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Societal change and „female war service“

The longer the war lasted the greater the strain on the social and political structure of the city became. The middle class envied the working class which was able to succeed with their strikes in getting higher wages and better working conditions. Social Democracy, earlier the outcast of the political system, was absolutely needed to regulate social conflicts and to bring the strikes to an end. Military officers succeeded in enforcing the militarization of many parts of the industry (esp. the munitions industry) and in extending the emergency laws. The masses had to accept that war profiteers could flaunt their new wealth in public. Small shopkeepers and big exponents of the financial industry alike experienced that breaking or bending laws resulted in court proceedings and that the newspapers pilloried them.

Caption of this photo:

Caption of this photo: „women’s war professions“ in Vienna.

The First World War disrupted wage and income structures and destroyed traditional living conditions.  Particularly affected were the recipients of fixed wages: civil servants and employees. Their wages did not keep pace with rising prices (the cost of living index in July 1914 was at 100, in November 1918 at 1,640). Many shopkeepers closed their stores due to a  lack of goods. Home owners, a large group, had to accept income losses caused by rent control measures. The traditional clientele of the Christian Social Party felt betrayed by their party leadership. It was one of the paradoxes of the war that the most patriotic groups had to bear the most significant decrease in their economic status and that in the war for survival they were forced to accept poor living conditions (war kitchen, one kitchen house, dependence on social benefits, no summer vacations in the country side) that were contrary to their professional privileges. The war functioned as a big equalizer. The distinction between the middle and the working classes vanished. The middle classes could no longer afford to employ service personnel. Many middle class families had to move into smaller apartments.

The beginning of the war confirmed traditional gender divisions. As the soldiers went to war as „heroes“, women were eager to send gift parcels (“Liebesgaben”) to the soldiers on the front. Women were assigned to work in the emergency services for wounded soldiers. The Women’s Movement mobilized the population to tackle the difficult situation at the home front. As the war industries absorbed all available personnel, more and more women started to work in male professions. The use of female service providers in farming and nursing was extended to many other sectors. The public was surprised to see newly hired tramway conductresses, waitresses, coachwomen, and female civil servants.  Thousands of women were needed in the munitions industries. The authorities discussed the introduction of a mandatory “work service” for women, analogous to mandatory “war service”, i.e., conscription for men. Shortly before the end of the war, up to 50,000 „female auxiliaries“ (weibliche Hilfskräfte im Felde) were working for the Habsburg army.

Did war contribute to women’s emancipation?

However, women were supposed to only temporarily replace men in these positions. They received less pay and their newly acquired positions at work and at home were not to extend beyond the war. However, many things did change. By the end of the war, women’s suffrage was introduced; the traditional paternalistic citizenship law was seen as a problem requiring new rules and regulation. The question to what extent the war had contributed to the emancipation of women is a matter of discussion in historiography.

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In this war workshop of a housewifes‘ association, textiles for front-line soldiers were produced.

At the beginning of war, married women received subsidy payments for themselves and their children, but these payments lost their value with inflation. The supply crisis brought women in opposition to the city administration, the government and the war. For women, the battle field was the daily experience of queuing up in front of shops and market places. They had to fight for food under extreme conditions to feed their children and relatives. Many women experienced working in the military industries under a military regime for low wages. Women of the lower classes were the instigators of hunger riots and strikes. Regarding themselves as war victims, they had caught the revolutionary fervor.  Their physical condition was poor. In addition to the general exhaustion, ten thousands of women were affected by tuberculosis. The reports of the Viennese police clearly express the mood among women. Women’s deep despair was the breeding ground for aggression and revolutionary climate. The longer the war negatively impacted living conditions the less women were ready to accept those conditions. They were no longer willing to “persevere”.

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