Women in War

During World War I, entire nations became mobilized in a way that had not been seen in warfare before. For women, this meant that they were allowed to participate in occupations and take up roles that they couldn’t before as men left to serve; this included jobs in manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, and even service, in the case of some women. Many viewed this time as a unique opportunity for women to look towards independence, autonomy, and more rights within society. In some countries, like the US and the UK, women received the right to vote due to the experiences of women during the war. 

The experiences of women are highly underrepresented in the Collier volumes, with the first 1915 volume having the highest—and most diverse—amount of photographs that include the experiences of women. To the right is a chart showing these numbers, notably illustrating a steady decline over the course of the war (the light blue representing images new to the volume, and the navy representing images repeated from past volumes).

It is also important to analyze the contents of these select photographs in addition to noting these figures. The 1918 volume only includes one picture of a woman—the women in question being Queen Alexandria, standing next to her son (King George V) as he reviews American troops in London. This inclusion, naturally, is not representative of the general woman’s participation in the war at all. It is interesting to think about how this extremely low number may relate to how this volume was meant to emphasize American power and preparedness—perhaps the publishers may have viewed the inclusion of American working women as being contradictory to this propagandic image (despite the fact that American women volunteers were pictured in the 1915 volume, before America’s entrance into the war).

1915 volume, pg. 50. 

1918 volume, pg. 99. 

However, the 1915 volume does give a glimpse of the diverse roles women began to take up as the war began, even picturing a Miss Elfriede Riote, a German airship pilot. Other women are shown in nursing roles and helping to do their part on the homefront. While notably more diverse than the volumes that followed it, this is still a limited view of the extent of women’s participation in WWI. Many of the photographs show women in moments of mourning or weakness, a trend that also continues in the 1917 and 1919 volumes. While some of these images may be genuinely trying to share their war experience, many seem to exist only to draw a voyeuristic sympathy from viewers an ocean away. As this illustration in the 1915 edition reads: “the symbol of war is a group of ordinary people fleeing from their smoking homes.” The women in the illustration serve as symbolic representations of innocence: one, a beautiful mother directing all of her attention to her young child; the other, an old woman moving along with the aid of a cane, wearing a sad expression; third, a young girl struggling to carry a sack. Here, the artist portrays these women as symbols as opposed to war-affected people (see Illustrations: Reality or Wartime Fantasy? for more about artistic symbolism in the Collier volumes). 

1915 volume, pg. 43. 

1915 volume, pg. 47. 

Explore all of the images of women in the Collier volumes below:

References 

“Women in World War I.” The National World War I Museum and Memorial, www.theworldwar.org/learn/women.

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