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  • Writer's pictureGVHeritage Group

The Role of Women in WW1

When World War One began, women were generally tied to a life of domesticity.  Most middle class women had never worked but were now expected to contribute to the war effort functioning. Despite the idea of the traditional family of the time, working class women had always worked, even if badly paid, separated from the work of men and in many cases casual and part-time.


Before World War One, domestic service employed the largest number of working class women (approx. 1.5 million) but the were often required to leave their work when they got married or pregnant. 100 years ago the Suffragettes were campaigning for change (eventually with great success) but at the beginning of WW1, this still seemed a long way off.

In 1914, as Britain's men headed abroad to fight, women took their place in huge numbers in the jobs that were left vacant - factories, shops, offices, farms etc.  Until 1918 the women of Britain kept the wartime economy flourishing.

The number of women in paid work rose by 555 percent to 7.5 million. By 1917 women had replaced 1 in 3 men in the workforce. They worked as tram drivers, train cleaners (but not drivers until 1978!), postal workers, in the police amongst other places.

Munitions Probably the most familiar image of women in the workplace is in the munitions factories - the industry was in fact the single largest employer of women in 1918 (950,000 women by Armistice Day as compared to 700,000 in Germany).

Women's Land Army The Government encouraged women to join the  Women's Land Army, offering cheap female labour to farmers who were not always keen to employ women.  With fuel restrictions in place, 260,000 volunteers of the WLA worked long hard hour in manual agricultural labour.

Although women often earned more than they ever had before the war, those that found themselves on the often dangerous factory floors were paid as little as half the wages of the men that did a similar job. The factories they worked in were seized by Lloyd George's Government and all trade union activities in them were suspended.

Aeroplanes In Brislington industry did it's bit for the war effort with aeroplanes being made at the Motor Constructional Works (later Bristol Commercial Vehicles) on Kensington Hill and the Tramways Depot at Arno's Vale. From 1915 -18 the Tramways Company had a contract with Bristol Aeroplane Company an built over 200 planes such as Bristol Box Kites. Many local girls were employed who were advised to drink a pint of milk  day to counteract the effects of the paint fumes used on the aeroplanes.


One of the substantial areas of employment where new opportunities opened up for women was in transport. Women began working as bus conductresses, ticket collectors, porters, carriage cleaners and bus drivers. During the war the number of women working on the railways rose from 9,000 to 50,000.

Helen Ashby, head of knowledge and collections at the National Railway Museum, said the first women rail workers were level crossing gatekeepers - a role that fitted in with family life. The job was often given to widows with children and came with either a small salary or a rent free home. By the turn of the century nearly half of the women employed by the railway companies worked in hotels and catering.  Roles were traditionally female like cooks, kitchen assistants, cleaners, housemaids, waitresses, laundrywomen, stores women, cloakroom attendants and chambermaids.

In 1914 about 900 women worked in railway workshops as skilled trimmers, French polishers or sewing machinists producing the finely upholstered and polished hardwood interiors of railway coaches. In Britain's railway workshops the number of unskilled women labourers increased from 43 in 1914 to 2,547 by 1918. They tackled portering, varnishing and painting engines, sweeping, storekeeping and cleaning.

Just one month after war was declared in 1914 nearly 100,000 railwaymen had left to fight in the trenches and the transport of vital supplies to the front line was threatened. It was during the world war that women were fully drafted in ensuring that the rail industry kept going through such a difficult period. Over the next three years women were recruited to do most of the jobs left vacant by men except driving trains and firing engines because the training period was too long.

Until April 1915 women were paid two-thirds less than their male counterparts until the railway unions admitted women and the National Union of Railwaymen demanded that companies should pay women at least the minimum male wage for the job. As the war progressed women took on the better paid but more hazardous posts of track maintenance, platelayer, shunter and guard. The position of railway police officer was opened in 1917.

When the war ended in 1918 women were expected to hand their jobs back to the men they had replaced but many were retained and the number of women employed by the railways never fell to its pre-war level.

Equal Pay for Equal Work - sounds familiar! Mary MacArthur of the Women's Trade Union League, campaigned hard to demand women were paid as much as the men employed in the same industry - but by the end of the war their wages were still roughly half of the men doing similar work.

The work was also often dull as the work had been streamlined into a series of unskilled tasks that virtually anyone could be trained to do.  One factory not far from Bristol, in Gloucestershire, filled over 17 million shells in 4 years!  This was made possible requiring women to work 12 hour shifts, with many women sacrificing their own families, sometimes working 13 days without a break, in order to keep up with the demand from the front line. The women were referred to by a number, not a name!

Who took care of the home? On top of this work, many continued to be the only person responsible for the home and family. After 13 hours at work they would make the journey home, stopping off to join the ration queues, to return to homes without running water or heating and without labour-saving devices. The poor standard of housing and high rents levied by landlords exploiting the shortage created another major issue for working class women. At the beginning of the war landlords sought to take advantage of this situation and impose large rent increases. Their main targets were pensioners and families whose men were fighting in France.

For women with children who wanted – or needed – to take on paid work, childcare could be a problem. The pressing need for women to work in munitions did prompt the government to provide some funds towards the cost of day nurseries for munitions workers, and by 1917 there were more than 100 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 to help care for their children while they were at work.

Work for women - would it last?

During this great time of upheaval, for the whole of society, seeing women in male clothing was hard for many to swallow.  The traditional image of women as feminine wives and mothers was deeply ingrained into the British mindset.  As women had abandoned their traditional roles in service for factory work (in many cases never to return) large numbers of middle-class women were left without home help - and they weren't happy!

The new roles of women were often frowned upon, not only because they had started to challenge the idealistic stereotype of how women should look and act but also because men were worried by their 'willingness' to work for much lower wages than they were offered and they feared this would put them out of work for good.

In order to settle the nation, the Government went to great lengths to reassure the people that nothing would change for ever, life would return to normal after the war, and the new roles for women was just a temporary necessity. Despite their success in delivering for the nation women were portrayed as temporary workers who would never be able to match the skill level, quality and quantity of work of the men they had replaced.


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