The status of women at the start of the 20th century was that of a person considered to be a minor until her marriage, at which point the authority passed directly from father to husband. Some years before, things had started to change: the demands of the British suffragettes begin to make their mark in Belgium and, in 1910, women are allowed to open and manage, on their own, a savings account provided that this account does not contain more than 3000 francs per year… From our vantage point of 2014, this seems incredible, and yet it was a genuine small revolution.
The start of the war will put the brakes on this rapidly changing world. When war breaks out, of course, a minority of women see their father and/or husband leave for the front. They don't know yet that, from amongst these men, some will not return from the hell of the trenches. Thousands of women, along with their children and sometimes their parents, will also head off on the road to exile in France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, while the vast majority of them spend the four years of the war still in Belgium.
These women remaining in the country must learn to live in the occupied zone: tending the house, raising and protecting the children. Just like before the war, this is their priority during the four years of occupation.. They have no time for the feminist demands of enlightened women. Starting in 1914, feminists Jane Brigode and Louise Van Den Plas put aside their campaign for the rights of women and create the Union Patriotique des Femmes Belges (Patriotic Union of Belgian Women) that will look after various charity and support actions.
The propaganda intended for the rest of the world will make great use of the image of women as heroines facing the occupier, martyrs sacrificing their husbands for the nation or sacrificing themselves at the time of the invasion of the territory, the courageous mother bravely raising her children despite moral and material difficulties, all of this will often be the face of Belgian women. Women are therefore seen as daughters, mothers and wives, but rarely in and of themselves.
Given their status, women also have a particular position relative to the occupier. Quite logically, the activity of women during the war depends on their social class. The well-off devote themselves to the various charitable works created during the conflict. Some will courageously participate in resistance actions, including some that are still unknown to this day, resulting in certain women being imprisoned or shot. Other women, primarily residing abroad since the women in Belgium are unable to freely communicate with the unoccupied zone, provide moral support and welcome comfort to the soldiers via a penfriend system. In the occupied zone, the hardships related to the lack of food and the cost of living have an impact on women. Amongst other things, this suffering will have a consequence on the number of births within the country. Even more than elsewhere, the status assigned to women in Belgium is one of courage: supporting the homeland, encouraging the troops, despite being locked down; only a small elite will be able to get involved, often under surveillance, in charitable activities or in resistance to the German occupier.
After the war, after the initial euphoria of peace, the time comes for the soldiers to return home. This does not always go as well as planned. War widows, the mothers of deceased soldiers if they are widows and war heroines will obtain the right to vote in 1919, but only as a proxy for their lost loved one. Women will have to wait until the communal elections of 1921 to express their suffrage and to be elected, but on the national level, the expectations of women relative to the rights that they had anticipated in exchange for so much suffering, lead only to disappointment.
While they may not have systematically worked in plants like in France or England, the women who remained in Belgium nevertheless carried a heavy burden and made a significant contribution to the war. Often unknown or overshadowed by the idyllic image of a few widely known heroines, the lives of women are nevertheless an extremely interesting field of study for this period. This is also true of related subjects such as fashion, as a textile reflection of the times.
Courageous mothers or resistance members, lace makers or patronesses… who were these women? What were their roles? Learn more about the First World War from the viewpoint of women!