The War's Effects on Women's Status

By August Winnig
(National Secretary, Building Trade Union of Germany)

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1917]

Women in all the belligerent countries of Europe have taken men's places in industrial life in unprecedented numbers. In Germany at the end of 1916 the number of women employed in industries covered by the sickness and death benefit societies numbered 4,793,472, or nearly one-half the persons included in the insurance system. This is a 33 per cent, increase since the beginning of the war. At the same time there were in England 3,219,000 women employed outside their own homes, of whom 766,000 had replaced men gone to war. About 500,000 of these had gone into munition plants. Cecil Harmsworth, head of the Woman's War Employment Commission, stated on Jan. 6, 1917, that his commission then had a trifle over 1,000,000 women doing men's work, and that they had saved England. In France similar conditions exist, and hundreds of thousands of women are making munitions at wages ranging from $1.05 to $2.15 a day. French schools are now taught almost exclusively by women, a radical change from the past, and one likely to remain after the war. EDITOR CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE.

The world war is a revolution the extent and meaning of which will be fully apparent only to coming generations. Regarding the complex problems that, taken together, are called the woman question, the war has shown itself to be genuinely revolutionary, as it is fast ripening the new social and economic phenomena that have grown out of the peculiar needs of our period. The increasing prominence of woman in the life of Germany and her independent position both mentally and economically form a not unimportant peculiarity of our day. This is a phenomenon inseparably connected with the development and advance of capitalist administration, and, consequently, cannot be stopped by anything, although naturally it may be influenced.

Right here the war has given the wheel of time a powerful turn ahead. For nobody need imagine that with the return of peace everything in this matter will go back to its old form. On the contrary, there are many considerations that force us to the conclusion that, even after the war, women's labor will constitute a far more weighty factor in industry than it did before. It is also certain that this phenomenon cannot be restricted to Germany alone. After the war all Europe will be compelled to employ women to a greater extent in industry. Millions of men in the flower of their working lives are being eliminated from the industrial sphere, either through death or permanent injury. Europe must find substitutes for them, if she doesn't want to lose her hard-pressed position of superiority in the world of industry, or, more correctly stated, if she wishes to regain it. Millions of the wives of the dead or crippled participants in the war need and seek industrial employment in order to earn a necessary addition to their pension allowances.

The surplus of women will increase, and, in line with this fact, there will be a rise in the number of women who must renounce the idea of marriage and make themselves economically independent. We must expect a sharper competition among the industrial States for the export markets, and this will involve an increased effort to lower the cost of production. These conditions will be present and their influence will be felt in all the industrial nations. Therefore this mighty transformation in the economic position of woman is not limited to Germany. It will be extended to all the belligerent countries, will spread from these to neutral lands, and, as a further consequence, will form the base of a new period in the history of woman.

The position of woman as to her public and private rights, as to her public and intellectual life, is closely bound up with her industrial position and activity. Woman's sphere of influence in the State and in society corresponds to her field of activity. Where woman's activity is limited to the home and family, where she has no direct connection with the industrial life of the nation, there her legal and intellectual position is confined within narrow boundaries. Right here is verified Marx's declaration that society does not rest upon the law, but that the law rests upon society. Law is the legal expression of the actual social condition. Of course, like everything existing, it is ruled by the tendency to stand fast, and, consequently, it generally yields but hesitatingly, and often resistingly, to changes in conditions.

There is no question that the changes in the relation of women to industrial life that have taken place during the war have been extraordinarily great. Nevertheless, they would remain without any influence upon the legal and intellectual position of woman if they were merely of a transitory nature. Let us summarize the reasons that show that this cannot be the case;

1. The economic life of the belligerent countries needs the labor of women as a substitute for the men whom the war has taken from industrial life either through death or permanent injury.

2. The sharpened industrial competition to which Europe will see herself forced because of her loss of strength will necessarily develop—to the advantage of powerful industrial groups—a strong movement toward a lowering of the cost of production, which will be favored by woman's labor, as it is at present cheaper.

3. The disappearance of the fathers of families from industrial life through death or disability will compel a great many women to seek productive labor in order to increase their pension allowances from the public, so as to be able to maintain the family.

4. The diminished possibility of marriage will force more women than formerly to make themselves economically independent and enter industrial life for this purpose.

Quite aside from the question as to how greatly these conditions will affect matters, there is the problem of how this transformation is going to influence not only the legal and intellectual position of woman, but also the entire economic and intellectual life of our people.

Up to the present there have been in Germany only weak currents of feminine opinion insisting upon a change in the present legal standing of women. One of these was composed of the most intellectually active women of the bourgeoisie, whose interest in public life had been aroused, but who lacked a field for its exercise. This current has often been called the "ladies' movement," with the intention of hinting in a deprecatory way that this was not so much an earnest effort for the attainment of equal rights as it was an interesting but harmless sport. The view thus expressed, however, was not quite fair. Even the women's movement of the bourgeoisie had its point of economic support in the circles under its influence. A growing number of women remained single and saw themselves forced by economic, and partly by psychological, reasons to take up a profession, which these women found as doctors, teachers, nurses, or as employes in commercial offices, or in the postal service, or in other lines.

In so far as the bourgeois woman's movement really was backed by numbers its adherents were recruited among these circles, and as a matter of course the leadership fell to the women who were the most fitted for it through education and liberty of movement. The second, and in numbers stronger, movement among the German women was that of the working women organized in the Socialist Party and the trade unions. This movement found support in masses that already amounted to some hundreds of thousands, but in comparison with the total numbers of the women of the working class its active followers were but few….

Enough: It is beyond question that only through that direct participation by women in the economic life of the nation which is connected with economic independence is emphasis lent to the demand for broader rights, and that only then will the great mass of women take up this demand and earnestly support it. Consequently it is evident that an increasing participation by women in industrial labor will influence the legal position of woman in the sense of a broadening of her rights. This connection is due to the fact that the sphere of activity of woman in industry is closely related to the general conditions of the people's life. The wage-earning woman, first of all, has quite different economic interests from those of the housewife, whose activities are limited to the management of her home, the care of her family, and the rearing of her children. Of course the housewife also has economic interests, but between her and the basic economic conditions of life stands the man, to whom falls the main task of providing for the maintenance of life, and who is the first to have to contend with the handicaps and difficulties encountered in this work. Here in a certain sense the man forms a protecting shell for the woman and the family, keeping off the economic pressure from without, or at least lessening it. For this reason the contact of the housewife with the economic conditions of existence is less sharp. The case of the wage-earning woman is different. She lacks the protection of the man. She is entirely dependent upon herself. She senses her economic interests to a much greater degree and soon comes to the conclusion that she must take action herself if she wishes to better her conditions of labor.

Moreover, it is only a step from the field of economic interests to participation in politico-economic and purely political questions; this step, however, is very seldom taken deliberately, but simply forces itself upon the women's organizations. And the women's economic organizations will be something quite different in significance in the future. So long as the wage-earning woman regards her industrial activity merely as a transition period to be followed by marriage she does not take the matter of defending her trade interests very seriously. Only the consciousness that her wage-earning labor forms the enduring base of her economic existence makes her receptive to the idea of a joint representation of interests through organization.

The basic principle—equal pay for equal work—has more than mere trade union significance. No matter what objections may be raised against it on the part of the employers it is indubitably justified when taken in connection with the nation's industrial and political life as a whole. But it can only be put into effect if woman is kept away from the kind of gainful labor in which she is not equal to man, therefore above all from work that makes especially heavy demands upon bone and muscle. The women in the mines, on railroad track and construction work, in foundries and rolling mills, etc., must remain a phenomenon of war that must end with the war. But even then limitless fields of activity are open to them. But one of the most necessary tasks of legislation is to define, after careful examination, which of the fields of industrial life shall be kept open to woman labor. For only thus may the unavoidable shocks to our economic machinery due to the entering of woman into the army of wage workers be materially lessened….

The war has given the wheel of evolution a swift turn forward. The woman question has entered upon a new stage; its significance for the entire nation has grown mightily. The State and society must recognize the new nature of the woman question and come to an understanding with it.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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