Gender Relations in Warring Nations: the experience of women in World War II

Albert Tucker, Victory girls, 1943, courtesy of The National Gallery of Victoria.

Author: Charlotte Allan

Sub-editor: Greta Kantor

World War II (WWII) had a major impact on the established gender relations of the 20th century, equally disrupting and reinforcing differing conceptions of gender throughout the warring nations. While the presence of the war impacted gender relations in all of the nations involved, each individual experience was personal and embodied an array of influences, consequences and achievements within society. Delving into the experiences of the altering positions of women during the war, I will closely examine Australia, the Soviet Union and Germany as warring nations with starkly different gender relations. In Australia, traditional gender roles and relations were briefly subverted during the war as women gained access to the workforce and expectations of sexual morality further evolved with the arrival of American soldiers in December 1941. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was radical in their interpretation of gender relations during WWII; not only were women integral to the workforce within the USSR, but they were also encouraged to fight ‘outside the borders of their own country.’ Conversely, in Germany, Nazi ideology restricted women to the domestic sphere with minimal exception. While Hitler did eventually allow women into wartime industry such as the Anti-aircraft units, Nazi ideologies predominantly restricted women to domestic environments so they could not ‘challeng[e] men’s authority.’ By analysing both the diminished and ‘enhanced sexual, economic, and social opportunities’ that women were afforded in these warring nations, it will become clear that the impact of war on gender relations was not universal but specific to each geographical and ideological context. 

In Australia, WWII had a major impact on gender relations through the expansion of women into the workforce and the ‘fashioning [of] a new sexualised femininity’ with the arrival of American soldiers in 1941.  When Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced on the 3rd of September, 1939 that it was his ‘melancholy duty’ for Australia to join the war, many women began to volunteer for traditionally male dominated roles, leading to the creation of a Voluntary Women’s Register to allow women to be placed in a range of fields that would accommodate their skills and interests. Due to these new opportunities, ‘women beat a path to the doors of the authorities, begging to be allowed to assist, to help win the war, [and] to give of their talents,’ thus paving the way for the compulsory conscription of all adult Australians into the war industry in 1942 under the Manpower Directorate. Conscription allowed women access to exclusively male jobs such as munitions and factory production for the Empire and organisations such as the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) were established due to a shortage of male troops available within the country. For example, the AWLA was established in July 1942 to ‘counteract the labour shortage on farms generated by men,’ and women carried out vigorous agricultural labour for a set wage. As a result of these new roles acquired by women during the war, policies such as the Women’s Employment Board (WEB) was established by the Curtin government in 1942 to temporarily balance the rate of pay between men and women, significantly altering gender relations within the nation.  Subsequently, the rate of pay for women increased to approximately 75% of male rates.  However, while these impacts surrounding the place of women in society were major, historians such as Rachel Harris and Paul Sendziuk have argued that this was in no way ‘a watershed’ for Australian women as many of these developments were temporary. According to historian Kate Darian-Smith, women’s eviction from the workforce has certainly been exaggerated. For example, at the end of the war, the demobilisation of factory workers ‘counteracted the economic benefits women received from the temporary increase in pay,’ and many women did not want to continue working in intensive jobs while also raising a family. Therefore, it seems that the impacts of WWII on the experience of women in Australia were perhaps temporary. 

Moreover, it can be argued that the arrival of American soldiers in Australia in December 1941, ‘without any inhibitions of any kind,’ significantly impacted gender relations throughout Australia. Many Australian women were swept up by ‘war fever,’ causing a vast loosening of sexual morality within the streets and a sense of ‘reckless, red adventure,’ that involved many instances of underage activity and venereal disease.  This led to the perceived disempowerment of Australian men who began to feel ‘sexually impotent’ as a result of ‘their’ woman having relations with foreign men. The changing experience of women and fears surrounding the arrival of American men is depicted in Albert Tucker’s graphically exaggerated painting Victory Girls (1943), which depicts large distorted looking figures with massive hands groping semi-naked Australian women with American flag skirts, to highlight the social and sexual corruption that the American soldiers had inflicted upon Australia. Furthermore, Tucker’s painting Image of Modern Evil: Demon Dreamer (1943), further highlights the promiscuous and predatory nature that was present upon the streets, fit with a distorted figure (an American soldier) staring at a strongly sexualised exhibit of a female body, thus playing into the fears of their presence. Essentially, it can be argued that WWII had a significant impact upon gender relations within Australia, however there were certainly limitations including provisional pay rises and persisting inequalities and misogynistic attitudes. 

The presence of WWII also strongly influenced gender relations in the Soviet Union. However, unlike in Australia, sentiments towards gender and the role of women during the pre-war years were already beginning to improve and the war served rather as a further stepping stone towards this progress. Evolving during the First World War, women were called to volunteer and ‘take up positions [such] as clerks, draftsmen, telegraphists, and typists,’ to replace the men that went to fight on the front. This further continued throughout 1916, where the employment of women at industrial facilities began to expand significantly, thus vastly differing from other warring nations and their perceived roles of women during this time. Furthermore, following the 1917 October Revolution, ‘between 73,000 and 80,000 women served on the Bolshevik side in the Russian Civil War,’ demonstrating that the Soviet Union undoubtedly had established more progressive gender relations in allowing women to fight in combat. Articles in the 1936 Constitution (Basic Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics also illustrated this apparent equality between men and women: Article 122 stated that ‘women in the USSR [were] accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life’ and Article 132 stated that ‘military service in the Workers ‘and Peasants’ Red Army is an honourable duty of citizens of the USSR.’  Moving towards the participation of women during WWII in a ‘total war’ society, Soviet women were the only female soldiers who were permitted to fight beyond the border of their country, and ‘more than 1 million women served with the Soviet armed forces, militias, and partisan groups in the twentieth century.’ Unlike any other warring nation at the time, women were likewise accepted into all service and military roles that ranged from support roles such as nurses, defensive roles on the front, combat and sniper roles in the infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft defence. For example, more than 40% of doctors, paramedics and medical workers were women and 100% of nurses were women in the Red Army. Other roles such as serving in the Soviet Air Defence Forces involved ‘more than a quarter of a million women,’ and the USSR was the only warring nation that allowed women to fly combat planes further than their military bases. Women were also immediately trained as snipers, and Nina Petrova (a forty-eight-year-old who went into combat in 1941) stated that men ‘looked at [sniper women] with admiration,’ suggesting that allowing women access to positions of power positively impacted gender relations. However, as demonstrated by a lack of scholarship up until the 21st century surrounding the participation of Soviet women throughout the Second World War and broader 20th century, there are clear challenges towards the seemingly progressive nature of the USSR during the 20th century. While the Soviet Union seemed progressive in theory, as suggested by the 1936 Constitution and women’s increasing access to employment, ‘women were usually relegated to lower-ranking positions at work and filled many traditional women’s roles at work and at home.’ Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Regime also ‘maintained an unfailing and totalising silence’ surrounding the figures of women participants when constructing their war narrative, challenging previously progressive ideas. Overall, it can be argued that WWII undoubtedly contributed to the already present progress of gender relations within the Soviet Union, however this impact is undermined when considering attempts by the government to silence this historical narrative. 

Finally, when analysing the impact that WWII had on gender relations throughout Germany, it can be argued that the leadership of Hitler’s Nazi party and its correlating ideologies were largely responsible for influencing gender relations in society. While Germany eventually allowed women into the workforce and the military, in line with Goebbels’s 1944 Second Order for the implementation of ‘total war’ across the nation, Germany barely progressed towards gender equality and fixed the traditional divide between private and public for women and men. Enforcing the Nazi slogan ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche,’ translating to ‘Children, Kitchen, Church,’ Hitler believed that a women’s role was to be a full-time wife who remained at home to produce Aryan children.  Magazines, such as the NS-Frauen-Warte (Figure 3), were plastered with Nazi propaganda pieces aimed at women, supporting the image of  the house-bound mother who aided the nation by producing children for the Reich. Subsequently, ‘the falling birth rate was anxiously watched,’ and women were rewarded by the party for producing children as they ‘were not supposed to be working or independent.’  Rewards such as the ‘Cross of Honour of the German Mother’ were awarded to German mothers based upon the number of children they could produce: bronze for four; silver for six; and, gold for eight. Moreover, there was a separate branch of the Hitler youth titled the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), where young girls were trained to be good mothers and wives that could cook, clean and sew. 

Consequently however, there is some evidence of German women participating in the workforce and military during WWII. For example, following Operation Barbarossa in 1941, ‘German women in Female Auxiliary Units increasingly began replacing men who were sent to the Eastern front,’ and on the 17th of July 1943, Hitler ‘decided to train women for searchlight and AA positions.’ Despite these small progresses, in November 1944, Hitler officially declared that weapon training and bearing by women was forbidden, excluding those who lived in remote areas which could be overrun by the Soviets, thus not wanting them to become like the ‘gun women’ of the USSR. Fundamentally, when analysing the impact of WWII on gender relations within Germany, the position of women in relation to the workforce barely changed after the war: before the war, they made up 34 percent of the work force; after the war, they were 36 percent. Therefore, Hitler’s leadership largely prevented any radical and progressive changes in gender dynamics to occur throughout society. 

Ultimately, after investigating the experience of women in Australia, the Soviet Union and Germany, it seems that the impact of WWII on gender relations was strikingly different and specific to each warring nation. While Australia had some temporary improvements, the Soviet Union some highly radical ones and Germany some minimal and ‘even less well-enforced’ changes, the nature of these impacts upon reinforcing or dismantling gender relations played a significant role in shaping the individual experiences of nations during the Second World War. 

Image credit

Albert Tucker, Victory girls, 1943, courtesy of The National Gallery of Victoria.


Primary Sources

Figure 1. Tucker, Albert. Victory Girls. 1943. Oil painting, 64.6h x 58.7 w cm. The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Figure 2. Tucker, Albert. Image of Modern Evil: Demon Dreamer. 1943. Oil on paper on cardboard, 40.8 x 50.8 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Figure 3. “Women Wait.” Published in Frauen Warte Magazine (Issue 20) between 1937-1938. German Propaganda Archive. Accessed October 29, 2020.

“Article 122 of Constitution (Basic Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Published December 5, 1936. Site of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Accessed November 8, 2020.

“Article 132 of Constitution (Basic Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Published December 5, 1936. Site of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Accessed November 8, 2020.

Curtin, John. “The Task Ahead.” The Herald, 27 October 1941. Accessed October 25, 2020.

Menzies, Robert. “Wartime Broadcast.” Published September 3, 1939. Australian War Memorial. Accessed November 4, 2020.

Tucker, Albert. Image of Modern Evil: Demon Dreamer. 1943. Oil on paper on cardboard, 40.8 x 50.8 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Tucker, Albert. Victory Girls. 1943. Oil painting, 64.6h x 58.7 w cm. The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

“Women Wait.” Published in Frauen Warte Magazine (Issue 20) between 1937-1938. German Propaganda Archive. Accessed October 29, 2020.

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