Women’s Role in World War 2

With thousands of men away serving on the front lines of World War II, it fell to women to take on roles that challenged traditional gender norms. Across the globe, women took on a wide variety of roles, including war work and important work on the home front. Some women worked in combat roles, others worked as mechanics, engineers, and drivers, others served as nurses, others in factories, and others outside of formal military service, in resistance movements in France, Italy, and Poland. The barriers broken by women during the war years paved the way for the gender equality movement that is still ongoing today.

The Call to Action:

Because of the shortage of male manpower, a more diverse workforce was urgently needed, and doors opened for women to step into roles traditionally reserved for men. In the United Kingdom, women began to be called up for war work as early as 1941. In these early days, they served as mechanics, engineers, air raid wardens, munitions workers, and bus and fire engine drivers. While single women between the ages of 20 to 30 were the first to be called, by mid-1943, nearly 90 percent of single women and 80 percent of married women were working, either in factories, on the land, or even in the armed forces. Canada jumped in even earlier, establishing the Women’s Volunteer Service in 1938 and, by 1941, establishing the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. By 1942, Canadian women were given permission to enlist in the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and, soon after, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. While the United States was slow to join the war, once the country committed, all available resources were committed to the war effort, including American women.

Women in the Military

The views on women in the military varied from country to country. While some countries, like the Soviet Union, mobilized women early and fully, and several hundred thousand women across the world served in combat roles, not every nation embraced the idea of women in combat. When the United States entered the war, the only women in uniform were the Army Nurse Corps and the Navy Nurse Corps, nursing being considered a traditional female role in wartime. By the end of the war, each branch of the service had opened to women, and though they did not serve in combat, over 350,000 American women were in service. In the UK, there were over 640,000 women in the armed forces, including the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and many other women who worked in the Special Operations Executive, assisting the European resistance movements. Some of the more famous women in WW2 were Princess Elizabeth, who trained as a driver and mechanic and served in the ATS, and Mary Churchill, Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, who also served in the ATS, as an office commanding mixed anti-aircraft batteries. Though both the US and the UK held the view that women in the service were there to free up men to fight, there were female soldiers on WW2 front lines, and their efforts made a significant impact on the war effort.


Breaking Stereotypes

Of necessity, traditional gender roles had to be reevaluated during World War II. Women were needed in the labour force, in the military, and at home, managing their households and taking on the responsibilities once managed by their husbands. Propaganda was created to convince the public that patriotic women were heroines, and that women could excel at many of the tasks formerly regarded as male territory. Women rose to the challenge, working in defence plants, volunteering in war-related organizations, and becoming proficient at managing finances, repairing their own cars, and keeping their households running smoothly while presenting an upbeat, positive outlook to keep their soldier husbands encouraged and inspired.

Home Front Contributions

On the home front, women supported the war effort in a number of ways, from working in munitions factories, to volunteering for support organizations like the Red Cross, to working the land, to driving streetcars. Their endeavours significantly bolstered the war effort, while also creating a lasting impact on societal perception of women’s roles and their capabilities. As women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, keeping their communities afloat while the men were away and demonstrating diverse capabilities, societal norms were challenged, and a cultural shift began.

Legacy and Long-Term Impact

Women in World War 2 stepped up for their communities and their countries, but their actions and contributions created a ripple effect that has had a lasting impact on gender roles and societal norms to this day. The efforts of these women paved the way for the women’s rights movement by demonstrating women’s capabilities in a wide array of fields previously reserved for men. Their competence fuelled a broader acceptance of women in professional roles, inspiring subsequent generations to work for gender equality and advancements in women’s rights.

The Importance of Understanding History

From the home front to the battlefront, the contributions of women in World War II were transformative, reshaping societal norms. It is vital that we continue to recognize and celebrate the contributions of these great women in history, honouring the women who paved the way for gender equality as we work to inspire future generations to carry on their legacy. For over 30 years, Eden Camp Modern History Museum has worked to bring history out of dull exhibits in stuffy museums and into real life. At Eden Camp, our realistic tableaux, with moving figures and sounds and smells that are authentically historical, will transport you back in time, where you can experience life in Britain from 1939-1945. Once a prisoner of war camp, Eden Camp was built on an agricultural plot outside of Malton in early 1942, as a temporary camp to accommodate prisoners of war captured by the Allied forces, first Italian, then German. These POWs lived in the huts at Eden Camp, primarily working locally in agricultural, until 1948, when they were released, three years after the war’s end. Today, these huts have be re-equipped to tell the story of the “People’s War”, with each hut covering a different aspect of the war. Our collection is ever growing, and our Heritage Exhibition Hall can be used for special events, occasions, and exhibitions. With immersive displays, we cover both social and military history, and our archive has become a resource of national historical importance. Come visit, on your own, with your family, or with a group- there is something here for everyone. Car and coach parking is free on site, our exhibits are wheelchair accessible, we have picnic areas and play areas, and we’re even dog friendly! For visitor enquiries, group bookings, and school visits, telephone (01653) 915214, or purchase tickets online.