These days, it's common to see women holding positions of responsibility and for women to be extensively present in the workplace. At a time when female and male roles were excessively well-defined, one might think that the war might have broken down this division. If this was the case in France, England and the Netherlands, the occupations of women in Belgium during the First World War were completely different from the women in the other belligerent nations. Belgian territory is in the hands of the German forces, and only a small proportion of men of military age, i.e. 20%, is at the front. Most men of military age are therefore still present within Belgian territory, but unemployed because the economy is at a standstill.
The occupations of women in 14-18 do not involve so much replacement as they do survival: survival of the household and survival of patriotic sentiments. The usual occupations assigned to women continue: minding the house, looking after the children with the additional aggravation of increasing difficulty finding any food, clothing and heating materials. But the wartime period will also bring specific activities, one-off or on a regular basis, in which women will illustrate themselves. In fact, these activities can be cumulative: involvement in charitable works and resistance.
Putting the pot on to boil!
The vast majority of women look after the household if they're married, or help their mothers if single. Domestic tasks are their responsibility, and only a minority is involved in service work (servants, midwives, teachers…). Just because women aren't present in factories, it doesn't mean that they're inactive. The shortages of food and basic foodstuffs mean that there is always a great deal to do. A good part of their time goes into the procedures for obtaining material assistance from the various sections of the CNSA. Out in the country, they look after the animals and fields. They keep the farm on track, but these were generally things that countrywomen did beforehand, anyway.This thankless role of housekeeper, that will fall into the shadows after the war, is also useful to Allied propaganda:
“They struggle against solitude, they struggle to provide their children with bread, admirable and courageous, they work alone and wear themselves out to avoid even greater misery: nothing can hinder their wonderful energy”, writes "Le Courrier des armées" in 1917, in order to encourage soldiers, call on them to be courageous, and reassure them of their motivations that remain intact in the occupied zone.In actual fact, misery is a reality, especially in the big cities, where charitable aid is but a drop of water in the ocean of an occupied country.
A few female resistance members were glorified after the war, but hundreds of anonymous members who performed actions every bit as courageous have been generally forgotten
The resistance: for the country and for the family!
Resistance activities are not economic actions in the strictest sense, but it's important to mention them since women played an important role in them.
In Belgium, resistance to the occupier during the First World War is unarmed. It's a key element for understanding the involvement of women, who came from the networks within a certain enlightened milieu.
This involvement in resistance networks can come in different forms according to the social milieu and network in which these women are involved: transmission of mail, accommodation and exfiltration of soldiers to the Netherlands, counting of German trains, espionage of all types and recruiting of new contacts. It can sometimes be a supplement to the patriotic activities of the men in the household, sometimes after their arrest, or totally the opposite depending on what their material level will allow. We therefore find that the resistance involves a good number of women from fairly high social circles, educated and with no great material needs, who find that these activities are a way of showing their attachment to Belgium.
“This life is nothing. “..” Being small, being despised, being betrayed, it's all nothing. Only one thing matters, and that is to guard our hearts against cowardice and injustice.”
These were the words of Marie de Loyola in 1918, imprisoned at the Siegburg camp after her conviction for complicity in espionage in December 1916. This phrase is a good reflection of the state of mine of Belgian women involved in resistance to the German occupier.
These women, indeed just like their masculine counterparts, run great risks. Imprisonment or execution was the fate of anyone arrested by the Germans. Eleven such women went to their deaths, including the famous English nurse Edith Cavell. Hundreds of others were imprisoned, with their death sentences commuted to forced labour. In captivity, bonds are created between the prisoners: in the Siegburg camp, Marie Cref uses a notebook to gather the thoughts of her co-prisoners. They all mention the sense of a duty to be fulfilled, of the sacrifice not only for the country, but also for justice and honesty. A few female resistance members were glorified after the war, but hundreds of anonymous members who performed actions every bit as courageous have been generally forgotten.
During the war, the situation of Belgian women abroad will be relatively different from that of their sisters in occupied Belgium.
Women from the higher social circles devote themselves to charitable works in the field. Of course, this is always recognised as a respectable activity: meetings, sales of cards or small objects for the benefit of various charities. Generally tolerated by the occupier, these activities will not always be favourably looked upon. The German authorities suspect, sometimes incorrectly, sometimes justifiably, espionage and resistance activities. The fact that these charitable organisations are used to convey a message of hope and patriotism is sometimes enough to annoy the occupier. These women are also involved in educational activities. Young girls are encouraged to learn about caring for young children, or to learn a manual trade that is the typical purview of women: sewing, or even shorthand typing.
Amongst the existing charities, one will strive to help the most destitute women by providing them with work, i.e. the Oeuvre des dentellières (Lacemakers' Charity).
To provide destitute women with work, the UPFB (Patriotic Union of Belgian Women) will open lace manufacturing workshops at various places throughout the country. But very soon, the CNSA provides support and, in March 1915, opens a section called "Aid and protection for lacemakers" that will cooperate with the UPFB in its two aims: supporting the production of national know-how that is already known around the world, and providing work for women who, without it, would depend on charity. Some of the workshops are created from scratch, whereas in others, lacemakers involved in this activity long before the war will be hired.
This section acts as intermediary between the foreign sponsors and the manufacturing workshops. The raw materials come from abroad, and the workers create various products (doilies, veils, handkerchiefs…). Everything is recorded and checked. The finished products return to the central head office for verification and shipment. The sponsor then pays the committee, which distributes to the workshops. It's a genuine small business, but does not run without difficulties: organisational problems occur between the sub-sections and the general management, while the shortage of thread often forces the workshops to stop completely for months on end. There is also the occasional theft, and the general section requires the workshop managers to completely search their workers at the end of the day. But this organisation also develops a certain social sense: if a worker is categorized as a "good employee", the Lady patrons may make a gesture towards people who are ill. On one occasion, a certain Miss Van Dievoet receives half of her wages in order to compensate for an absence related to health problems. Despite these setbacks, increasingly large and profitable orders continue to come in. This organisation will therefore have provided jobs for the women from a popular milieu, and provided foreign countries with something that supports the Belgian charitable economy.
As of the country's invasion, young Belgian girls from good families sign up to go to the front in order to treat soldiers, but the function of a nurse remains a very special occupation, not at all professionally organised throughout the country, unlike the already good organisation of their British counterparts. Nevertheless, nurses provide a strong symbol for Allied propaganda, with much use being made of the image of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium in her nurse's outfit at La Panne.
Belgian women abroad
During the war, the situation of Belgian women abroad will be relatively different from that of their sisters in occupied Belgium. In addition to domestic tasks and educating the children, sometimes complicated by cultural and linguistic barriers, women make their way into the foreign industrial landscape, particularly munitions factories, as a replacement for men who have gone off to fight, but they are quite logically much fewer than French or British women.
If they don't work, they take part in the various support committees, in charge of gathering funds that will be used to support Belgian families. The most well-heeled will organise conferences, primarily in France, England and the United States, in order to make the Allies aware of the Belgian cause and, more specifically, of the issue of the child victims of the war.
Unlike in France where hundreds of thousands of women replace their men within industry, commerce or agriculture, Belgium did not experience this temporary metamorphosis. It cannot be said that the war truly contributed to the emancipation of Belgian women.
Unlike in France where hundreds of thousands of women replace their men within industry, commerce or agriculture, Belgium did not experience this temporary metamorphosis. It cannot be said that the war truly contributed to the emancipation of Belgian women. After the war, women continued with their role and, despite progress with regard to their access to education, a downward trend is seen in the professional activity of women, primarily due to the post-war social and economic consequences, and to the policies encouraging the birth rate.