Empowering Women at War: Redefining Work and Dignity for better time

Women at work

Munition Girls : Painted by E.F. Skinner

Women at war
Workplaces and living

Women at war : The men must fight and women must weep

That men must fight and women must weep” is an old story. Women at war it is so profound history of the world in the perspective of women dignity.  “Old underwear can be cut up into good-sized handkerchiefs which are often so useful to the man in action. For instance he can wrap his handkerchief round a superficial wound and go on”. It is not a slang, It is reality of war life.

The militant feminists reacted more positively. Mrs. Pankhurst and her formidable daughter, Cristabel, diverted their crusading energy to the war effort, and ‘the Cause’ was almost overlooked in their impassioned appeals to British patriotism. Mrs. Fawcett, the head of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, approached the situation more sedately: ‘Let us,’ she said, prove ourselves worthy of citizenship whether our claim is recognised or not. Many of the able and undervalued women who formed the backbone of the movement for women’s rights saw the war as an opportunity to use their abilities to the full. Within a week the London branch of the NUWSS had converted itself into a women’s employment agency in response to the thousands of women wanting to know where they could do their bit for King and country. 

Women at war : Women's in the hospitals works

The most obvious opening for women was in the hospitals. In August 1914 Mrs. St Clair Stobart offered the services of the Women’s Convoy Corps to the British Red Cross. They rejected her offer. In the same month Dr Elsie Inglis, founder of the Scottish Women’s Suffrage Federation, suggested to the War Office that Scottish Women’s Hospital Units should be formed for overseas service. Her offer was also refused. Nothing daunted, Mrs. Stobart and Dr Inglis set to work and got together teams to go to Serbia. Dr. Flora Murray and Dr. Louisa Garret Anderson did not bother to go to the British authorities, but offered the services of an all-woman hospital to the French, who accepted with alacrity. By September a team of women doctors and nurses, most of them veteran suffragettes, was installed in the Hotel Claridge, Paris; the ladies’ cloakroom had been converted into an operating theatre, and men suffering from sepsis, tetanus, and shock, were gazing up at the gilded halls and writing home that ‘the doctors is ladies’.

In 1915 they were offered a hospital in London at Endell Street by the British authorities. A total of about 26,000 patients passed through the hospital before it was closed in 1919, and the high standards it maintained, and the excellence of its surgeons, in particular of Dr Anderson her self, excited the admiration not only of their grateful patients but also of the authorities themselves.

Dr. Inglis and her all-woman team took part in the fight against the typhus epidemic in Serbia in 1915, and in the flight of the Serbian nation to the sea. As soon as she could she returned to help the Serbian units fighting with the Russians in Rumania. ‘We do not see much of the glamour of war here,’ she wrote. But her exploits showed a curious mixture of practicality and love of adventure, hard work and heroism. Few of the women who went to war had to cope with the problems Dr Inglis coped with these varied from difficulties over transport, which not all het skilled lies could quite extort from the Russians, to the behavior of Mrs. X, a transport driver, who had taken to dressing like a man and flirting with the local Rumanian peasant girls. Few got as far from home as Russia. Few died of over work. None received such a tribute the Serbs dedicated a public fountain to the woman who had wanted every village to have clean drinking water, and whom some had come to venerate as a saint.

But for many of the women from the upper and middle classes who volunteered in their thousands for the Voluntary Aid Detachments and the other nursing services the war provided the same opportunity for useful action and patriotic adventure as it had for Dr Inglis.

Women at war

work in the cotton mills and Buying and selling of food.

For lower class women the immediate effect of the war was unemployment. Large numbers of women had been employed in the cotton mills and cotton suffered a rapid slump. Many more were in luxury trades related to dress-making. In the hectic months of the autumn of 1914 the demand was for cartridge belts and khaki, not gloves and embroidery. In London women’s employment dropped by ten and a half per cent in October.

In Germany the government had foreseen the problem, and enlisted the help of Dr Gertrude Baumer, the head of the Bund Ditcher Frauenvereine, one of the largest women’s rights organizations in Germany. An order was issued organizing women district by district for ‘the duration of the war’, and making them responsible for providing cheap eating places, setting up nurseries, and helping the government to keep up an even supply of foodstuffs, and controlling the buying and selling of food. Within the first month of the war the Frauendienst (as this wartime organization of women was called) had set up work rooms in all the larger cities to cope with the problem of unemployment. In the Berlin workrooms alone 23,000 women were employed within a week, sewing cartridge belts, bread sacks, and sheets

For hospitals In Great Britain the only initiative to relieve the plight of unemployed women was taken by Queen Mary who hastily rechristened her Needlework Guild Queen Mary’s Workshops. In the workshops 1 woman were employed at 3d an hour for a maximum of forty hours a week. Though this was condemned as ‘sweated labour’s (a weekly wage of 10s was intended to be e less than that of regularly employed women, who supposedly earned 11s 6d of a week) it was better than nothing.

By the summer of 1915 the situation had changed completely. As the men went to the trenches to die in their thousands, the women had to take over. In France, Great Britain, and Germany the munitions factories demanded more and more workers. Women who had been unemployed moved in. Only in Great Britain does this appear to have caused hostility. The trade unions were sharply opposed to the threatened competition of unskilled and, in particular, female labour, which had always been cheaper than their own. At some factories the men refused to work with women, and in March 1915 the government had to promise that wage rates would be protected, and those women doing the same job

as men would be paid the same piece rates. Furthermore, it was specifically stated that after the war the prewar practices of industry would be restored. In July 1915 Lloyd George appealed for women to work in the munitions factories. The response seemed enormous. The increase of women in industry in Great Britain was in fact about 800,000, most of them employed in the munitions industry. Sixty per cent of those in the shell industry were women.

Women at war

The skill and the patriotism of the women workers

The skill and the patriotism of the women workers were praised rapturously in the British press. Women, it turned out, could work in the supposedly unfeminine world of the engineering industry as efficiently as men. Where manual dexterity was required they could work more effici- ently. Where the work was too heavy or too complicated, it had been reorganized. In France the numbers of women employed in industry forced the introduction of mass- production techniques, in Great Britain they accelerated it.


The general attitude of the country was reflected in the instruction issued to the munitionettes in Woolwich Arsenal. ‘A munitions worker is as important as the soldier in the trenches and on her his life depends.’ ‘Output. Anyone who limits this is a traitor to sweethearts, husbands, and brothers fighting.’ Under the pressure of patriotism and the war the munition girls were working twelve-hour shifts seven days a week. But since the making of shells was essential for the country, the government was at least careful of its workers. – Women welfare supervisors were compulsory in the danger zones of the munitions factories, and recommended whenever large numbers of women were employed. They insisted on better cloakroom facilities, better rest rooms, ambulance rooms where accidents and illness could be treated immediately and better health regulations. There was constant supervision of those working with dangerous materials, and the food in the canteens was checked for its nutritional value. Many of the girls, despite their hard work, were healthier than they had been before.

women at war

Workplaces and living

The vast numbers of women workers, many of them working several miles from 5 their homes, had to have somewhere to live. Sometimes whole new residential areas were built. Sometimes they lived  in hostels. Nurseries also had to be found, and some of them were partly financed by in the ministry of munitions. The nurseries f became a recognised institution.

But it was not only in the munitions factories that women replaced men. They ran the Metro in Paris, the buses in London; they hammered plates on to ships in the Clyde, and worked in the shipbuilding plants of the German navy. They acted as electricians, plumbers, undertakers. Two of Lloyd George’s secretaries were women and over 200,000 extra women were deployed in government establishments. Over 1,300,000 more women were employed in Great Britain in July 1918 than in 1914, and it was estimated that 700,000 of these were directly replacing men.

In Great Britain women also became police and served in the forces. Volunteer policewomen discouraged ‘provocative loitering’, and indecent behaviour in cinemas, parks, pubs, and the darkened streets. By 1916 the Women’s Police Service had been sought out by town authorities and the ministry of munitions, and was proving invaluable in controlling crowds during air raids and helping checking that munitions girls obeyed the safety regulations. 

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Women's Army Auxiliary Corps

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, was organised in 1917 to replace fit men doing jobs in what was called the line of communications. Although some drove ambulances, most were employed in the kitchens, the offices, and as gardeners in the cemeteries. They wore smart khaki uniforms, with peaked caps and skirts a daring twelve inches off the ground, slept in dormitories, and were submitted to drill and discipline by their officers. By the end of the war about 57,000 had enrolled. About 3,000 women served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and about 32,000 in the Women’s Royal Air Force. Women’s battalions were also formed in Russia in early 1917. They were on guard in the Winter Palace the night the Provisional Government surrendered to the Bolsheviks.

The Woman in the uniform of the city of London Red cross ambulance column.

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The women went quietly or reluctantly back to their original jobs

When the war was over most of the women went quietly or reluctantly back to their original jobs, or to their homes. The figures for women employed in 1921 were no larger than those in 1914. Women had not won the right to equal pay or equal opportunity. Despite the agreement that men and women should be paid equally for piece work, women had still usually been paid less than men. In the National Shell Factories women earned up to £2 4s. 6d. a week, men up to £4 6s. 6d. Women had usually worked under the supervision of men. Although women had occasionally been promoted, where they were available, men were automatically preferred. Few women had managed to get any lengthy training. The NUWSS had established a training school for oxyacetylene welders, and by December 1917 there were twice as many women as men in forty governments run training schools for engineering work. But these were exceptions. Women had remained a source of comparatively unskilled and temporary labour.

Similarly 400,000 women had left domestic service during the war, but in the mass unemployment for women that followed the return of the troops, most probably their old jobs. There were no fewer servants after the war than before it. But, as one of the bus conductresses who were mainly recruited from the better class of domestic servants, put it: The Company has promised all the men who are fighting that their places shall be kept open and we would not have it otherwise… but it’s going to be a big problem.  You see …we have all got a contagious restless feeling.

The contagious restless feeling, the desire for the new way of life they had experienced was not easily buried. Though prices in Great Britain had doubled, many working-class women had been earning up to four times as much as they had earned before the war. Their children were better clothed, better fed, and in better health. Even more important than the money was their increase in self-respect.

The New Statesman commented ‘they appear more alert, more critical of the conditions under which they work, more ready to make a stand against injustice than their pre war selves or their prototypes’.

The National Federation of Women Workers

This was reflected in the increasing figures of trade union membership. The National Federation of Women Workers increased its membership to 50,000, but the total number of women in trade unions Increased from 350,000 before the war to nearly 600,000 by the end of 1917. On the whole women tended to join the mixed general unions rather than the NFWW, and their admission into most unions though not all gradually made separate trade unions for women seem redundant. In France there was the same general tendency. Trade union activity among women increased, more women became prominent trade unionists, and the need for separate trade unions for women lessened. In some waynione fupper classes had and the WAAC officers, had been liberated gained even more.

The nurses, the VAD’s, and the WAAC officers, had been liberated from their restricted and over-protected lives. Any idea that it was unladylike to work was dissipated in the wave of patriotic fervour, and those peaceful days in the Midlands when one had lived for one’s amusement and to kill time seemed to date back to one’s infancy. The war turned one topsy-turvy, altered one’s whole outlook on life. I felt I could never be “prewar” again. None of us ought ever to have been like that’. Some went nursing only for a good time or to get their names into society papers. ‘Miss Flapperton’ was a recognised figure. But many led a tougher life than they had ever known. They left the shelter of the parental wings, and self reliance had to take the place of protection. There was much greater freedom between the sexes. During the war men and women were so thrown into daily contact with each other that conventional notions of a certain reserve as between the sexes have been very largely modified’. Chaperones disappeared, and so did the delicate ignorance in which upper-class girls were kept.

The outward signs of their freedom were flaunted gaily. Many used language that would have shocked their mothers; many started to wear cosmetics, smoking became widespread, and women bought drinks in public houses. Before the war short skirts and brassieres had come in. During the war they completely ousted long dresses and camisoles. Well-meaning committees tried to discourage Land Girls, who, like most women doing heavy work or working outside, wore trousers, from wearing them off duty, but without success.

In defiance of the ever-present casualty figures, England was gripped by a feverish gaiety. Give the boys on leave a good time’ was the universal sentiment. As one woman remembered it: ‘If these young women who, as they read the casualty lists, felt fear in their hearts, did not seize experience at once, they knew that for many of them it would elude them forever. Sex became both precious and unimportant: precious as a desired personal experience; unimportant as something without implications. Young girls were gripped by ‘khaki fever’ and hovered round army camps. By the end of the war the illegitimacy rate had increased by thirty per cent. The marriage rate also increased sharply. Many marriages swiftly contracted, swiftly broke up. There were three times as many divorces in 1920 as in 1910.

Women's participation in the war effort had definitely shaken society

Women's participation in the war effort had definitely shaken society

Women’s participation in the war effort had definitely shaken society. It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war,’ said Lloyd George, ‘had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war.’ In both Germany and France women talked more hopefully of getting the vote. In Great Britain they got it. The voting laws had to be changed to enfranchise the soldiers who were either not entitled to vote at all under the old system, or who had disfranchised themselves by moving from their homes to distant factories or the front. Women were enfranchised at the same time, though an age limit of thirty was imposed so that they would not become a majority of the electorate as they were of the population.

“Topping about your bill,’ said the younger nurses to the veteran suffragettes at the Endell Street Hospital. The old valour for ‘the Cause’ had gone. To the short-skirted, self-reliant, uninhibited war girls of 1918 the romantic hysteria of the Pankhursts’ championship of pure victimized women was as irrelevant as The Lady’s advice on handkerchiefs. “The ordinary male disbelief in our capacity,’ Elsie Inglis had written from Rumania, ‘cannot be argued away. It can only be worked away. It had been. Women had been acknowledged as equal citizens. But most of all, women’s understanding of what they were, and what they would like to be, had radically changed.

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