Women at War
How far did the war really impact women's lives and women's rights?
Interviewer: “What was a nice little girl?”
Mairi Chisholm: “Oh a nice little girl was a very feminine little girl. You see it was a man's world totally and completely. Women were not supposed to have much in their brains, and of course we were not brought up to careers at all. The one and only career was a good marriage.”
At the start of the 20th century Britain was one of the greatest powers on earth. Yet despite its wealth as a nation, many British people's lives were marked with poverty and inequality. Women had few opportunities and few rights. The First World War is often represented as having a wholly positive impact on women's lives: women stepped into men's jobs for the first time ever, thousands of women served abroad along the front lines, women's football even became a hugely popular sport, and the war is thought to have strengthened their case for the right to vote. But the reality is more complicated. Not all of the opportunities for women were positive, lots of the changes were reversed as soon as the war was over, and cultural attitudes towards women were not that easily changed. So did the First World War really transform women's lives at all?
Ellen Parton: “Before the war, women's employment was highly stratified by class, working-class women were broadly accustomed to working long as the hours of dirty sometimes heavy work in areas such as domestic service and unequal pay was the norm. There was little to no legal protection for women against domestic violence and very little protection for young working-class girls from sexual abuse or being forced into prostitution. Across the board women were expected to get married and look after the home.”
Britain entered the war in August 1914 and over the next four years some 4.9 million men had signed up or been conscripted to join the army. Millions of women were already working prior to the outbreak of the First World war but now women took on more active roles, more highly paid roles and more dangerous roles.
Ellen Parton: “They were encouraged to ensure that the men in their families signed up, women were encouraged in the press and through colourful impactful poster campaigns. With the men drawn away to the armed forces, opportunities opened up for women. 117,000 women were employed in transport compared to just 18,000 women previously.
The First World War also saw women enter heavy industry for the first time. In response to the shell shortage of 1915, huge factories were set up. Women were known as canaries in the factories as they had to handle the TNT used as the explosive agent in munitions which caused their skin to turn yellow.”
Caroline Rennles: “Of course, we all had bright yellow faces you see because we had no gas masks in those times. The conductors used to say in the trams, you'll die in two years, cock. We used to say well we don't mind dying for our country. As I say, we were so young we didn't realise, but they used to call us canaries, we were bright yellow and all this front hair was all ginger you see.”
In total around 900,000 women worked in the munitions industry, and it was particularly hazardous work. There were several large factory explosions during the war including at Chilwell in July 1918 where 134 workers were killed and more than 250 were injured. Due to the dangerous nature of this work it was considered to be relatively well paid compared to other jobs open to women and yet across the board women still earned as little as half the wages of men.
Caroline Rennles: “It come right down to nothing almost about a pound I think, as far as I can remember. It was very, very low I know.”
Interviewer: “Your wages?”
Caroline Rennles: “Yes, very low.”
For working women with children, childcare could be a problem. The pressing need for women to work in munitions did prompt the government to provide some funds towards day nurseries and by 1917 there were more than a hundred day nurseries across the country. However, there was no provision for women working in any other form of employment and most had to rely on friends and family for childcare.
Ellen Parton: “This was still the overriding attitude, that these changes were necessary temporary measures to support the war effort and should not lead to legal or cultural change.”
Pressure from women for their own uniformed service began as early as August 1914 but it was not until the middle of the war that the government began planning for the women's auxiliary services. More men were needed for fighting which meant training women to replace them in non-combatant roles. In December 1916 the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps known as the WAAC was established, the Women's Royal Naval Service was formed in November 1917 and the Women's Royal Air Force was set up on the 1st of April 1918. In total over a hundred thousand women joined Britain's armed forces during the First World War.
Mairi Chisholm: “No I had nothing in my mind except that I got the chance to go to London and I had the chance to do a worthwhile job. It was the lure of adventure of course, you see, and I think it was just, here as an opportunity.”
Florence Parrott: “When I got in that Blitz that made my mind up for me. I got hit, I got hit in this arm and they took us to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and I said to the girl laying next to me I said, when I get out of here, I said, I'm going to join up. Because I said if I'm going to get knocked about, I'll go where I expect it. And I did.”
One of the major ways that women served during the war was nursing. This was also a key role that brought women abroad near the front lines.
Ellen Parton: “Nursing in the First World War was exhausting, harrowing dangerous work. Although it had long been an occupation associated with women, nursing as a profession by its very necessity mushroomed during the First World War. Trained nurses were licensed professionals, they'd spent years training and they were paid whereas voluntary nurses better known as Voluntary Aid Detachments or VADs comprise mainly young middle- and upper-class women in its ranks. By 1918 there were over 90,000 Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses in the red cross.”
Mairi Chisholm: “I used to take that ambulance out and drive the length behind the trenches sometimes to get some, some people out. You had to drive in the pitch dark. No lights whatsoever from the trenches and if you can imagine yourself, heavy roads with deep mud, troops coming up, guns coming up and then the most appalling slither as the ambulance slid off the pave into the mud.”
Interviewer: “Were you shocked by the kinds of injuries you saw?”
Daisy Spickett: “One would have been shocked if one could afford to be. I mean, that was what was our salvation, we were thrown head first into the work but we had to do something about it. I remember one occasion I shall never forget; a patient came in with his head bandaged up and only his eyes showing and as I took bandage after bandage after bandage, I thought to myself there's going to be no face left here at all, and then I realised that he was gazing intently at me, and I thought, he's waiting to see my reaction. Then of course it was absolutely different, I chatted to him and teased him a little and tried to make him smile.”
Ellen Parton: “By 1918 more than 17,000 nurses had served close to the trenches working in field hospitals all along the Western Front.”
On the home front, working together in large numbers opened up new leisure opportunities for women. Sport was encouraged among female workers as it was thought to be good for their health and moral well-being and many munitions factories developed their own ladies football teams.
Ellen Parton: “Women's football was established before the First World War but it really took off during this period. Ultimately this was to ensure the mental and health and physical well-being, which in turn kept the factories productive. However, they were really successful with the Dick Kerr Ladies in Preston for example drawing large crowds at matches. Fronted by Captain Lily Parr; she was openly gay, over six foot tall and she scored over a thousand goals during her time on the team. Sadly, all this came to an end at the end of the war. In 1921, the FA ruled that women should be banned from playing in football league games. Reasons given were spurious suggestions that the game was too physical and may hamper a woman's ability to have a child for example, whereas the real reason was probably quite simply that it was becoming too popular and a potential challenge to men's games. It was a decision which was only overturned in 1969 when the ban was eventually lifted.”
The ban on women's football at the end of the war was not the only instance in which opportunities that had opened in wartime or once again closed. On the 11th of November 1918, the Armistice was signed. Tens of thousands of men were demobilised and returned to Britain, to the lives and jobs they had held before the war. Men seeking jobs after 1918 were almost always prioritised over women and women were forced back into low-paid roles or domestic service. For many women, their experiences during the war had been temporary and short-lived but there were some inevitable long-term consequences.
Over seven hundred thousand British men had died during the First World War. That's nine percent of all British men under the age of 45 and more women than ever were now single.
Ellen Parton: “It's certainly true that some of these women chose to remain unmarried. Professions such as teaching, or medicine were opening up to women, but only if they remained unmarried."
In 1918 women over 30 were given the vote. Some have argued that the modern emancipation of women would not have been possible without the contribution of women who served and worked during the First World War.
Ruby Ord: “We were in this hotel and a raid started; we'd got two officers there suffering from shell shock and the men with them were in a panic and Staccard went over to the piano and she played for two hours while the raid last and we all sang, and these men didn't know it was a raid on the, the shell shock officers. And afterwards they were so overwhelmed, the men were, and they said well if anybody ever says a bad word about the WAACs, they have to answer to us for it after this. Because of course people were very ready to criticise us, we were the women who followed them in France of course. But there were several incidents like that where the girls showed outstanding courage and they really had it. So, I don't know, I really learned to admire women, I admired them tremendously.”
But the steps that had been made during this time were soon masked by other matters. Britain was steeped in unemployment and poverty and soon began to prepare for another war.
Ellen Parton: “The war had not shifted attitudes fundamentally enough to mean that women's contribution to the world of work wasn't anything more than for the duration, to be wound up as soon as the war was over.”
What is certain is that the war had changed the world and Britain in immeasurable ways. Not all changes brought about by the war stayed in place, but it is possible that it laid the groundwork for greater change to come. When war was declared again in 1939, this time women were readily factored into the war effort.
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During the First World War, women stepped into men’s jobs for the first time ever, thousands of women served abroad on the front lines, women’s football even became a hugely popular sport, and the war is thought to have strengthened their case for the right to vote. But how far did the war really impact women's lives and women's rights, or was it all 'for the duration'?
Delving into the IWM film and sound archives, we uncover some incredible true stories of the women who served and worked during the First World War.
Order and license the HD clips used in this video on the IWM Film website.