While giving a lecture on the end of WWI, Prof. David Stevenson mentions a disparity in female employment between the Allies and Germany. The relevant portion is here.

The British army is not short of shells, nor is the French. One of the reasons for this production miracle is that Britain and France are more successful than the Germans in incorporating very large numbers of women, probably about 2 million in the British case, in the munitions workforce. This means that more men can be left at the front, whereas the German army is releasing hundreds of thousands of men from its army in 1917 and 1918 to go serve in the munitions factories. The German army, for that reason, doesn't run out of shells in 1918, it runs out of men.

This BBC article also mentions the relocation of men from the trenches and into factories:

In the summer of 1916, Germany instituted the poorly thought-out and ineptly administered Hindenburg Programme - named after the army commander Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg - in an attempt to boost its production of weapons. Instead it drained the army of a million men, brought on a major transport crisis and intensified the shortage of coal.

It seems very odd that as the war was nearing its end, Germany's Supreme Army Command (OHL) was allowing the female labor source to be less utilized in factories than in France and Britain. There were hotly debated wage disputes going on in all three countries regarding female employment, but evidently labor unions in Allied countries were able to sort this out. I found this excerpt in Women and the First World War by Susan R. Grayzel:


That was in 1916 and I haven't found any law that superseded it. The topic of trade union disputes is reiterated in this (blog?) entry:

In contrast, Germany saw fewer women join the workplace than other countries at war. This was largely due to pressure from trade unions, who were afraid women would undercut men’s jobs. These unions were partly responsible for forcing the government to turn away from moving women into workplaces more aggressively. The Auxiliary Service for the Fatherland law, designed to shift workers from the civilian into the military industry and increase the quantity of the potential workforce employed, only focused on men aged 17 to 60.

Some members of the German High Command (and German suffrage groups) wanted women included but to no avail. This meant all-female labor had to come from volunteers who were not well encouraged, leading to a smaller proportion of women entering employment.

I have also found this article to be very informative, as it illustrates the many other factors going on with regards to labor shortages. But unless I missed something, it is still unclear how unions were able to apply so much pressure to the German government. Were there other factors involved with low female employment in factories? How is it possible that trade union opposition held so much sway over German High Command?

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    Not an answer, because this relates to WWII, but Christabel Bielenberg, a British woman married to a German doctor, and living in Germany, tried to volunteer with the Red Cross. The administrator, looking exhausted and harassed, told her to go home and look after her children! Kirche, kuchen, kinder! (Bielenberg The Past is Myself)
    – TheHonRose
    Jul 15, 2020 at 20:01
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    @TheHonRose "Please go and make more babies, so they can become soldiers." From most of the sources I looked at, the "cult of domesticity" applied formidable social pressure on potential workers.
    – user42241
    Jul 15, 2020 at 20:31
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    @rs.29 Isn't that a little harsh? The OP is citing a source, Prof. David Stevenson, a respected academic (though I'm not saying the prof is right...). Jul 16, 2020 at 0:11
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    @rs.29: The question, however, is not about munitions so researching that would be immaterial. The question is about low female employment levels with munitions being a side-topic there. Also, "academic with dubious credibility" because he works at the LSE is a bit harsh. All universities are "leftist" after all by providing education in the first place.
    – gktscrk
    Jul 16, 2020 at 7:27
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    @rs.29 Thank you for the suggestions on improving the question. I will research additional evidence to improve and clarify. But for a productive critique, best not to bring up personal politics unless you can point out how his supposed bias affects the quote. He's been studying the Great War for a very long time, so I will defer to him over an unknown person on the internet. Second, instead of "blown out of proportion" consider "placed too much importance on" or maybe "taken too literally." Finally, which production figures would help the question? Did you mean employment figures instead?
    – user42241
    Jul 19, 2020 at 14:15

2 Answers 2


Q During WWI, were union disputes the only reason for low female employment in German factories?


It's a matter of perspectives. And it seems as if the articles prompting the question give a not entirely accurate impression. It mischaracterises one law and both its intended and actual effects. From 1916 on there was a law that specified a form of 'coerced labour' for all men. This was initially to encompass women as well. The remnants of the civilian government itself, and numerous other factions, didn't want to comply to these demands from the military. And this law was surely not the only reason why there was a a relatively low amount of "female employment."

What is true is that female workforce mobilisation for the war effort was indeed overall 'low', and also 'lower' than in other countries.

But that still does not mean that women were excluded from the sphere of work, and it also doesn't mean that they were not mobilised at all. Women's work did increase during the war, in some sectors even quite spectacularly.

So, the assertion in question does not equate to 'trade unions in Germany sabotaged the war effort significantly'.

The main surprising thing is that in Germany the need for mobilising women into the workforce was as high if not higher than in other countries. But still there were significant forces at play 'that didn't want that.' When it came to dispute, it looks as if those forces 'won' the argument.

That one factor in question diminishing the increase relative in comparison to allied counries was the influence of trade unions. But their effect looks quite overstated in the linked articles. In all, such directing effects from atop were mostly in vein for all interested parties. It might be seen as strange that trade unions were usually seen in such historical analyses as more progressive, and hence the partially unfounded expectation would be that they unilaterally and without asking question would support 'Women's labour'? But in reality those unions were much more conservative than a common narrative implies.

The actual developments of women's employment are For example, the number of female factory workers as registered in establishments with more than 10 workers increased by 68%:

1913 = 1 592 138
1918 = 2 319 674

And this is just an unreliable statistical artifact as anything smaller was generally not counted at all, and those numbers were just voluntarily given to the offices that surveyed them.

But the distortion in raw numbers is especially notable in those sectors which were deemed as 'kriegswichtig' (important for the war effort). For those we see:

Various surveys by public authorities, trade unions, etc. have established the level of employment in individual sectors. The results cannot be generalized. Since the surveys only recorded the employment rates of those enterprises which, due to their size or sectoral affiliation, were considered to be in the so-called "war industry" - where the increase in female employment was disproportionately high - they also overstated the extent of women's wage labour. However, their significance for the narrower area of the war industry is often considerable.

Relatively speaking, the largest number of employees was recorded in the reports of the local, guild and company health insurance funds on the employees compulsorily insured with them.

As a measure of the development of the number of employees during the war, this material shows several problems. In contrast to the occupation censuses, they completely ignore the "helpers" in agriculture, industry and trade.

Women, even if working for the 'war industry' were just not counted, if they did work 'from home', as their compulsory insurance was simply lifted in 1914, making them disappear from those statistics. And despite these limitations, those health insurance data are the most reliable indicator anyway.

To get comparable numbers via an arbitrary cut-off of only those counted, and only from those insurance companies that existed in 1914 and in 1918 (there was a lot of flux) and remembering that many women were no longer forced to insure, then still the absolute minimum of 'health insured by work' women rose to 117% of 1914 levels.

This was also highly variable by geography. In East Frisian Aurich woman labour rose by 100%, in Rhineland Aachen it fell by 9%. But most regions saw a growth in double digits. In Prussia overall by 22%, in staunchly conservative Bavaria it rose by 11%, in comfy but industrial center Saxony it fell by 11% (much work from home?) and in the entire Reich the number of insured woman workers rose by 17% on average.

All in all, this increase shows indeed a quite low increase? It does,

  • because many working women were not counted as such
  • Germany made quite a bit of use of prisoners of war in industry and agriculture
  • rationalisation and increased workload for existing employees was high
  • quite drastic shifts in labour organisation

A calculation based on estimates shows this general development of woman's labour in Bavaria, of 100 women the percentage in wage labour:

             1882   1895   1907   1916   
             35,4   32,3   42,0   34,2
in industry: 10,7   16,4   15,2   20,9

This looks like an organic development, almost no influence of the war?

Well. In those sector's of industry that were central parts of the 'war effort', things looked very different:

In metal working or electrical, chemical industry we see for three army corps in Bavaria increases by 83%, 319% and an increase by 782% for the thrid district!

In the Potsdam district we see this development:

workers/ female workers in the district of Potsdam with 50 or more employees 1914–1918:

                  total      of those: 
                  workers    female workers
1. Juli  1914     116098     34845
1. April 1915     113930     52363
1. April 1916     110534     78322
1. April 1917     131728    102343
1. April 1918     113585    103844

— Jahresberichte der Gewerbeaufsichtsbeamten und Bergbehörden für die Jahre 1914-1918. Amtliche Ausgabe. Berlin 1919/1920, Bd. 1, S. 76f.

Or in other words: in this district we see that females made up 30% of the total workforce in 1914 and their share rose to 91% by 1918.

And the question that prompted this answer is still not entirely based on a false premises:

In February 1918 the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior stated that the migration of agricultural workers to the war industry had not can be prevented.

It is not only in this case that labour market policies proved incapable, to control the development of women's wage labour during the war. Despite elaborate organisational and propagandistic efforts by governments and administrations to reduce the chronic shortage of labour in the war industry by mobilising female workers, the increase in female wage labour during the war lagged far behind expectations.

To explain this, it is necessary to go a little further. What needs to be examined, as will be done in the following, is the development of the labour market and labour market policy in the years 1914-1918, as well as those patterns of action and perception whose effects on war-related female labour can be identified.
— Ute Daniel: "Arbeiterfrauen in der Kriegsgesellschaft", Kritische Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft Vol 84, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen, 1989. (gBooks, PDF) All data above quoted from this source.

The most significant developments to analyse here are the establishment of the war office, the third OHL's Hindenburg programme, and the 'Auxiliary Services Act' ("Gesetz über den vaterländischen Hilfsdienst").

It is only this later law that is really meant with the assertions in question. The effect towards total war and the military dictatorship of the third OHL – in cooperating partnership with the civilian auhtorities and the unions – was indeed restricted to "all men are required". But that is not the same as "we don't need any women here".

On the contrary, we see the OHL instructing the war office to establish the Women's Employment Centre:

The women's work centre was part of the war office founded in 1916. It was responsible for the problems of procuring and placing female labour and was supported by the "National Committee for Women's Work in War", whose management was also in the hands of the head of the Women's Labour Centre. Elisabeth Lüders was the first woman to take on this task.

Conclusion: Was Women’s Mobilisation a Success?↑

The question of whether women’s mobilisation was a success must be answered on two different levels: in terms of its benefit to the organised women’s movements in Germany and in broader military and societal terms. In early November 1918 the BDF called on German women to "put all their energies into defending [the fatherland] to the last", an appeal which fell on deaf ears. A few days later the revolution led to the acceptance of the Allied armistice terms. In the meantime, the BDF had also failed to convince the Imperial government to grant women’s suffrage; the Kaiser’s "Easter message" of 1917 had merely promised a reform of the three-class franchise in Prussia to give men a more equal voice in elections in the largest of the German states, while both the Reichstag and the Prussian Landtag rejected petitions in favour of votes for women.

The Social Democratic women’s movement had done slightly better out of the war, at least in the sense that the November 1918 revolution brought the SPD to power and also led to the granting of female suffrage by the new Council of People’s Commissars (Rat der Volksbeauftragten). Nonetheless, the SPD itself had been deeply divided by the party executive’s support for wartime mobilisation measures, with many socialist women as well as men switching allegiance to the USPD (and eventually to the Communists after 1918), and others leaving the party altogether. At the 1919 women’s party conference, National Assembly member Marie Juchacz (1879-1956) noted with regret that "the party split has deprived us of many of our forces." Worse still, in the winter of 1918/19 the Council of People’s Commissars implemented the demobilisation decrees which threw large numbers of women out of work to create positions for returning war veterans, a process in which both social democratic parties, the SPD and the USPD, were implicated. While members of the organised women’s movement regarded this as an outrage, for many ordinary working-class women it was seen "not...as a defeat but as a victory" because it meant "the restoration of workers" families and thus the basis of their and their children’s survival’. In this sense it is hard not to agree with Benjamin Ziemann that, when it came to attitudes towards family, waged employment and male-female relations more generally, the war had "utterly conservative consequences."

Finally, in terms of contributing to a German military victory, women’s mobilisation was also, quite obviously, unsuccessful. Could things have been any different? Leaving aside the pitfalls of hindsight, it may be instructive here to compare the First World War experience with that of the Second World War. Recent research on the latter conflict has highlighted the existence of a much greater degree of female self-mobilisation on the home front, particularly in the sphere of voluntary work. This was combined with the availability of more numerous and attractive opportunities for women to serve the war effort beyond Germany’s own borders, for instance as Wehrmacht auxiliaries, SS guards and wives, and social workers involved in resettling ethnic German families in occupied territories in the east. Some scholars have even talked of a "militarised comradeship between the genders" a phenomenon which was simply unimaginable during the First World War. Of course, all of this took place in a context in which the Nazis were pursuing not just a military war, but a "race war" involving the killing, on a genocidal and at times industrial scale, of millions of innocent civilians and POWs. This "race war", in turn, required a form of national mobilisation which was less obviously encumbered by a desire to defend the existing gender order.
— Matthew Stibbe: "Women's Mobilisation for War (Germany)", 1914–1918 online, International Encyclopedia of the First World War, 2014.

The main problem with the misleading characterisation of 'unions blocking women's labour' is therefore found in how the Hilsdienstgesetz and surrounding events played out. It wasn't this law that drained the front of men, but the economic necessities at home. The coal miners needed simply weren't going to replaced with women, and the 'million men' alluded to were designated as 'irreplaceable' at wherever they worked or by whomever, sex or gender irrelevant.

Only a few of the 1.7 million skilled workers released from military service in autumn 1916 could be replaced by semi-skilled workers from other industrial enterprises or by women and young people. When the hasty implementation of the Hindenburg programme in the "coal beet winter" of 1916/17 also unexpectedly caused a considerable shortage of coal, leading to serious transport problems, the OHL was forced to send some 40,000 miners home from the front to help with the urgently needed increase in coal production. Despite the mobilisation of all available workers by the auxiliary service law, more than one million men were still working in the economy in 1918 as "indispensable". More important than the immediate rather small economic benefit of the Law on Emergency Services was the recognition of the economic and socio-political role of the trade unions as representatives of the employees' interests. — Burkhard Asmuss: "Das Hilfspflichtgesetz", DHM: Berlin, 14. September 2014.

This system favoured large, heavy industrial enterprises and corporations to a considerable extent, while smaller, non-war-related enterprises were disadvantaged and often closed down altogether. The primacy of the war industry was once again strongly reinforced by the "Hindenburg Programme for the Production of Army Supplies", which was set up at the instigation of the 3rd Supreme Army Command (OHL) in autumn 1916. The programme, which aimed at the total mobilisation of the economy and society for the military enforcement of a comprehensive peace of victory, once again led to a significant increase in the production of weapons and ammunition. At the same time, however, it exacerbated the internal problems, antagonisms and conflicts in German wartime society, which had previously become increasingly evident.

A serious shortage of labour was now becoming apparent here, which could only be partially offset by redeployment from the peace industries. State and industry tried to solve this problem in various ways: Firstly, by the release of highly qualified industrial workers from military service, which, however, met narrow limits in view of the growing demand for soldiers; secondly, by the use of prisoners of war, a practice which, however, was contrary to international law in the field of war production and could often only be enforced by force; thirdly, by the use of foreign labour, whereby rigid coercive measures were also applied, especially against civilians from Poland and Belgium, which were particularly necessary in the case of the forced deportation of a good sixty years old. Fourthly, by attempts to increase female labour, which were only moderately successful, especially among women workers with children; finally, by restricting freedom of movement and other coercive measures against German workers.

This form of organisation, which increased the influence of the trade unions, but also made them an integral part of the war economy organisation, was soon widely adopted and generally introduced at the end of 1916 in the "Law on Patriotic Auxiliary Service". The law, however, mainly required all men between 16 and 60 to work, and was inspired by the 3rd OHL under Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, which wanted to impose a general obligation to work on men and women. "Who does not work, should not eat" was the motto under which Hindenburg demanded a general compulsory labour law from the government. However, the government refused to subject women to a general obligation to work for reasons of population and gender policy. And in the Reichstag, the so-called trade union majority from the SPD and the Centre was able to push through exceptions for men as well, according to which the company ties were broken by the principle that improvements in income should justify a change of job. But the wages in the war industry, which continued to rise in this way, were soon no longer able to stop the impoverishment of the workforce caused by the war. Not only inflation, fuelled by the financing of the war by the money press, but also the absolute lack of food and consumer goods contributed to this.
— Wolfgang Kruse. "Kriegswirtschaft und Kriegsgesellschaft", bpb, 6.5.2013

Actual historical sources for the parliamentary exchange of arguments about this would be conveniently compiled here, at Reichstagsprotokolle Hilfsdienst, vaterländischer: Kriegsamt

Further reading:

  • Lisa Bindemann: "Frauen an der deutschen Heimatfront", regionalgeschichte.net, 11.03.2015
  • Birthe Kundrus: "Kriegerfrauen. Familienpolitik und Geschlechterverhältnisse im Ersten und Zweiten Weltkrieg", Hamburger Beiträge zur Sozial- und Zeitgeschichte Herausgegeben von der Forschungsstelle für die Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus in Hamburg, Vol 32, Christians: Hamburg, 1995. (PDF)
  • Edmund Fischer M. D. R.: "Frauenarbeit und Familie", Springer-Verlag: Berlin, Heidelberg, 1914.

Germany was much less "liberated" with regard to women than other Western countries such as Britain and France.

The German attitude toward women was well summarized in the phrase "Kinder, Küche und Kirche,". (Translated, this means 'Children, kitchen, and church', as the proper spheres for a woman's activities.) Other countries held similar views, but not nearly as strongly.

For instance, in France, women started attending university around 1860, in Germany, it was after the 1900s. It was around 1870 for women in Britain.

Attitudes toward women in higher education also affected German attitudes toward women in factory work. In fact, it was not until well into World War TWO that it was acceptable for women to work in German factories. By that time, most of the "manpower" had been drained for the "front," and like that of the U.S. Confederacy, maintaining the German economy was dependent on women and slave labor.

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    This would benefit quite a bit by illustrating the difference with hard numbers on the ratios in comparison. Because this is not as 'big' as the sweeping assertions might imply… Please try to locate a copy I already gave in comments below Q or a work that builds upon by quoting "The war from within". Jul 22, 2020 at 15:45

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