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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

Munitions - Necessity v Nostalgia

Women in Industry - Here to Stay?

Before the war, working class women were mainly involved in domestic service, ‘sweated’ labour and dressmaking and to a certain extent, along with middle class women, they were also employed as shop assistants, waitresses and clerks.  At the beginning of WW1 over 3 million women were employed in commerce and industry. By January 1918 this had risen to 5 million.

The traditional family structure was threatened completely by the outbreak of the First World War. Women were recruited into industries, as men left to fight on the front lines, and more married women were forced into work by the death of their husbands.  Jobs that women had previously been excluded from before the war (in the heavy industries, including ship building and furnace stoking), were now open to them.

Before 1914 most women were unable to spend money without the say of their husbands but now  they saw their wages rise significantly. At the beginning of the war the average female weekly earnings were 10 shillings (50 pence) a week. This rose to 30 shillings (£1.50) by 1916, £2 by the end of the war and £4 if you were a supervisor. It is not an exaggeration to say that “the old order was made topsy turvy”, as one observer memorably put it.

Lack of Munition threatens the war effort In 1915 Britain was losing the war because a lack of ammunition. Thousands more women were employed in highly dangerous positions within munitions factories (popularly known as 'munitionettes') to help turn the situation around.  Dangerous chemicals caused a range of health problems that would plague the population into peace time.  TNT would turn the skin yellow (earning the women the name 'canaries' of the arms factories.  The volatile mixture of nitro-glycerine and nitro-cotton was hand mixed into cordite and packed into the shells and bullets. It was given the name “devil’s porridge” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he visited the factory in 1916.

To enable women to take up the empty skilled positions left in the factories, a process of 'dilution' started. Complex tasks were broken down into simpler activities that non-skilled women workers could easily carry out.  These schemes also enabled employers to get around equal pay rules.

Press Ban The press were not allowed to report the realities of work in the munitions factories, especially the dangers and health implications, saving those of a less forward thinking disposition the less traditional image of the working women of the First World War and sparing them from the constant reminder of the upheaval of war.

Surely we're happy our men are back safely? Well, of course but...

The press ban continued the negative idea of women workers - not only during the war but also after with the need to return to normality in 1919.  It served as a significant barrier to women who wanted to continue in their new found roles.  Women were sent back home to give up their roles to returning soldiers - 750,000 women were made redundant in 1918.

The long term gains for the women that had taken roles in the non-traditional workforce were at best 'modest'. Although by 1918 around 1 million women were members of female trade unions, their wages did not grow by much because of the 'dilution' of the war years.

The 1921 census shows that there was a lower percentage of females working than there had been in 1911! By 1931, a working woman's weekly wage had returned to the pre-war situation of being half the male rate in more industries.

There's disagreements however among historians, about the amount of resentment this return home generated.

Marriage Bars & the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 The end of the war formalised 'marriage bars' in many workplaces, including particularly teaching, nursing and the civil service, where women had to resign when they got married. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 was meant to prevent discrimination because of sex or marriage within public offices and professions, but it didn't for everyone. 

Educated, middle class women found that doors to the professions previously closed to them were suddenly opening.

Pre-War Practices Act In the same year the government and the unions tried to enforce the pressure to turn back the clocks with the 1919 Restoration of the Pre-War Practices Act. The Act forced most women to leave their wartime roles as men came home and factories switched to peacetime production.

For some, the clock was turned back, ushering in a time of economic hardship and low expectation at home, where women found themselves grieving or caring for injured male relatives or husbands.

Despite their pioneering contribution, thousands of women were dismissed from their jobs, particularly in engineering; those who objected to standing aside were met with public anger. And old ways reasserted themselves, as newly unemployed women war workers were pressured into becoming domestic servants.

Surplus Women More than 700,000 British men were killed during WW1 leaving a large gap between the male and female populations.  According to the 1921 census (among those aged 25 to 34) there were 1,158,000 unmarried women and 919,000 unmarried men.


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