Working Women in the First World War

Thank you to our Archivesplus volunteer Núria Palomares for researching and writing this fascinating topic of the role of women during the First World War.
The First World War brought many changes in the world, including to the lives of British women. The armed forces recruited a large number of men and previous male-dominant roles in industry changed in a way never before witnessed. Women started to learn new skills and make their place in a great variety of jobs, from experimenting in scientific laboratories to moving heavy tubs on the coal mines. In many cases they were women from the middle classes that had never done manual work before. Though new opportunities in the world of work were provided by the war, not all were positive or enduring.

Before 1914 working women were part of the domestic service and a considerable part of the industrial workforce, principally in textile manufacture. When the war increased the need for ammunition, women were employed in munitions manufacturing, being almost a million workers by 1918. It was a well-paid job which involved the use of machinery and technical skills, but it was also dangerous. The munition was built with TNT, a poisonous explosive that caused toxic jaundice and there were several explosions were women workers were killed.

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Martha Richardson making munitions, c.1915

The large number of women working together in the same space and the wartime conditions built a strong sense of camaraderie among workers and brought up new entertainment opportunities. Thought to be good for their physical condition, sport was encouraged and many factories created their own female football teams with matches attracting large crowds.

With so many men serving in the war, other areas of employment like police officers and transport opened up for women. Being initially recruited as volunteers, the Women’s Patrol duty was to watch public areas and preserve the order around factories. Controlling women’s behaviour and inspecting them to ensure that they did not carry anything that might cause an explosion in the factories. In transport women began to work as ticket collectors and drivers on buses, trams and underground trains. Soon other public services were covered by women, doing jobs like postal workers, gas meter inspectors and firefighters.

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Women workers cleaning lamps on the railway, 1917
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Salford Gas Meter Inspectors, 1917

Many of the women who began to work had young children at home, so some funds for day nurseries for munition workers were provided by the government. Nevertheless, this was the only form of employment with this service and most women relied on family and friends to take care of the children while they were at work.
However, all these new jobs that were available during war time were closed to women once the combat was over and the servicemen returned to their jobs. Women were expected to give up their jobs in order to take back their ‘natural’ roles as wives, mothers and housekeepers. The few that kept their jobs worked with men but at lower wage rates.

Nevertheless, some consequences remained, bringing a step closer to equality. The first demands for equal pay began when women proved to be capable to do the same job as men. Female workers went on strike in London, led by women and refusing to accept a lower pay than their male fellow employees.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) created by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1903 in Manchester was trying to gain the right to vote for women. In 1914 they suspended their campaign in order to focus on supporting the war effort with their members, known as suffragettes, but also recognising that this could finally benefit their commitment. After the war, the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all women over 30 and in December 1919 Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons.

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There were some changes in ladies’ fashion too. In 1914 women’s clothes were already becoming more comfortable and the lifestyle changes accelerated this evolution. The uniform and clothes used by female workers in manufacturing, police patrols and transport needed to be practical and snug, sometimes including trousers. By 1919 many young women were wearing looser clothing and shorter skirts as regular clothes.

 Janet Faulks during World War I, dressed for voluntary railway work at Beyer Peacock’s in Gorton. Uniformed Women Workers Salford Tramways

The First World War provided women the opportunity to approach for the first time on traditionally male occupations, breaking down social taboos and learning new skills. British female workers provided crucial support to local communities and industries, stepping forward and helping out their country in times of great need and lighting the way for today’s working women.

 

Images supplied by Manchester Images On-line and Manchester Archvies.

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