Women and the First World War

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The position of women underwent huge change between 1914 and 1918. Jan Nielsen looks at the unintended impact of a war that, for the first time, affected every aspect of economic and social life.

During the centenary celebrations historians and commentators have made much of the effect the First World War had on the lives of women. However, most of the coverage has focused on the impact on the lives of middle class women. The recent release of the film version of Testament of Youth illustrates this clearly. Vera Brittain represents the women who volunteered in their thousands to contribute to the war effort. These young middle class women, who had to be chaperoned on every social outing before the war, now found themselves on their own just a few miles from the carnage at the front.

The change in circumstances was immense. These women had never worked in their lives. In her memoir Brittain vividly explains that like the other volunteers she had never drawn a fire, boiled an egg or made a bed. Now she was expected to contribute to keeping a vast war machine functioning. Middle class sexual etiquette had meant that most of these women would probably never have seen a naked man and now they were required to nurse and minister to men’s basic functions in the most horrific conditions. The atrocities and carnage these women witnessed had a lasting effect on their lives and attitudes. Brittain herself became a life-long pacifist and anti-war campaigner.

The experience of working class women in the war has received much less attention. Working class women have always worked, despite the ideal of the traditional family, but their work was poorly paid, gender-segregated and frequently casual and part-time. Before 1914 arduous domestic service employed the largest number of women — around one and a half million. They were, however, often required to leave when they married or became pregnant.

War brought profound change. Full employment for women became the norm. The numbers in paid work rose by 555 percent to 7.5 million. This had an enormous impact not just on the economic but the social and political status of women. By 1917 women had replaced one in three men in the workforce; the biggest growth was in the munitions industry where almost a million women now worked. The Woolwich Arsenal at the outbreak of the war employed 14,000 men and no women but by 1918 there were 100,000 employees of whom half were women. These were a new sort of workplace, the first stage in the automated and mechanised warfare that characterised the war. Women were doing hard, dangerous, manual work that had previously been done by men — and doing it under military-style regimes.

The women were referred to by a number, not a name. They worked in noisy, dirty conditions, often standing for 12-hour shifts. The chemicals that they worked with were poisonous, causing yellowing of hair and skin, which gave rise to the nickname “Canaries”. There were countless accidents and explosions that were never officially recorded and the works were regularly targeted by Zeppelin bombs. We know that at least 400 women died during the course of this work, but many historians suspect that the real figure was much higher.

There was a welter of propaganda which reflected women’s new-found importance in the arms production process. They were popularly referred to as “Tommy’s little sister”, with posters reminding everyone that “on her, their lives depend”. These women were central to the war effort and their increased social status reflected this. However, this also meant a huge amount of pressure was placed on such women. The Munitions Act of 1915 contained three important clauses that tried to regiment the newly-employed women workers. In an attempt to reinforce the already strict rules, the act introduced tribunals where fines were imposed for lateness, absenteeism and “skiving at work” (defined as anything from smoking to toilet breaks or talking).

Leaving certificates were imposed to prevent women walking out and seeking employment elsewhere. Anyone applying for work or benefits had to produce a leaving certificate and any employer hiring someone without one would be fined. The act also imposed “welfare supervisors” — female community police officers. Their job was to enforce sobriety and moral standards on women. They could be found skulking in parks, outside pubs and in alleyways. They were hated and despised, ridiculed and resisted by women workers.

Resistance to such draconian conditions was widespread and many women joined trade unions for the first time. During the war union membership increased by 45 percent overall; for women it was 160 percent. Many of these women bore sole responsibility for the home and family life. After 12 hours at work they would board crowded transport to make the journey home, stopping off to join the ration queues, to return to homes without running water or heating and devoid of labour-saving devices. The poor standard of housing and high rents levied by landlords exploiting the shortage created another major issue for working class women.

Before 1914 house building in Britain had been stagnant and during the war an immediate shortage of labour and materials meant that virtually no houses were built or repaired. Cities like London, Birmingham and Glasgow saw an influx of workers into munitions and war production work, which resulted in overcrowding and rent rises. At the beginning of the war landlords sought to take advantage of this situation and impose large rent increases. Their main targets were pensioners and families whose men were fighting in France.

In Glasgow women formed the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association to resist the increases, with similar groups founded in many other areas. They organised rent strikes and used direct action to prevent evictions. They developed the tactic of banging drums, whistles, pots and pans as warnings that the Sheriff’s officers were in town. Women would then use physical force, cramming themselves in stairwells and outside flats to prevent evictions. Paper bags filled with flour and other less innocent substances would be rained down on the bowler-hatted bailiffs. In Glasgow this culminated in a demonstration of thousands through the city streets and on to the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court on 17 November 1915. These protests were reinforced by mighty industrial action where women led the men.

In Glasgow it is estimated that 100,000 workers struck in support of the rent strikes. This resulted in one of the most important working class victories of the whole of the First World War. Munitions minister Lloyd George was forced to immediately implement the 1915 Rent Restriction Act imposing strict rent controls across the UK which continued in various forms for decades afterwards.

Working class women enjoyed an unprecedented extension of social freedom brought about by increased wages and status. The munitions worker became the symbol of modernity. On a superficial level this could be seen by her appearance. Corsets, stays and hair pins contained materials needed for arms production and were replaced by loose fitting clothes and underwear; hair was cut short and trousers were adopted by all. Socially women were now doing what only men had done before — smoking, going to the pub or cinema unescorted. Many women moved away from home to stay in hostels and lodging houses nearer to work, which meant that female friendships were nurtured in male-free zones and without the formal constrictions of pre-war relationships.

Before 1914 most women had been unable to spend money without the say of their husbands. Now they saw their wages rise significantly. At the beginning of the war the average female weekly earnings were 10 shillings (50 pence) a week. This rose to 30 shillings (£1.50) by 1916, £2 by the end of the war and £4 if you were a supervisor. It is not an exaggeration to say that “the old order was made topsy turvy”, as one observer memorably put it.

Many mainstream historians argue that this profound social change in the status of women culminated in the right to vote in parliamentary elections at the end of the war in 1918. Feminist historians such as Sandra Holton maintain that universal adult suffrage had already been conceded in principle by 1914 as a result of the pre-war campaign for women’s suffrage and the changing attitudes of the political parties, in particular the emerging Labour Party. Wherever the balance of the argument lies there seems little doubt that the war accelerated the granting of the vote and the increased status of women in society.

Following the war there was huge pressure to turn the clock back. The government and the unions tried to enforce this with the 1919 Restoration of the Pre-War Practices Act. The return of men from the front and the slump in war production did mean that a million fewer women were working in 1920 than had been at the height of the war. But those who turned to work in other trades drew on their experience during the war and built trade unions in sectors where they had never before existed, such as hat and dressmaking. In the same year middle class professional women celebrated when the government passed the first piece of anti-discriminatory legislation, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act. It removed barriers to gender discrimination in professions such as medicine, law and the civil service. Many educated middle class women benefited as a result.

The unintended impact of the war enabled women to break through many of the social, economic and political barriers that had dominated pre-war Britain. The majority remained at work. One observer at the time remarked, “They didn’t look the same — they held themselves differently.” While many sexist attitudes towards women remained embedded — all women only got the vote in 1928 — huge strides towards a more equal treatment of women had been made and were to be built on during the second wave women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.