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Women and the First World War

Many historians argue that the First World War was a watershed for women in Britain. In reality, the development of women's political and economic rights between 1914 and 1918 was more complicated than such arguments allow. Some writers indeed contend that the emancipatory effects of the Great War have been vastly over-stated.

On the eve of war, the position of women in British society was largely unfavourable. In the workplace, 'women's work' - most commonly, domestic service - was poorly paid and considered separate from, and inferior to, 'men's work'. Women were still expected to give up work once they were married, to revert to their 'natural' roles of wife, mother and housekeeper.

Despite or because of this situation, Britain was home to the most active feminist movement in western Europe: the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 by Glossary - opens new windowEmmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and better known as the Glossary - opens new windowSuffragettes. But many politicians, including prime minister Glossary - opens new windowH H Asquith, remained reluctant to support women's suffrage actively, using the WSPU's violent methods to justify their position.

Woman chimney sweep - opens in new window
chimney sweep


Suffragette poster - opens new window
Advertisement in
The Suffragette


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Women's response to war

The response of women to the outbreak of war in August 1914 was mixed. A small number adopted a staunch anti-war position and later worked with the conscientious objectors' movement. A much larger minority threw their patriotic weight behind the Allied cause. The Pankhursts reined in the WSPU's militant campaign, arguing that the military triumph of a 'male nation' such as Germany would be 'a disastrous blow to the women's movement'. Government propaganda made great play of patriotic women who harried their 'cowardly' menfolk to enlist in the armed forces.

The majority of British women, however, fell somewhere between these two extremes, viewing the war as an inevitability for which they now had to make sacrifices.

Diary of woman munitions worker - opens new window
Diary of a VAD cook at
a munitions factory (235k)

woman railway worker - opens a new window
Woman railway worker
Film of nurses and VADs - opens new window
Watch film of nurses and VADs
Stills from film - opens new window
Listen to woman munitions worker: Mrs Hall
Loudspeaker - opens a new window

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New opportunities

The Pankhursts rightly saw that the war would provide new employment opportunities for women. Just 2,000 had been employed in government dockyards, factories and arsenals in July 1914, but by November 1918, this figure had risen to 247,000. The number employed in the transport industry expanded by 555% to roughly 100,000. In other areas such as agriculture, banking and the civil service, there were smaller, but still noticeable, increases. At least one million women were formally added to the British workforce between 1914 and 1918.

Women making fuse heads - opens new window
Photograph of women
making fuse heads

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Ministry of Munitions poster - opens new window
Ministry of Munitions poster - opens new window
Women for
armaments industry
Women to build

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Throughout the war, however, both the government and the press tended, for propaganda reasons, to exaggerate the extent to which women took over men's jobs. Actual female dentists, barbers and architects - all of which were featured on war savings postcards - were extremely rare. Most male-dominated professions remained closed to women. Even in areas where they were employed in large numbers, such as munitions and transport, they were often treated as inferior, stop-gap replacements for enlisted men. Moreover, women's wages, routinely portrayed as 'high' in the wartime press, remained significantly lower than those of their male counterparts.

Many women did find their wartime labour experiences in some way 'liberating', if only because it freed them from woefully paid jobs in domestic service. But the comment made in 1918 by the women's suffrage campaigner Glossary - opens new windowMillicent Fawcett - that 'the war revolutionised the industrial position of women' - should be treated with caution.


Reward and backlash

The Glossary - opens new windowRepresentation of the People Act (February 1918) was widely portrayed as a 'reward' for the contribution of female labour to the war effort. However, while the Act granted the vote to all men over 21 (subject to a six months' residency qualification), only women over the age of 30 were given the same privilege.

Further proof of the limits of the wartime march towards sexual equality was provided by the post-war backlash against women's employment - in particular, against the continued employment of married women. As soon as the conflict ended, the number of women working in munitions factories and transport fell away rapidly. Ex-servicemen reclaimed the jobs that had been performed by women during the previous four years. Moreover, even in long-standing bastions of female employment such as the laundry industry, women now found themselves in competition with disabled ex-servicemen.

As in France, the idea of women returning to their 'rightful' domestic place was a prominent theme in post-war Britain. Many of their undoubted advances between 1914 and 1918 were thus only partial or temporary.

Ministry of Munitions booklet - opens new window
'The Employment of Women
on Munitions of War'

Protest against women drivers - opens new window
Protest against
'women drivers'


Complaint against married women - opens new window
Opposition to
post-war employment
of married women

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

BT 55/24: Employment of female labour in engineering industry, 1917.
HO 45/10790/300791: Various material on women factory inspectors, 1914-18.
LAB 15/95: Various reports with statistics on increased employment of women during war, 1916-18.
MUN 5/70/324/22: Pamphlet on women's war work, Sept 1916.
MUN 5/84-88/342/17: Minutes of meetings of War Cabinet committee on women and industry, Oct 1918-Feb 1919.
MT 6/2454/12: Various material on female railway labour, 1915-17.
RECO 1/749: Employment and training of women after war, 1918.
WO 162/41: Reports by the Women War Workers Resettlement Committee, Nov 1918.
See also Source Sheet No. 19.

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