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British Women in WW1

Updated on October 23, 2013
Before the war, women mainly worked in the domestic sector.
Before the war, women mainly worked in the domestic sector.
In this photo, you can see what the average woman would have worn before the war.
In this photo, you can see what the average woman would have worn before the war.

Women Before the War

Women as wives and mothers

Women in the 1900s spent much of their time working at home. They brought up their children, and provided them with much of their teaching. They fed, clothed and cared for their families, and nursed them when they were ill. They cleaned and maintained the house as well as managing the family's money. Often, they made key decisions about the family's life.

Women in paid work

Just over half of all single women, and one in seven married women, worked outside the home to make money. They were often not treated the same way as male workers. Most employers thought that 'a woman's place is in the home', while men were the main breadwinners. The most common occupation for a woman by far was in a domestic service (as a maid, cook, etc), however high numbers of women were also employed in the textiles and clothing industries.

How women were expected to behave

Most people were brought up to think that a woman's main role in life was supporting her husband and home. A women was therefore expected to spend most of her time in the home. Apart from going out to shop or visit a neighbour, a woman rarely went out of the house. When she did, it was expected that a man or a female companion should walk with her.

Women were expected to act in a more restrained way than men. For example, while working men commonly spat, swore, smoked and drank alcohol in public, it was rare for women to do any of these things. There were also strict unwritten rules about how a woman should dress. Women always wore skirts or dresses, never trousers, and these were always ankle length so that their legs could not be seen. Well dressed women often wore tight girdles and large hats.

Women's rights

Women did not have the same rights as men. In particular, they did not have the same voting rights. Women over 30 who paid rates (a local council tax) could vote in elections for their local council, but no women could vote in a general election for Parliament. Around 8 million men had this right.

Factories were dominated by females during the war.
Factories were dominated by females during the war.

Women during the war

Women workers

At first, the war put many women workers out of their jobs. For example, fishery workers were put out of work when trawlers stopped fishing in waters patrolled by German warships. This soon changed. As the army grew in size, women found work making equipment for soldiers. During 1915, many women also took on the work of husbands, brothers or fathers who joined the army. They did all kinds of work, for example, they became clerks, bus conductors, window cleaners and coal carriers.

The army needed huge amounts of weapons and ammunition, especially shells. In a single day in 1918, British big guns fired 943,847 shells at the German trenches. As more and more men joined the army, women took the place of male workers in the munitions factories. They made guns, shells, grenades, bullets and every other type of weapon.

The Land Girls
The Land Girls

Women in Uniform

Factory work wasn't the only war work which women did. Over 100,000 worked as nurses. Most belonged to units known as Voluntary Aids Detachments, and were known as VADs. Thousands of women also joined organisations to help the government deal with wartime problems. For example, the Women's Volunteer Reserve did things such as finding homes for refugees, running air raid shelters and working as motorbike messengers.

In 1917 the army set up a Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Its members did non combat jobs normally carried out by soldiers, freeing the soldiers to fight. By 1918 there were 40,000 WAACs working in jobs such as clerks, drivers and telephonists for the army. The Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) did similar work for the navy and air force.

The biggest unformed organisation for women was the Women's Land Army. There were 113,000 'Land Girls' who worked on farms to replace male farm workers who joined the army. There work was vital to the war effort because German submarines were preventing ships from bringing food into Britain from overseas.

A tape recording in which a munitions worker recalls her wartime experience

A girl that went out left all the powder in the oven and Cissie Peters went on night duty. She opened the door and it blew both her eyes out ... There were crowds of accidents but it was all hushed up. I remember one night about six ambulances came along but they wouldn't tell us because they'd be afraid people would leave.

Pay and Conditions

During the war women's pay more than doubled. Average wages rose from 11 shillings (55p) a week to 25 shillings (£1.25) in 1919.

The work that women did could not be done in the kind of clothes they wore before the war. Skirts became much shorter and many women started to wear trousers. Corsets went out of fashion and dresses became looser. Hair styles also changed as long hair could be dangerous when working with machinery

Working conditions were often very poor. Hours were long, and shift work could be very awkward for mothers with small children. For munitions workers especially, working conditions were dangerous. Women who worked with high explosive TNT were nicknamed canaries because the explosive chemicals made their hair and skin turn yellow. Accidents often happened (see right).

Women after the war

Women Workers

When the war ended in 1918, four million British servicemen started returning to the homes and jobs they had left behind.

Women had been allowed to take over many men's jobs for as long as the war lasted. Now that it was over, they were expected to give their jobs up to returning servicemen. Even in factories that had not existed before the war, many women were made to hand in their notice. Within months of the end of the war, hundreds and thousands of women were out of work.

Many of these women did not want to go back into traditional 'women's work' when they lost their jobs. Domestic service was especially unpopular and many stayed on the dole rather than taking this option. These women faced fierce criticism as newspapers called them parasites and scroungers. The government cut unemployment pay to force them back to work. As a result most women went back to the kind of work they had been doing before the war.

Emmeline Pankhurst was the leader of the suffragettes - a group who protested for women's rights to vote.
Emmeline Pankhurst was the leader of the suffragettes - a group who protested for women's rights to vote.
Number of female MPs
Total number of MPs

Women's rights

Although many women lost their jobs at the end of the war, some did benefit from a new law made about work in 1919. It said that being female or being married could not stop a person from getting job in the government, the law or any other profession. Also in 1919, a State Register of Nurses was set up, and nursing was recognised for the first time as a profession.

Due to the work of the suffragettes, women over 30 earnt the right to vote in general elections and women gained the right to to stand for election as a member of Parliament.

As well as these political rights, women gained some important legal rights in the next few years. For example, the divorce laws were changed so that a wife could divorce her husband for adultery and no other reason. Before, she had to prove that her husband had also deserted her or been cruel to her. A women could also divorce her husband for drunkenness or forcing her to have sex. Neither of these had been grounds for divorce before.

Women in Society

During the war, women became used to doing things that were frowned upon before, such as smoking, going out alone and wearing trousers or shorter dresses. This trend continued after the war. Hemlines rose, smoking became fashionable and young women frequently went out without a male companion. Overall it seems women's lives were much more free in the 1920s than they had been before the war.


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    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 

      7 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for this hub! Voted up interesting! It seems like this part of British history was parallel to American history in the story of women's rights.


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