There is little doubt that women's work in the two World Wars of the twentieth century was an important factor in the course of both wars. This involvement changed the social status and working lives of women in many countries from that point onwards.
Women's contribution to both wars was significant; though the attitudes towards their contribution were typically paternalistic
Prior to the First World War women's role in society in western countries was generally confined to the domestic sphere (but not necessarily their own home) and to certain types of jobs: 'Women's Work'.
In Great Britain for example, just before World War I, out of an adult population of about 24 million women, some 1.7 million worked in domestic service, 0.8 million worked in the textile manufacturing industry, 0.6 million worked in the clothing trades, 0.5 million worked in commerce and 0.26 million in local and national government (including teaching). The British textile and clothing trades, in particular, employed far more women than men and could be regarded as 'women's work'.
While some women managed to receive a tertiary education and others to go into non-traditional career paths, for the most part women were expected to be primarily involved in 'home duties' and 'women's work'. Before 1914, only a few countries (New Zealand, Australia, and several Scandinavian countries) had given the right to vote to women (see Women's suffrage), and apart from these countries women were little involved in the political process.
More than any previous wars, World Wars I and II hinged as much on industrial production as they did on battlefield clashes. With millions of men away fighting and with the inevitable horrendous casualties, there was a severe shortage of labour in a range of industries, from rural and farm work to city office jobs.
During both World War I and World War II, women were called on, by necessity, to do work and to take on roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations. In Great Britain this was known as a process of Dilution and was strongly contested by the Trade Unions, particularly in the engineering and ship building trades. Women did, for the duration of both World Wars, take on jobs that were traditionally regarded as skilled 'men's' work. However, in accordance with the agreement negotiated with the Trade Unions, women undertaking jobs covered by the Dilution agreement lost their jobs at the end of the World War I.
 World War I
See also: Women in the First World War.
In World War I, for example, thousands of women worked in munitions factories, offices and large hangars used to build aircraft. Of course women were also involved in knitting socks and preparing hampers for the soldiers on the front, as well as other voluntary work, but as a matter of survival women had to work for paid employment for the sake of their families. Nursing became the one and only area of female contribution that involved being at the front and experiencing the horror of war.
Not only did they have to keep ‘the home fires burning’ but they took on voluntary and paid employment that was diverse in scope and showed that women were highly capable in diverse fields of endeavour. There is little doubt that this expanded view of the role of women in society did change the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. However the extent of this change is open to historical debate.
The role of women tended to differ in scope and importance between World War I and World War II.
Many women worked as volunteers serving at Red Cross and encouraging the sale of bonds and the planting of "victory gardens".
In part because of female participation in the war effort Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and a number of European countries extended suffrage to women in the years after the First World War.
With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, women's roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. By 1944, more than 2.3 million women were working in the war industries in the U.S., building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. In the Allied countries thousands of women enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving in the military itself, particularly in the Red Army (see below).
This necessity to use the skills and the time of women was heightened by the nature of the war itself. While World War I was mainly fought in France and was a war arguably without clear aggressor or villain, World War II was truly a global conflict where countries were invaded or under the threat of invasion from leaders in Germany (Adolf Hitler) and Japan that had ambitions of world domination. In these circumstances the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labour of women was symbolized in the United States by the figure of Rosie the Riveter.
Many women served in the resistances of France, Italy, and Poland, and in the British SOE which aided these