World War I

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How did World War I affect the situation of labor, women, and minorities between 1914 and 1920?

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Labor was dramatically affected by World War I . As the warring nations accelerated industrial production to meet the demands of the war, they employed many more workers. These workers, strengthened by the urgent demand for the things they produced, joined labor unions. Unions coordinated in an effort to improve...

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Labor was dramatically affected by World War I. As the warring nations accelerated industrial production to meet the demands of the war, they employed many more workers. These workers, strengthened by the urgent demand for the things they produced, joined labor unions. Unions coordinated in an effort to improve their pay, hours, and working conditions. During the war itself, government, which had a large hand in the increased wartime production, typically sought to avoid labor conflict by meeting at least some union demands. In the United States, the War Labor Administration mediated disputes between management and labor in order to avoid conflicts that would have threatened the production of war materials. This represented a significant gain on the part of labor. In other countries like Germany, labor had an even stronger hand. Companies turned to female workers in particular to fill the depleted ranks of factory workers. At the end of the war when prices fell, there was a significant backlash against the labor movement.It suddenly became associated with radicalism. Labor leaders, especially left-leaning ones, became targets of repressive measures in the aftermath of the war in the United States.

Women played an expanding role in the World War I economy as well. They filled industrial jobs previously only held by men, though rarely with the expectation that these jobs would remain in women's hands after the war. This proved a catalyst for the women's suffrage movements in the United States and Great Britain. In both countries women leveraged their newfound power to get the right to vote; despite much resistance, women in both countries gained voting rights in the wake of the war.

In the United States in particular, suffragists frequently turned wartime rhetoric of the "war to make the world safe for democracy" against its leaders. They pointed out that the nation could scarcely assert democracy abroad while denying it to half its population at home. In the wake of the war, a "new woman" emerged in American culture, one whom was assertive and worldly. The concept of the "flapper" of the Twenties, while hardly representing a majority of American women, had its roots in wartime American society.

Minorities made similar claims on American democracy, though they had less success in asserting their rights directly in the wake of the war. The wartime era represented the height of one of the largest demographic changes in American history: the "Great Migration" that saw hundreds of thousands of African American men and women move to Northern cities, away from the Jim Crow South. They sought economic opportunities beyond what they could find in their old homes. In many cases they were confronted with racism in Northern cities that resembled that which they hoped to leave behind in the South. Violent anti-black riots broke out in many Northern cities, especially in the immediate aftermath of the war. Protests were partially because of a decline in wartime jobs, pitting white people against African Americans in shrinking job markets.

Many African American soldiers served with distinction in segregated units in World War I, a fact that mobilized many black men and women to protest their oppression at home. Some black leaders, like W.E.B. DuBois, supported the war, as they saw it as an opportunity to assert their equality. They were bitterly disappointed in its aftermath. Lynchings and overt discrimination remained a reality. The war and these other disappointments led to the growth of the NAACP and other civil rights groups.

For many other minorities, especially people of Eastern European origin, the war promoted assimilation. The American military was full of first- and second-generation immigrants, and these people served alongside each other and along European Americans who had been on the continent longer. Many more recent immigrants gained citizenship through their military service. At the same time, the war led to persecution and discrimination against immigrants. Their loyalties were viewed with suspicion at home.

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