The experience of the First World War transformed the lives of millions of women in Britain.
There is a myth that the war brought women into industrial work for the first time. In fact many women had always worked in industry—in coalmines, cotton mills and potteries.
But the war did change things. In the years leading up to the war, British capitalism had faced a crisis of rule on several fronts. There was a powerful revolt against imperialist rule in Ireland, waves of workers’ struggles and a militant movement demanding votes for women.
The role that women played during the war as workers meant that their lives and expectations would never be quite the same again. Up to two million women moved into previously male-only industrial jobs.
They replaced the ever greater numbers of men being sent to fight in the bloody trenches of the Somme and Paschendale. The work they did was dirty, sometimes dangerous and usually on a lower wage than the male workers had received.
Before the war some 1.7 million women were domestic servants, more than worked in any other occupation. For these women war work was a revelation.
Even the low wages were higher than they had ever earned before and they had more independence than live-in servants ever experienced.
Ethel Dean left her job in domestic service to work in a munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal in London and relished the freedom the job gave her.
“When you were in service you couldn’t go out when you liked. When you work in the factories you’ve got your own time, haven’t you? You just go home of a night, wherever you live, and you can go out when you like.”
The state was so desperate for women workers that they sometimes had to provide services to make the long shifts possible. The Arsenal factory had a workplace nursery and mothers who worked the night shift got an extra child care allowance.
Clothes changed to accommodate manual work. Trousers and shorter skirts appeared. No metal could be worn in the munitions factories so this meant no corsets. Long hair could get caught in machines so women started wearing it short. Already by 1917 such women were denounced in the press as “flaunting flappers”.
Much was written about the risk to public morality of the new freedoms of working women. The government appointed welfare inspectors—the forerunners of the first women police officers—to try and control the morality of women workers. These mainly middle class women patrolled parks and alleys chasing away couples trying to find some privacy. But they faced resistance and resentment.
Assumptions about what women were capable of were shattered.
Suddenly it suited the politicians and bosses to break from the ideology of women being incapable and weak, at least temporarily. Now they pushed women to the limits of endurance in the name of the war. Protective legislation was abolished.
The same ruling class that had stubbornly refused women the right to vote (see box) now pumped out propaganda demanding women serve the war effort.
Upper and middle class women who had been regarded as merely breeding material for their husbands joined the “land army” or became nurses or clerks in the civil service.
Because such women could often drive they became ambulance drivers, sometimes right up to the frontline.
But at home millions of working class women faced tough and dangerous war work.
Shifts could involve standing for 12 hours or more. Women who worked in the munitions factories making shells worked in the most dangerous conditions. They were also nicknamed the canary girls because of the effect of working with TNT.
“Our skin was perfectly yellow, right down through the body, legs and toenails even, perfectly yellow,” reported Mrs M Hall after a ten-hour shift absorbing deadly levels of TNT.
The work left many women with long term health problems such as jaundice and mercury poisoning—over 400 women died of overexposure to TNT alone.
Accidents and explosions were common, but were hushed up with government censorship controlling what could be reported.
Throughout the war there were struggles for better treatment and parity with male wages.
During these years the number of women workers in trade unions rose from around 400,000 to over one million. The proportion of unionised women rose by 160 percent, compared to a rise of 45 percent of men.
But women workers often came up against prejudice and fear within the unions that they could be used to undermine male wages after the war.
Skilled men’s jobs were broken down to tasks that could be classified as unskilled.
At the 1918 TUC congress the Birmingham Brass Workers Union said that women should be prevented from doing heavy jobs to stop their “physical degeneration”. The retort from a delegate from the National Women’s Federation was, “Why, bless my soul, a woman who carries a child carries a heavy weight.”
Miss Symons at the same congress said, “We want women on the same footing as men. When a man is taken on he is not asked to show if he can do the job as much as another man, but a woman has to go through the test, and wherever possible her wages are reduced.”
Workers in industries from laundries to transport struck during the war against all the odds and the TUC did go on to take up the slogan “equal pay for the same job”.
Unionisation during the war also had an impact on traditional “women’s jobs”. Hat makers, dressmakers, hotel and restaurant workers all went on to forge union organisations.
But when the war was over the government and much of the trade union leadership wanted to put the clocks back. Hundreds of thousands of women quickly lost their jobs.
By the autumn of 1919, 750,000 fewer women were employed in industry. Accommodation for single women, canteens and day nurseries were shut down.
In deals that had been agreed with trade unions women’s employment had been only “for the duration”.
Some fought hard to stay employed.
Violet Pattison and Annie Fry had worked on the buses through the war and in 1918 begged the bus company to keep them on somehow. “We asked if they could find us a job where the buses were parked, or cleaning them. Anything. But no. It had to be men—well that was natural wasn’t it?”
There were examples of men supporting women against lay offs. Male tram workers in London struck against the summary sackings of women conductors.
Yet for many women domestic service was once again the only option. Single and widowed women joined in the pressure for married women in particular to leave jobs.
But the clock could not be turned back entirely. Women had found new independence. They had shown themselves and the rest of society that they could do jobs that before the war would have been unthinkable.
They had seen that the government could organise state provision for them and their children when it needed to. But most of all they had experienced in greater numbers than ever before being part of the collective force of the working class.
Barbara Drake wrote a major study of women and trade unions in 1920 and recognised this was one of the most important consequences of the war. She wrote that most of all what women workers learned, “which they did not intend to forget” was “the value of their labour and the power of organisation”.
Did the first world war lead to suffrage?
The British ruling class was utterly resistant to allowing women, and working class men, to vote.
Mass demos for women’s suffrage had taken place in the years leading up to the war.
The government used the courts, media censorship and mass arrests to try and crush the movement.
Imprisoned women activists endured torture and abuse.
The campaign for suffrage had mass support among working class women—called suffragists.
It was rooted in the labour and trade union movement and tied up with demands for better pay and working conditions.
The outbreak of war exposed the political differences between high profile rich and privileged suffragettes and the working class suffragists.
The upper class suffragettes immediately dropped the suffrage campaign and launched jingoistic support for the war. They gave out white feathers as a symbol of cowardice to men they saw in the street.
In contrast many working class women suffragists joined those who opposed the war.
Suffrage campaigner and socialist Hannah Mitchell said, “War in the main is a struggle for power, territory or trade, to be fought by the workers, who are always the losers.”
After the war in 1918 a minority of women were finally given the right to vote.
Suffrage was also extended to men over 21.
Women over 30, woman householders, or wives of householders, owners of land and university graduates could now vote.
Constance Markiewicz of Sinn Fein was the first woman to be elected to Westminster in 1918.
But she refused to recognise Westminster’s rule over Ireland and did not take her seat.