Though women were always present, in one or another form, in all wars up until the 20th century, their participation was of an exceptional, invisible nature. It was from World War I onwards when they were mobilised in an unprecedented fashion.

The women who carried out an activity outside the domestic sphere basically fell into three categories: First was their participation in the rearguard in the various economic sectors (agriculture, industry, transport, banking, commerce, telecommunications, teaching, etc.). Secondly, the extension of the labour of care, traditionally linked to the domestic sphere, to the fields of health and humanitarian aid towards the wounded soldiers and people in a situation of abandonment and needful of help for their own survival. Thirdly, in some countries they were able to undertake responsibilities of various kinds on the fighting front.

Three women spreading tar on a London street. Photograph by Horace Nicholls (c. 1916). © IWM (Q30876)

In the field of health, women stood out not only as nurses but also as doctors. More specifically in surgery are the cases, for example, of Elsie Inglis and Frances Ivens. One should note that there was transnational mobilisation, with Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and other health personnel arriving in Europe. They formed part of diverse organisations, working alongside nationalities from different countries, in hospitals in both the rearguard and the front line, in field hospitals and medicalised ambulances. One such organisation was the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service, which provided medical services on the fronts of the allied countries.

An operation in the Endell Street military hospital. Work of painter Francis Dodd, 1920. © IWM (ART 4084)

The painting portrays the surgeons Garret, Murray and Buckley.

This work by Francis Dodd reproduces an operation performed in the military hospital on Endell Street, a hospital established in London to attend to wounded military, consisting of and directed entirely by women. The hospital operated from May 1915 to December 1919. The surgeons undertook over 7,000 operations and attended more than 26,000 patients.

Another body of volunteers who enlisted in order to undertake health services, or as cooks, waitresses and so on, was the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (1917-1921), also known as Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, an auxiliary female corps in the British Army. Likewise, we could mention organisations such as First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, Voluntary Aid Detachment, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service or the American Women’s Hospital, among others.

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps recruitment poster (c. 1917). © IWM (ART PST 13171)

One should not forget the women who signed up as volunteers in Quaker organisations such as the Friends Ambulance Units, or those who worked as nurses in the various national organisations of the Red cross or in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). During the war, ICRC underwent a profound transformation with the creation of the International Prisoners-of-War Agency, in which around 3,000 people were to work, two thirds of them women.

French Red Cross nurses. Bain News Service photograph.  (c. 1914 – 1915). © LOC (Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-17067)

International Prisoners-of-War Agency. British index. © ACICR (V-P-HIST-00581-24)

In 1914, most European women had supported the war. One section of feminists considered that it would be a chance to escape from the domestic sphere and take on the jobs that men were leaving free. Even the demand for the right to vote was suspended in the face of this new reality.

However, despite the fact that in the heart of societies in the warring countries pacifist attitudes were identified with anti-patriotism, some women actively opposed the war. An example of this occurred in the celebration of the International Congress of Women, inaugurated in The Hague on 28 April 1915.

Jane Addams (second from the left) and other delegates on the deck of the ship that would take them to the Hague for the International Women’s Conference (1915). © LOC (George Grantham Bain Collection (LC-DIG-ggbain-18848)


In 1919, a Europe devastated by war faced enormous demographic, economic and geopolitical consequences. In addition to millions among the soldiers and civil population dead from the conflict, there were also wounded and mutilated soldiers, as well as civilians who had fallen victim to epidemics and famine. Of the latter the most terrible, without a doubt, were the flu pandemic of 1918 and the Russian famine of 1921–1922.

To this, we can add the vast displacements of the civilian population from their places of origin as a consequence of the fall of four empires (the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Turkish empires) and the repatriations of both military and civilian prisoners of war.

Nurse with mask as protection against the “flu” (pandemic). 13 September 1918. ©  NARA (MD. 165-WW-269B-5)

The inaptly named “Spanish flu” originated in the United States and was brought to Europe by soldiers in spring 1918. It is estimated that over 50 million people died from it.


Cemetery, Étaples (France). Author: photographer Oliva Edis, 1919. © IWM (Q8027)

Cemetery, Étaples (France).  Author: John Lavery, 1919. © IWM (ART 2884)

The painting shows one of the many cemeteries for fallen soldiers created in France during the war. In this case, British soldiers. In 1919 it was still tended by female staff of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps by order of the Imperial War Graves Commission. Below, the same cemetery in a photograph.

These new situations forced humanitarian aid organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to establish true inter-institutional, transnational collaboration with different aid organisations, even as it encouraged the creation of others to respond to the serious emergencies in which populations found themselves in these early post-war years. The origins of Save the Children Fund and Service Civil International (SCI) are situated in this context.

Save the Children Fund was created in May 1919 upon the initiative of Eglantyne and Dorothy Jebb with the aim of helping German and Austro-Hungarian children. This meant it was censured by the British press for not establishing a distinction between victors’ and “enemy” children. SCI was founded in 1920, in Switzerland, on the initiative of a pacifist group rallying around the Swiss engineer Pierre Cérésole.

Eglantyne Jebb campaigned for the rights and welfare of children. © Snowbound. Cortesía de/Courtesy of Save the Children. Madrid

“We must develop a powerful international organisation for child saving which would extend its ramifications to the remotest corner of the globe”


Eglantyne Jebb

Photograph of Esnes (France), the first SCI work camp. One can see the huts built by the SCI volunteers, although the destruction of the town is still visible. Ca. 1921. ©SCI Archives (The first work camp of Service Civil International 1920 – Archives Documentation)

The Great War had caused the mobilisation en masse of women outside the domestic sphere. But as soon as the war was over, governments and political parties put pressure on or directly forced women to return to the home, leaving their workplaces to be occupied afresh by men. Despite this, the war had broadened their horizons and wrought profound changes that gradually began to be appreciated in the ensuing years.

As a form of recognition of the role women had played in the war, from 1918 to 1921 a number of the combatant countries recognised their right to vote, with various restrictions depending on the case. Other countries had to wait until World War II was over, for example, France, which passed it in 1944.

That right to vote for which the suffragettes had fought so hard since the mid-nineteenth century signified an important conquest. Yet the truly revolutionary advance were the changes that began to be seen in behaviours, ways of dressing, sexual relations and women’s habits, along with their gradual and continuing presence in both public spaces and workplaces.

In this regard, the 1914 War blazed a path for the first time in history towards a “mixed society” in which men and women circulated and related freely. It was a slow yet unstoppable advance.

Campaign by the Ministry of Labour. Great Britain, 1919. Lithograph.  © IWM (PST 5475)


The 1936–1939 Civil War cannot be understood solely as an internal conflict in Spanish politics and society. One must place it within the context of European history in the first third of the 20th century. This helps to explain the fact that, from its beginnings, it became a field of ideological confrontation for international governments and public opinion.

As occurred in World War I, the mobilisation of fathers, husbands and brothers for the war effort meant that women had to support their family and ensure their survival. Meanwhile they took on the jobs that men had left vacant in all sectors of economic activity.

Women working in war production, 28 April 1937. © BNE (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, GC-Caja 58/6 18r/1)

As well as this dual labour in the domestic and employment spheres, they undertook an endless array of support tasks in the rearguard: sourcing food for the disabled populace; helping in food supply warehouses, in orphanages, collective dining rooms, clothing and textile workshops. Along with this, they worked in health care in hospitals or developed roles as auxiliary staff or teachers of the children evacuated to camps on the Mediterranean or overseas, and so on.

Refugees children Barcelona © BNE (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, GC-Caja 47/5/39)

In its early days, the war rather resembled a popular revolution. In the Republican zone this meant that the most committed women, driven by an egalitarian discourse in their relations with men, enlisted in the battalions and corps of militias being organised voluntarily early on to participate directly in the fight.

Female militia on the front. © BNE (Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, GC-Caja 114/12/2)

The Civil War prompted the arrival of international volunteers from all corners of the globe. They worked as doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, health auxiliaries, war correspondents, photographers, etc. Some were brigade members, others pacifist and neutral. Many were linked to humanitarian aid organisations. Most came to support the Republic, but there were also women who helped on the side of the coup.

Photograph of Afro-American nurse Salaria Kea. Unknown author not found. © NYU (Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, ALBA.PHOTO.015)

In regards to organisations that supplied humanitarian aid during the conflict, some were neutral and helped in both camps. For example: the Service Civil International (SCI), the British and American Quakers (Friends Service Committee and American Friends Service Committee), the International Committee of the Red Cross (in the Spanish case, Cruz Roja Española) and Save the Children Fund. Others collaborated just with the Republican side, such as International Red Aid (also known by its Russian acronym, MOPR), International Antifascist Solidarity. A third group collaborated with the coup, such as Auxilio Social, founded by Mercedes Sanz-Bachiller Izquierdo, and Socorro Blanco, directed by the Carlist militant María Rosa Urraca Pastor.

Help! The Spanish Red Cross in its humanitarian labour. Author: Mezquita. Poster published by the Spanish Red Cross. Imprenta Rivadeneyra, S.A. Madrid (circa 1936–1939) © CDMH (PS-CARTELES, 2194)

One of the clothing workshops promoted by the Quaker Francesca Wilson in Murcia, 1937. © AFSC

Many cases of exceptional women existed, women who arrived as volunteers for humanitarian associations. One example is Elisabeth Eidenbenz, a Swiss teacher who travelled to Spain in early 1938 as a volunteer for the SCI. She worked in Madrid and Burjassot (Valencia). She returned to Switzerland in early 1939, but by the end of that same month, she was required once again to help exiled pregnant Spanish women who were living in French internment camps. This is the origin of the Motherhood of Elne, which operated until April 1944. Over 600 children of 22 different nationalities were born here.

Elizabeth Eidenbenz at the Elna Maternity Hospital (c. 1940-1943) © AfZ


Within barely 20 years the wish for a lasting peace was swept away by a new worldwide conflagration more terrible, violent and mortal than the 1914 War. Neither the Society of Nations nor the peace treaties signed had been able to ensure the peaceful future for which they had been designed.

Hitler’s expansionist policy and his desire for continental hegemony caused France and Great Britain, after the invasion of Poland, to declare war on Germany on 3 September 1939. It was a war that would spread to every corner of the planet, originating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

Once again, the various countries involved in the conflict undertook large-scale propaganda campaigns to mobilise women. The response to those campaigns was massive. Once more women became a key element as the head of the family nucleus, joining the different economic activity sectors, or in the health sphere as doctors, surgeons, nurses, ambulance drivers and so on.

A day in the life of a mother in January 1941. Drawing by José Smeets. © MUNAÉ (1979.09289.29)

In World War II, a greater number of women joined the armed forces to fight on the front lines of combat, either as reservists or else working in support units.

Liudmila Pavlichenko, Soviet sniper, with two delegates in Washington D. C. Photograph by Jack Delano, 1942. © LOC (2017835891)

Women played a fundamental role in the tasks of evacuation of the civil population from the large cities, subject to continual aerial bombardments, to safer rural zones. Furthermore, in cities and town they supervised the supply and distribution of foodstuffs, running canteens and clothing workshops, medical care in consulting rooms and hospitals, educational activities and generally anything that might ensure survival amidst the horror of a total war that blurred the lines of the “front” and the “internal front”.

© IWM (PST 15092)

Individually or within humanitarian organisations, there were women who alleviated the situation of persecuted groups and those displaced by war, exposing their lives to save others, even when this meant acting against the directives of their own organisations. In some cases, they adopted positions of neutrality when faced with persecutions perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

One of the most terrible episodes that occurred during World War II was the persecution and extermination of Jewish people and other human collectives by the Nazis. Men, women and children were stripped of all human dignity, utilised in execrable experiments, tortured, killed by blows or gassed.

Four Jewish prisoners behind the barbed wire fence at “Ilot L” of the Gurs transit camp. Photograph taken clandestinely by Alice Resch-Synnestvedt. c. 1942-1943. © USHMM. Courtesy of Hanna Meyer-Moses (78704)

During the war and after it ended, European countries had to face the problem of massive displacement of the civil population. In the search for a solution, on 9 November 1943, the governments of 44 nations decided to create an international organisation with the aim of coordinating aid distribution, above all food and medicines. The goal was also to palliate the serious situations facing people displaced from their places of origin: this was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Its creation constituted a milestone in the history of humanitarian aid.

The UNRRA’s “food flying squads”. 1940s. © UN Archives (S-1167-0009-00001)

As had occurred at the Great War’s end, in 1945 most women were forced to return to the home and their traditional subaltern role in relation to men. Recognition of the exceptional work they had done during the war years has been a long time coming.

Commemorative monument dedicated to women’s contribution during World War II. It is located in Whitehall, in the heart of London. The designer is John Mills. Seventeen women are represented with the uniforms or working clothes they used during those years when they participated in the war effort. During its inauguration on 9 July 2005, five military helicopters piloted by women overflew the city centre.


In 1945, the most barbarous and cruel war humanity had known to date ended, but its absence did not bring peace to people’s hearts. To paraphrase one of the stars of the film that that was released in Germany in 1946, shortly after the film industry was re-established: Murderers Among Us (Die mörder sind unter uns).

Societies that had been morally and physically destroyed had to face the horror of what had happened in the Nazi extermination camps, the mass massacres of civilians perpetrated by the fighting sides in merciless, indiscriminate aerial bombardments and, finally, a last atrocity: the US B-29 bombers that had flattened Japanese cities with incendiary bombs in the final months of the war, dropped two atomic bombs on the defenceless cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August.

Burnt skin of a surviving victim of the atomic bomb, 1945. © NARA (519686)

The war claimed the lives of 70 million civilians and combatants. To that can be added the millions of people left invalided and mutilated, over ten million child orphans and the millions of displaced persons: civilians, demobbed soldiers, deserters and freed prisoners of war. They were all trying to return to their “homeland”, wherever that was.

War victims in a cave in Naples (1945). © UN Archives (S-0800-0003-0004-00017)

The phenomenon of population displacement was the most characteristic feature of the immediate post-war period. Many people had nowhere to go while for others return to their places of origin meant punishment.

German refugees heading west in 1945. Unknown photographer. © Bundesarchiv (Bild 146-1985-021-09)

There were many forced or unwanted repatriations. Among them, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Philippine women, who had been forced to become prostitutes in brothels established for the military of the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied countries. The figures on sexual slavery vary, but in any case, there were over 200,000 in the period from 1938 to 1945. As occurred with so many other atrocities, after the war, a veil of silence fell until in 1991 the Korean woman Kim Hak-Soon dared to tell the humiliating story of the “comfort women”.

Bronze statue of a “comfort woman” in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (South Korea), erected in December 2011. YunHo LEE


The transition towards societies at peace was not easy. The process of social and economic reconstruction was of a magnitude that cannot be compared with other post-war periods. Advances for women in the early post-war period were extremely limited. They were forced once again to return to a home in many cases non-existent. Families were broken. Many of their members had died or disappeared. For a large number of soldiers the return home and their re-adaptation to civilian life was a tough experience.

Leaflet prepared for the British Labour Party discussion groups in response to the Royal Commission of Equal Pay report, 1946. © TUC Library Collections

In European and Asian countries, the war had destroyed the social and economic fabric, producing profound changes in their political cultures. From an economic viewpoint, only American society ended the war on top. The US became a world power and used that force to consolidate its power and control in other countries. On 5 June 1947 the Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, gave a speech from which arose the “European Recovery Program”, the so-called “Marshall Plan” aimed to strengthen the countries in western Europe.

This US aid created, in the 1950s and 1960s, huge opportunities for work, from which women would also benefit. Parallel to this, transformations in relations between the sexes, and their role in the private and public spheres, were occurring.

But although such advances were notable, changes are always fragile and at any moment new crisis situations could cause setbacks. Only education and evolving mentalities in the long term could ensure the duties and rights for which so many women had fought throughout history.