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How the devastating 1918 flu pandemic helped advance US women’s rights

By Christine Crudo Blackburn, Gerald W. Parker, and Morten Wendelbo
via theconversation.com web site

When disaster strikes, it can change the fabric of a society – often through the sheer loss of human life. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami left 35,000 children without one or both parents in Indonesia alone. The Black Death killed more than 75 million people worldwide and more than a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351.

StretchersMore women than men were left standing after the war and pandemic. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)While disasters are by definition devastating, sometimes they can lead to changes that are a small silver lining. The 2004 tsunami ended a civil conflict in Indonesia that had left 15,000 dead. The 14th century’s plague, probably the most deadly disaster in human history, set free many serfs in Europe, forced wages for laborers to rise, and caused a fundamental shift in the economy along with an increased standard of living for survivors.

One hundred years ago, a powerful strain of the flu swept the globe, infecting one third of the world’s population. The aftermath of this disaster, too, led to unexpected social changes, opening up new opportunities for women and in the process irreversibly transforming life in the United States.

The virus disproportionately affected young men, which in combination with World War I, created a shortage of labor. This gap enabled women to play a new and indispensible role in the workforce during the crucial period just before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women suffrage in the United States two years later.

Why did the flu affect men more than women?

Known as the Spanish flu, the 1918 “great influenza” left more than 50 million people dead, including around 670,000 in the United States.

To put that in perspective, World War I, which concluded just as the flu was at its worst in November 1918, killed around 17 million people – a mere third of the fatalities caused by the flu. More American soldiers died from the flu than were killed in battle, and many of the deaths attributed to World War I were caused by a combination of the war and the flu.

The war provided near perfect conditions for the spread of flu virus via the respiratory droplets exhaled by infected individuals. Military personnel – predominantly young males – spent months at a time in close quarters with thousands of other troops. This proximity, combined with the stress of war and the malnutrition that sometimes accompanied it, created weakened immune systems in soldiers and allowed the virus spread like wildfire.

Read the entire article on the theconversation.com web site.

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