My interest in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (which I adore) and Downton Abbey (which I haven’t adored since season 1 but kept watching anyway) has led me to read up a bit about the change in women’s status in the 1920s. One refrain is repeated over and over: World War I created a sea change in the status of women, the ripples of which affected everything from politics to industry to fashion, with one of the most important results being the right to vote.
But it wasn’t until the other day, when my husband was telling me about a Nova he watched about secret tunnel warfare in WWI, which mentioned some shocking casualty statistics, that the whole thing really came together in my mind. I started looking up the numbers. I always knew that WWI was insanely bloody, but – holy shit. Between both sides, more than 65 million men were mobilized; of them, 8.5 million were killed, more than 21 million were wounded, 7.75 million were taken prisoner or went missing, for a total of about 37.5 million casualties, or 57.5% of the total force. It’s safe to assume that these casualties were almost entirely male.
And then, for good measure, 30 years later WE DID IT AGAIN. In World War II, there were 25 million or so military deaths, 70 to 85 million deaths total. Estimates vary a lot, and I won’t bother trying to look up numbers of wounded or any demographic breakdowns – obviously, a significant proportion of those deaths were women and non-Westerners – but the point is, between the two world wars, the male population of the Western world was decimated.
In other words, in order for the status of Western women to improve, it took a cataclysm that killed or maimed an incredible percentage of men – in some cases, like Germany, half or more. In a sense, WWI and WWII are like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs: an event so deadly that a new ecological niche opened up, allowing other species to rise up and fill it. (It’s not a coincidence that in Switzerland, which remained neutral through both world wars, women didn’t get the vote until 1971! Did you know that?)
All of this makes me ask two questions. First, why is it that the status of women in the world defaults to “super sucky” unless we start wiping out men? And second, can human beings bring about a more just world without all the killing? Please?