At the outbreak of World War One, life for Britain’s women was mainly tied to a life of domesticity, their places still largely in the home. Some, like the Suffragettes, were campaigning vocally for change, but the glass ceiling remained at ground level. Now, as Britain's men headed abroad to fight, women took their place en masse in factories, shops and offices across the country. And everything had the potential to change.
What was life like for the hard-working women who kept wartime Britain going? And, having proved they were a match for the demands of the wartime economy, were their efforts rewarded with better rights and greater freedom when peace returned?
To fill the gap left by a generation of fighting men, more than a million women took the chance to join the workforce between 1914 and 1918. They worked across the economy - from tram drivers and train cleaners, to postal workers and police patrols.
The wartime woman worker producing munitions for the front is among the most familiar visual legacies of the war. But conditions were poor and the work was arduous. What's the real story behind this picture of Woolwich Arsenal?
Women working in Woolwich Arsenal during the First World War.
Accidents waiting to happen
Although figures were suppressed to keep morale high, accidents were common. An explosion at a TNT plant in Silvertown, East London, cost 73 people their lives and destroyed hundreds of nearby homes in January 1917.
Dangerous chemicals caused health problems that would outlast the war itself. TNT, for instance, turned thousands of workers' skin yellow – the so-called 'canaries' of the arms factories.
The gender gap
Though women often earned more than they had before the war, workers in munitions factories were still paid as little as half the wages of the men doing similar jobs.
Factory work was often monotonous. Women often found themselves doing jobs that had been simplified into a series of unskilled tasks. The workers of one factory in Quedgeley, Gloucestershire, filled over 17 million shells in the four years of war.
When productivity was all that mattered, there was no work/life balance on offer. In order to keep pace with demand from the front line, 12 hour shifts were common – and some women worked 13 days without a break.
1. The Course of Women’s Wages (1919) 2. BBC research 3. Parliament.uk; 1921 census (no census conducted in Ireland and N. Ireland in 1921; Irish and Northern Irish pop. data from 1926 census)
For some, life after the war offered new opportunities. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender. Educated, middle class women found that doors to the professions previously closed to them were suddenly opening. Moreover, the 1918 Representation of the People Act enfranchised 8.5 million women, giving them a voice in Britain's government for the first time.
Amy Elizabeth May was one of thousands who swapped domestic service for factory work, lured by better pay and opportunities. Afterwards, like many women, she lost her job. Hear her words, adapted from an interview with the Imperial War Museum.
But there was an economic downside. With the troops’ victorious return, many women found themselves surplus to requirements at work. The 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced most women to leave their wartime roles as men came home and factories switched to peacetime production.
For some, the clock was turned back, ushering in a time of economic hardship and low expectation at home, where women found themselves grieving or caring for injured male relatives or husbands.
Despite their pioneering contribution, thousands of women were dismissed from their jobs, particularly in engineering; those who objected to standing aside were met with public anger. And old ways reasserted themselves, as newly unemployed women war workers were pressured into becoming domestic servants.
The Suffragette movement finally received the recognition it had been seeking after over a decade of campaigning. But it was a partial victory, as only women over the age of 30 were allowed to vote, outnumbered in an electoral system which gave all men over 21 the right to cast their ballots. Just one woman was elected to parliament in the General Election of December 1918.
Despite their invaluable wartime contribution, most women were expected to return to business as usual at home.
The last hundred years has seen a transformation in women's lives. How much of this change dates back to the four years of World War One - and what was the biggest change in women's lives as a result of the conflict?
(From top left, clockwise) Prof. Margaret MacMillan, Dr. Jonathan Boff, Dr. Krisztina Robert, Elizabeth Crawford
WW1 historian, Prof. Margaret MacMillan
The war changed women’s lives, and in some ways for the better. They showed society that they were able to do men’s jobs and were intellectually more than capable of taking part in society. However, those gains could not be completely consolidated after the war was over; many women were forced from their jobs once the men returned and expected to go back into domestic life. Many women had earned the right to vote, but such things as going to university or standing as MPs were still overwhelmingly the preserve of men.
War historian, Dr. Jonathan Boff
One of the biggest improvements in the lives of women during the First World War was in the area of health. Women lived longer and healthier lives after the war and lost fewer children in infancy. During and after the war infant mortality was reduced by two thirds. The explanations are complex, but better living standards and nutrition are a large part of the answer. Smaller households and earnings rising faster than food prices meant there was more food to go around. Housewives shopped more carefully. And government policy, such as rationing and restrictions on pubs, may also have helped.
Suffragette expert, Elizabeth Crawford
At the end of World War One, women’s lives were revolutionised by the 1918 Representation of the People Act. While men were granted the vote at 21, the suffragists pragmatically settled for a lesser measure for women, knowing that, as voters, they could exercise direct influence on parliament.
WW1 historian, Dr. Krisztina Robert
At first glance progress [after the war] seems limited. Nevertheless, women's extensive war participation helped convince politicians and the public about their suitability for citizenship, leading to full enfranchisement in 1928. Furthermore, many women developed new skills, self-confidence and contacts in their war jobs and were able to capitalise on these gains after the war in terms of greater freedoms both at work and in personal relationships.
Ray, this is more of the excellent information and I am eagerly waiting for the next installment. I am learning things from a new view and the significance is even more clear. Women did have a vital role, as they did in WWII. I appreciate all these women did for the War effort.