Monday, March 27, 2017

Women's History Month 2017: World War I's Surplus Women

Women and men in uniform, circa 1917. Center for Jewish History.

I've mentioned in previous posts that by the time the US entered World War I, its allies had been fighting for three years. That three years had taken a toll. Obviously, the number of causalities were much greater for those countries and would affect those left behind in the years after the war.

We see this affect with the British loss of  an estimated 886,000 lives.* When a country has such a great loss and a great number injured, what happens? That loss affects life after the war including a gap in the availability of eligible men to marry. This gap can be seen in newspaper ads of the time for women looking for husbands and in the 1921 census which shows the gap in the number of unmarried men and women. Arguments over just how many 'surplus women' in the end don't matter as author Virginia Nicholson writes,

Whatever the case, it is beyond doubt that the war has a seismic effect on marital behaviours, that all contemporary accounts take the man shortage for granted, and that many women themselves perceived the courtship arena as a competitive background, where defeat was perdition. The press played its usual mischievous part in this, by whipping up a frenzy over the 1921 Census figures, which revealed that there were 1,720,802 more females than males in the population...Hysterical headlines about the "Problem of the Surplus Women - Two Million who can never Become Wives...' were hardly conducive to morale among the husband-hunters of the day. In the event it appears that more than a million women of that generation were never to marry or bear children.**

Women who wanted a husband and family may have had to give up on that dream. Some may have found themselves competing over a small number of single men in their village. Others may have become reluctant mistresses to men who had their pick of women. Other options included emigration or life-long spinsterhood.

Additional Resources:

The National Archives (UK) - Deaths in the First and Second World War

World War 1 Centenary - ‘Surplus Women’: a legacy of World War One?

Daily - Condemned to be virgins: The two million women robbed by the war

Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. Bath: Windsor/Paragon, 2008.

*The National Archives (UK) - Deaths in the First and Second World War. I've seen this number as low as 700,00 and as high as 1 million.

**Nicholson, Virginia. Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War. Bath: Windsor/Paragon, 2008. Page xiii.

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