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Women on the Home Front in World War One

 

     “Did World War One actually improve women's lives in Britain? At the time, many people believed that the war had helped advance women politically and economically. Thus, Mrs Millicent Fawcett, leading feminist, founder of Newnham College Cambridge and president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies from 1897 to 1918, said in 1918: 'The war revolutionised the industrial position of women - it found them serfs and left them free.' The war did offer women increased opportunities in the paid labour market. Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918.

1. During the war: radical professional changes for British women?

A lasting legacy: the decline of domestic service
     The war bestowed two valuable legacies on women.[1] First, it opened up a wider range of occupations to female workers and hastened the collapse[2] of traditional women's employment, particularly domestic service[3]. From the 19th century to 1911, between 11 and 13 per cent of the female population in England and Wales were domestic servants. By 1931, the percentage had dropped to under eight per cent. For the middle classes, the decline of domestic servants was facilitated by the rise of domestic appliances, such as cookers, electric irons and vacuum cleaners. The popularity of 'labour-saving devices' does not, however, explain the dramatic drop in the servant population. Middle-class women continued to clamour for servants, but working women who might previously have been enticed into service were being drawn away by alternative employment opening up to satisfy the demands of war. Thus, nearly half of the first recruits to the London General Omnibus Company in 1916 were former domestic servants. Clerical work was another draw card. The number of women in the Civil Service increased from 33,000 in 1911 to 102,000 by 1921. The advantages of these alternative employments over domestic service were obvious: wages were higher, conditions better, and independence enhanced.

Another lasting legacy: unionism
     Trade unionism[4] proved to be the second legacy of the war. Female workers had been less unionised than their male counterparts. This was because they tended to do part-time work and to work in smaller firms (which tended to be less unionised). Also, existing unions were often hostile to female workers. World War One forced unions to deal with the issue of women's work. The scale of women's employment could no longer be denied and rising levels of women left unmarried or widowed by the war forced the hands of the established unions.
     In addition, feminist pressure on established unions and the formation of separate women's unions threatened to destabilise men-only unions. The increase in female trade union membership from only 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918 represented an increase in the number of unionised women of 160 per cent. This compares with an increase in the union membership of men of only 44 per cent.

Equal pay for women?
     However, the war did not inflate women's wages. Employers circumvented wartime equal pay regulations by employing several women to replace one man, or by dividing skilled tasks into several less skilled stages. In these ways, women could be employed at a lower wage and not said to be 'replacing' a man directly. By 1931, a working woman's weekly wage had returned to the pre-war situation of being half the male rate in more industries.

2. After the war: back to the prewar situation?

Some women were happy to withdraw back into their homes
     Anxiety for their menfolk in war, the pressures of employment, combined with the need to perform housework in straitened circumstances and the inadequacy of social services exacted a heavy toll[5]. It also made the withdrawal of women back into their homes after the war less surprising. This return to full-time domesticity was not, however, wholly voluntary.

Women were forced out of their war jobs by their employers
     In many instances, contracts of employment during World War One had been based on collective agreements between trade unions and employers, which decreed that women would only be employed 'for the duration of the war'. Employed mothers were stung by the closure of day nurseries that had been vastly extended during the war. Reinforcing these pressures were the recriminatory voices of returning servicemen. As unemployment levels soared immediately after the war, anger towards women 'taking' jobs from men exploded.

The consensus against the employment of married women
     Women were also divided, with single and widowed women[6] claiming a prior right to employment over married women. For instance, Isobel M Pazzey of Woolwich reflected a widely-held view[7] when she wrote to the Daily Herald in October 1919 declaring that 'No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work.' She directed: 'Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother's care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.'
     In some occupations, single women insisted on excluding their married sisters. For instance, in 1921, female civil servants passed a resolution asking for the banning of married women from their jobs. The resulting ban was enforced until 1946. There were other setbacks. During World War One, hospitals had accepted female medical students: in the 1920s, women were rejected by the hospitals on the grounds of modesty. The National Association of Schoolmasters campaigned against the employment of female teachers. In 1924, the London County Council make its policy explicit when it changed the phrase 'shall resign on marriage' to 'the contract shall end on marriage'.

3. The strange matter of the vote

The classical view: British women were rewarded with the vote
     Finally, some historians believe that the war was a key element in the granting of the franchise to women[8] over the age of 30 years who held property[9] in 1918. However, gratitude for women's war work cannot explain why only women over the age of 30 got the vote while it was the younger women who had done the work. Rather, it is more convincing to argue that the lobbying of the feminist movement and the commitment of the Labour Party to a wider franchise were crucial factors. In addition, it was a case of the suffragists[10] being around at the right time.

Being around at the right time
     In 1917, the government became aware of the need to call an election. The problem was that, according to the law, only men who had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to the election were entitled to vote, effectively disenfranchising[11] a large number of troops who had been serving overseas. This dilemma forced Parliament to revise the franchise. At this point, the arguments of Millicent Fawcett and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies proved particularly persuasive and, by drawing attention to the work of women during the war, persuaded the Liberal leader, Asquith, to grant a minority of women the vote. But it was not until 1928 that women over the age of 21 were finally allowed to vote. In effect, this meant that in 1918, 8.5 million women were enfranchised, or 40 per cent of the total number of women. In 1928, this was boosted to 15 million, or 53 per cent of total number of women.”

Adapted from an article by Professor Joanna Bourke[12]
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author




[1] Les femmes ont reçu deux précieux héritages de la guerre.
[2]
To hasten the collapse: précipiter le déclin
[3]
Domestic service: l’emploi en tant que domestique
[4]
Trade unionism / unionism: le syndicalisme, le mouvement syndical, les syndicats dans leur ensemble
[5]
To exact a heavy toll on someone: faire payer un lourd tribut à quelqu’un
[6]
Single and widowed women: les femmes célibataires et les veuves
[7]
To reflect a widely-held view: se faire l’écho d’une opinion largement partagée
[8]
The granting of the franchise to women: le fait d’accorder le droit de vote aux femmes
[9]
Who held property: qui était propriétaire (immobilière)
[10]
The suffragists: les suffragettes [mouvement en faveur du droit de vote des femmes britanniques]
[11]
To disenfranchise someone: retirer le droit de vote à quelqu’un
[12]
Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck College

 
 

A photograph of Millicent Fawcett

Source: US Library of Congress
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.00944/
 
 

A photograph of Herbert Asquith

Source: US Library of Congress
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.23315/

Photograph of a British woman railway worker

During WWI, the railway companies started to employ more women. But not all positions were opened to them: very few could actually become train drivers.
Source: British National Archives
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/document_packs/p_woman_railworker.htm

Completing the task


Characters you could decide to choose:
- In the political realm, you could pick Millicent Fawcett and Herbert Asquith.
- In the economic sphere, you could decide to be a woman working in the industry, one working for a railway company, or one working as a clerk in a government office. Try to make it diverse: one should be single, or widowed; another one should be married. Invent them a life during the war and one after the war.
You could also represent the suffering of an upper-middle class woman who wants a domestic servant and can’t find one.
Among these women, which ones got the right to vote in 1917?

 
 
Mise à jour le 11 novembre 2013
Créé le 8 novembre 2013
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues