are recognized for their role in the resisting the enemy forces mainly the Germany army.19
Another woman who was quite recognized well for the role she played in the course of the war was Natalya Myeklin. She served as a combat pilot in the Russian army. Natalya is said to have joined in the army at a tender age of 19 but her abilities were portrayed to be great after joining a unit which was later named Night Witches by the enemy army.20
Women in France
French women are said to have played a very vital role as spies. Women are said to have served spied on behave of the office of strategic service. They particularly became important after the invasion of South France where they predominantly spied on behave of the French army- “women formed part of the 36th Infantry Division.”21 In France women were found to be quite effective over short range missions which required intelligence.
In Dutch, women played great roles in resisting the enemy armies, for instance, “Tiny MUdler, a 19 year old Dutch citizen was prominent leader of the underground resistance movement.”22 The Dutch women resistance is said to have played a great role in ensuring that the German army did not defeat the Dutch army.
Women in Italy
Cook (2006) gave a detailed account of the roles that the Italian women played during the World War II particularly in assisting the Italian army win the war against their enemies.
Cook (2006) argued that women in Italy formed resistance armies under the umbrellas of many units which included “Union of Italian Catholic Women, Union of Italian Women, Women’s Movement of Christian Democracy, and Center of Italian Women.”23
It has been noted that women played significant indirect roles in the war. Cook (2006) quoted Giovanna Zangrandi24, “while male partisans met secretly in participants’ homes, women were there in the kitchen. The women provided food and medical supplies during the clandestine meetings.”25
It has been pointed out that women played a very vital role in relaying information. Cook (2006) noted that the “ironic underestimation of women served as natural disguise for collecting and moving ammunitions, supplies, and information essential to the cause.”26
By the fact that women were generally underestimated by men, they could easily act as spies and pass information across without being suspected. It is estimated that about thirty five thousand women acted as messengers.27
It has also been noted that women also did participate as “guides, cooks and clothes menders for mountain brigades.”28 Other duties which they carried out have been summarized as such:
Most (women), however, were consigned to segregated quarters and assigned functions ranging from sabotage and single strike activity to serving as auxiliaries for the Brigades, to recruiting, education and defending their homes and neighborhoods.29
Significance of Women in the World War II
The participation of women in the World War II had much significance to women as individuals, and to the respective nations that the women were nationalities of. Going through the roles that women played in the course of the war it is evident that women to a great extent changed the course of the war.
For instance in Britain there was the campaign “dig for victory” where the women were encouraged to assist in supplying the nation with food. Without food supply to the troops at the war and the nation in general being defeated could be so easily carried out. Therefore by supplying foods in the countries of their nationalities, women ensured that the nations did not lack at least some supplies to keep it moving.
Women were influential in planning the logistics of the war as they supplied vital information from the enemies which was obtained by spying on the enemy. In some cases women actually fought alongside men and assisted in achieving victory; in the Soviet Union women snipers were quite influential.
The participation of women in the World War II made it possible for them to be recognized. This especially happened on issues which had to with the voting and general recognition of women in the society. After the war, women across Europe became more recognized and were allowed to enjoy some privileges which were previously only reserved for men.30
Apart from the significant roles that women played by participating in the war, a number of countries prevented women from participating in the actual combats: the following countries however allowed women participation in combat “Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, the Soviet Union and Switzerland.”31
The countries which avoided using women in the combat feared that men-women relationship could be disruptive especially to the men.
It has been significantly noted that women involvement made it possible for the advancement of women rights. After the war women rights progressed significantly in most of the countries in Europe. Women were allowed to vote and had more influence as compared to their positions at the start of the war.32
As discussed above, women can be claimed to have taken a very active role in ensuring that their own countries won. It should be noted that most of the able bodied got involved in war. During the war period there was a shortage of food supplies and other basics needs.
For instance the Germans cut off the supply of food and other essential products moving to Britain to compromise its strength. Women in Britain played an essential role in ensuring that the nation had supplies of food. This was accomplished through the Women’s Land army. The same happened virtually in all the European countries.
Women are noted also to have taken part in the actual combat zones. This was notable in the Soviet Union and German where women were officially in the army with some even flying war planes during the war. In some of these nations such as the Soviet Union women are said to have done so well in several areas: the Russian women were reported as excellent sniper and greatly weakened the German army.
In some other countries where women did not participate in the battle field they were actively involved in the resistance and it is said the women did well in resisting enemy armies.
The most significant role that seemed to have played by all the women across all the nations was that of spying and communication. Women performed the duties of spying very well probably because they were never suspected. They could easily pass messages across without being suspected.
The participation of women in the World War II had much significance. By participating in the war women were able to negotiate for their rights and progressed many of the gender equality issues. For instance it was noted that women progress movements grew in number and rights which women did not enjoy before could then be enjoyed. Among the right included enjoyed after the world included voting rights.
Atwood, Kathryn. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, Chicago review, 2011.
BBC. “The Women Land Army in Britain.” BBC Homepage, 2004. Web.
Cole, Hascall. Women Pilots of World War II. Utah: University of Utah, 1992.
Cook, Bernard. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present, Volume 1. New York, NY: ABC-CLOI, 2006.
Flanz, Gisbert. Comparative women’s rights and political participation in Europe. New York, NY: Transnational Publishers, 1983.
Land Army. “The Women’s Land Army.” History Learning Site, 2010. Web.
Lotta, Svard. “The Lotta Svard.” The Lotta Svard Organization, 2010. Web.
Nowakowska, Anna. “Kazik and Kazia: A Symbolic gender change in the midst of the fight for independence of Poland.” A journal of queer studies. Web.
Poland. “Warsaw Uprising – 1944.” Infopoland. Web.
Samantha, K. “Europe Women in World War II.” Google Documents. Web.
Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization: Since 1500. New York, NY, Cengage Learning, 2008.
Williamson, Gordon. World War II German Women’s Auxiliary Services. Osprey Publishing, 2003.
1 Land Army. The Women’s Land Army. History Learning Site.
2 BBC, The Women’s Land Army in Britain.
3 Conscription began in 1941 for women 21 years of age, which required them to join the armed forces.
4 Samantha, K. “Europe Women in World War II
5 Ibid (The three are said to have worked as members of the British Paratrooper Unit and as underground spies in France after being arrested by the S.S.)
6 Spielvogel, Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization: Since 1500. New York, NY, Cengage Learning, 2008. p. 863
7 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II, p. 7
8 Lotta Svard, The Lotta Svard Organization
9 Poland, Warsaw Uprising – 1944.
10 Nowakowska, Anna, A Symbolic gender change in the midst of the fight for independence of Poland.
11 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II.
14 Williamson, Gordon. World War II German Women’s Auxiliary Services. Osprey Publishing, 2003
15 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II. 18
16 Ibid p. 19
17 Ibid, p. 19
18 Ibid , p. 19
19 Zinaida Portnova was awarded hero of Hero of the Soviet Union as well as Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.
21 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II.
22 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II.
23 Cook, p. 319
24 Giovanna Zangrandi was a former partisan in the women resistance movement.
25 Cook, Cook, Bernard. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present, Volume 1. New York, NY: ABC-CLOI, 2006) p. 319
26 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II.
27 Cole, Hascall. Women Pilots of World War II. Utah: University of Utah, 1992.
28 Cook, Cook, Bernard. Women and war: a historical encyclopedia from antiquity to the present, Volume 1. New York, NY: ABC-CLOI, 2006) p. 319
29 Cook, p. 319
30 Atwood, Kathryn. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, Chicago review, 2011.
31 Samantha, K. Europe Women in World War II. p. 32
32 Flanz, Gisbert. Comparative women’s rights and political participation in Europe. New York, NY: Transnational Publishers, 1983.