Connect with us

Featured

How the First World War transformed women’s role in UK

Published

on

By Alex Marshall, news reporter

The First World War is synonymous with sacrifice and loss of male life.

But back on the home front, new opportunities arose for the women left behind.

Not all were entirely positive or permanent, but the conflict set the tone for significant change.

Work in munitions factories was often monotonous and laborious
Image:
Work in munitions factories was often monotonous and laborious

Work

Women had been in the workplace for decades by the time the First World War broke out in 1914, but what changed radically was the type of employment they had.

Around 1.5m women worked in domestic services at the start of the war as cooks, maids and cleaners.

By 1918, almost a million women were employed in munitions work.

The hours were long; often women were expected to work shifts of up to 12 hours for days on end.

Everything that that powder touches goes yellow. All the girls’ faces were yellow, all round their mouths.

Ethel Dean, Woolwich Arsenal munitions factory

It was dangerous too. Workers making shells exposed themselves to toxic chemicals such as TNT, earning them the nickname of ‘canary girls’ because of the colour it turned their skin.

This left many women with long term health problems like jaundice and mercury poisoning, and more than 400 died from overexposure to TNT.

Accidents were commonplace and there were a number of explosions at the factories.

Two female police officers prepare for duty at a munitions factory in 1917
Image:
Two female police officers prepare for duty at a munitions factory in 1917

The public was introduced to the first female police officers during the First World War. The women who volunteered for the roles were brought in mainly to maintain women’s behaviour around factories or hostels.

But the visible and authoritative presence helped women be taken more seriously.

By 1918, around 225,000 women were employed in the Civil Service and Post Office.

A female worker for the London and South Western Railway in 1917
Image:
A female worker for the London and South Western Railway in 1917

And there were big changes in the transport industry. Women found themselves with new opportunities to be bus conductors, ticket collectors, porters and bus drivers.

But they weren’t trusted to drive trains, just clean them.

At the start of the war, Britain supplied just 35% of the food it consumed. A German naval blockade put the UK on the brink of starvation, stopping the food imports it so heavily relied on.

It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million women volunteered for agricultural work to help make up this deficit, mainly overseen by the Women’s Land Army.

Proper training to be in the Land Army was very limited
Image:
Proper training to be in the Land Army was very limited

They were given barely any formal training and worked nine or ten hour days for wages significantly lower than women in munitions or clerical work.

Despite having more job opportunities, women often earned half of their male counterparts.

As soon as the war ended and soldiers began to return, women were frequently forced out of jobs.

They threw us all out on the slag heap.

Caroline Rennies, munitions worker at Slade Green

The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act put the practice into law and by the autumn of the same year, 750,000 women had been made redundant.

The nation’s perception of women certainly shifted during the war but real change did not last long.

The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) often held recruitment marches
Image:
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) often held recruitment marches

War

It wasn’t just on the home front that women’s roles were revolutionised.

Around 80,000 women served in the armed forces during the war.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed in 1917 and provided female volunteers to the front to fill non-combative roles like cooks, drivers and mechanics – something unimaginable before the conflict.

The idea was that the women were to take over and free men for other jobs. Now, we were one to an ambulance, there were times when we did the work of two men.

Josephine Tennent, ambulance driver

The Women’s Royal Naval Service and Women’s Royal Air Force were also established.

Trained nurses and VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments) provided vital care to wounded soldiers at home and on the front. By 1918, there were more than 90,000 in total.

Flora Sandes playing chess with her Serbian comrades
Image:
Flora Sandes playing chess with her Serbian comrades

One woman in particular led an extraordinary campaign during the war.

Suffolk-born Flora Sandes travelled to Serbia in August 1914 as a Red Cross volunteer, and insisted on fighting alongside male soldiers after being separated from her unit.

Flora Sandes inspecting Serbian troops
Image:
Flora Sandes inspecting Serbian troops

She was recognised in June 1919 with a special Serbian Art of Parliament which made her the first woman to be commissioned in the Serbian Army.

She was the only British woman to officially fight on the front line.

Suffragettes gather in protest outside Queen's Hall
Image:
Suffragettes gather in protest outside Queen’s Hall

Politics

The suffrage movement was fully established when war broke out, but the conflict proved to be its making.

Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffragettes, suspended the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union and concentrated on driving women to join the workforce to help the war effort.

It was this invaluable contribution that proved beyond all doubt that women were just as capable as men, leaving the government with no choice but to take them seriously.

I think that the service people pioneered the beginning of votes for women and freedom for women more.

Beatrice Browne, typist with Women’s Royal Naval Service

In 1918, this was written into law in the Representation of the People Act. For the first time, 8.5m women could vote. Lady Nancy Astor became the first female MP in the House of Commons soon after.

Lady Nancy Astor became the first female MP in 1918
Image:
Lady Nancy Astor became the first female MP in 1918

Radical change was slow and somewhat limited – only women above the age of 30 had the vote.

But by recruiting women into war work, the Suffragettes had undeniably helped change the perception of women and bring about real political change.

The captains of the French and English ladies teams have a peck on the cheek before the start of a charity match
Image:
The captains of the French and English ladies teams have a peck on the cheek before the start of a charity match

Women and the beautiful game

The camaraderie that developed between women working in factories and offices often spilled outside of work and took an unexpected form – football.

The beautiful game had been played by women from as early as 1881. But informal kickabouts during breaks soon became something much more competitive.

The sport was seen as beneficial for women’s health and morale, and was positively encouraged by factory management.

Female workers from the Handley Page Aeroplane walk out to play in 1919
Image:
Female workers from the Handley Page Aeroplane walk out to play football in 1919

One team – Dick, Kerr Ladies FC – was particularly popular. The team once attracted a crowd of around 55,000 to one of their charity matches, with 14,000 people left unable to get in the ground.

The sport grew until women were banned from playing at Football League grounds in 1921.

The FA decreed football was “quite unsuitable for females” and called on clubs “to refuse the use of their ground for such matches”. It changed the course of the women’s game forever.

Female police officers were introduced to monitor women's behaviour
Image:
Female police officers were introduced to monitor women’s behaviour

Morality

Being taken more seriously in the workplace came at a price.

As women gained access to the workplace and a new lifestyle, the government began to worry about women’s morals.

They worried that venereal diseases spreading among troops would reduce numbers able to fight and released targeted media campaigns accusing women of being the cause of infections.

The woman's devil in the play 'The First Distiller' in 1917
Image:
The woman’s devil in the play The First Distiller in 1917

Part of the Defence of the Realm Act made it illegal for a woman with a venereal disease to have, or try to have, sex with a soldier – but didn’t specify any equivalent penalty for men. The maximum sentence was six months in prison with hard labour.

The act also restricted women’s consumption of alcohol, placed curfews in some areas and banned prostitution near military bases.

The traditional perception of women as adoring mothers and wives was irreparably damaged and it seemed women didn’t want to go back to domestic life. Family sizes continued to shrink after 1918 despite the renewed emphasis on the importance of motherhood and family.

Women bathers dip their toe in the lido in Southport in 1918
Image:
Women bathers dip their toe in the lido in Southport in 1918

Fashion

Now that women were in the workplace, clothing had to become more practical.

No metal was allowed in factories so corsets were out and trousers were in.

Land Army girls take part in a rally to drive support
Image:
Land Army girls take part in a rally to drive support

Women wore trousers for the first time outside working in the mines – particularly those in the Land Army – but it was decades before it became truly acceptable to not wear skirts.

What had become more acceptable was to show more leg. Women’s uniforms had shorter skirts, sitting at six to ten inches off the ground.

Those extra inches revealed more than women bargained for.

Shaving legs became a standard part of female grooming when Gillette introduced the first female razor in 1915.

Working-class women were able to afford makeup for the first time, meaning powder, kohl eyeliner and mascara became popular.

And long hair could get caught in machines so bobs became fashionable.

Continue Reading
Advertisement Find your dream job

Trending