Women in World War I

Women and children in Tržič knit socks and jackets for soldiers. Tedenske slike, 23 September 1914, National and University Library, Ljubljana

When we think of World War I, we see the soldiers suffering on the fronts; however, the struggles of women in cities, behind the lines, or even on the fronts were no less significant.

World War I interrupted the period of modernization and democratization in the early 20th century. Although people first thought it would only last months, it turned out to be a 4-year bloodshed that irreversibly changed the lives of all genders and social classes. The women, who remained alone behind the lines and in the cities, soon felt misery, as the state (Austro-Hungarian Empire) financially and materially supported only the military, while the life of civilians was secondary. The women socially engaged as patriots – collecting aid for the soldiers on the front – and organized demonstrations for a better life.

In the absence of men, it quickly became clear that women are also capable of doing jobs they had no access to before: they took over companies and economies, became politically engaged, and did everything necessary for society to progress. They took on jobs that had been done exclusively by men and are still considered mostly male. Such an example was Austrian writer, photographer, and journalist Alice Schalek (1874–1956), also a war reporter from the Isonzo Front. Her work provoked many opponents, newspaper insults, and even lawsuits; not lastly because many men opposed her gender and job, supposedly indecent for a woman. This was one of the many double standards of war morals: her job of war reporter was publicly mocked and depicted as a problem, while the destruction of women’s lives through prostitution and the toughest, lowest paying jobs was silently supported. Among them were “Carnic carriers” who carried 40 kilos of ammunition and raw materials for the soldiers on their backs to the high mountains. As in all wars, women were mostly caregivers, doing the jobs of nurses, orderlies, attendants, cooks and teachers.

Alice Schalek’s reports also narrate life behind the front lines, e.g. in the Gorizia-based Park Hotel where she stayed. During a dinner, the hotel was hit in one of the shellfires. The hotel women workers immediately announced they are leaving their jobs as they can no longer stand living by the front. To calm down, they met in Schalek’s room and started to drink champagne. When the war reporter asked who would cook and serve instead of them when they leave, they all burst into laughter saying that they irrevocably resigned from their positions each day when there was a bombardment, but then stayed nevertheless. Schalek wrote: “They’ve been here constantly, these women. Constantly offering service. Constantly cheerful. And now they’re staying on. Once again offering service. Once again cheerful. Fully, as always for ten months.”

Many men opposed the gender and job of war reporter Alice Schalek.

Due to impossible life conditions, the war also brought on a rise in women’s criminality. Sources mention ideological and intellectual offences (Serbophilia, Russophilia, slight on the emperor, pacifism), but also other infractions (theft, fraud, counterfeit). We can even understand these survival strategies as a necessary step towards emancipation, and they are also addressed in the exhibition Women in the First World War on the web page of The Walk of Peace in the Soča Region Foundation.

The Isonzo Front not only opened a new battlefield, but cut into everyday life, as well. In Soča region and Istria, mostly elderly people and women with children were part of the European wave of refugees that forced millions to refugee camps for several years. In these conditions, numerous women began to feel victims of their governments, so the anti-war sentiment grew from year to year. Dissatisfaction also spread to factory workers and women with new professional identities, who by the end of the war more often headed strikes and demonstrations. The demand for labour rights began to be topped with the (then modest) demand for suffrage, to be won by Yugoslavian women only after the next world war.

Kobarid Museum

The Kobarid Museum showcases the heritage of the Isonzo Front (1915–1917), known as one of the toughest European battlefields of World War I. In addition to guided tours of their collections, the museum also organizes open air tours of the Isonzo Front grounds. The collections and tours are not accessible to people with limited mobility.