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World War One: The War's Impact On British Women

Updated on February 10, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Asteriaa writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

World War One revolutionised the value of women in Brittan’s workforce and society. Women’s paramount role in stabilising the economy allowed women to realise their potential to claim equality. Through performing arduous duties in industries, the traditional stereotypes of a maternal ‘housewife’ were overturned. In order to support the war effort and home front, women contributed to the war through assisting munitions production. The role that women played in the workforce had disrupted the bias trade unions’ had in the favour of male workers. Through organisations such as the ‘Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps’, women participated in the war and consequently encouraged men to enlist in the war effort. Ultimately, women’s contribution to the war played a momentous role in prolonging Brittan’s military capabilities.

Propaganda in ww1. A common Women ANZAC poster
Propaganda in ww1. A common Women ANZAC poster | Source

Challenging Stereotypes

Traditional stereotypes of the maternal ‘housewife’ were contradicted and challenged with the opportunities that the war provided. Despite the initial resistance to hiring women for what was perceived as ‘men’s work’, the introduction of conscription in 1916 made the need for women workers urgent.

Due to this, societal perceptions of women metamorphosed from ‘housewives’ into becoming independent labourers, which was a critical turning point for the Women Suffrage. For instance, Mrs Millicent Fawcett, the president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies from 1897 to 1918 explained that the war revolutionised the industrial position of women and stated, “it found them serfs and left them free.”

Source

Essentially, Fawcett exemplified how through arduous duties such as working in munitions and gaining content wages women were instilled with a sense of self-confidence. Through this, the war allowed them to recognise their physical strength and potential. Hence, the war played a critical position in establishing individualism in females and made them a reliable aspect of society. Therefore, the war had elevated women’s functionality within society and in the process challenged conventional interpretations of female stereotype.

WW1 - The Home Front

Women In The Workforce

One of the main legacies that the war left on the lives of British women was through catalysing their substantial contribution to the economy. As the result of 1916’s conscription policy, women’s involvement in the war effort was critical to succour the British economy and fund the war effort for allies. The war effort dominated the finances in the home front as for example, the average food bill for a family of four rose from less than £1 a week in 1914 to over £2 in 1918. Hence, Brittan was exhausting their resources and needed extra workers to maintain the war effort in areas such as the 819 000 women working in munitions factories. However, the involvement of women resulted in implications to their health.

Harsh effects with the condition of toxic jaundice ensued fatal consequences with the increased exposing of TNT and other harmful materials. ‘Canaries’ were a typical outcome of their yellowed skin. In spite of this, women’s effort within World War One was detrimental toward the Allied home front as French General Joffre explained that if the women in the war had stopped working for twenty minutes, they would have lost the war. Ergo, the overall benefaction those females presented in regards to aiding the economy and the Allied war effort had been an ultimate result of the war.

World War One recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army
World War One recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army | Source

Female Unions

The war had stimulated a change within which who trade unions were to support the work force. Prior to the war female workers had been less unionised than their male counterparts. Essentially, this was due to the fact female workers were inclined to do part-time work and to work in smaller firms (which tended to be less unionised.) Furthermore, existing unions were normally hostile to female workers due to the ‘housewife’ stereotype that played a paramount role in the female image. However, due to the lack of male workers, unions were forced to compromise on the issue of women's work.

Due to the war, the increasing women employment figures were recognised, along with the rising levels of women who were left unmarried or widowed by the war. This forced established unions to accept the involvement of women in the workforce. Additionally, feminist pressure resulted in the establishment of female unions, which threatened to undermine male exclusive unions. Subsequently, the war provoked the increase of female trade union membership from 357,000 in 1914 to over a million by 1918. Henceforth, the numerical increase of unionised women was one of the prominent legacies of World War One.

By 1917 women also worked in munitions factories and around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during the war.
By 1917 women also worked in munitions factories and around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during the war. | Source

Women's Sufferage

The formation of female organising caused due to the war played a critical role in Female Suffrage. Before the war, feminists protested for the right to have a voice in politics. Hence, the war was an eminent opportunity for women to impress males through contributing to the Allied war effort. Organisations were established such as:


  • WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps)
  • WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force which consisted of clerks, fitters, drivers, cooks and storekeepers)
  • WRENS (Women’s Royal Naval Service which consisted of cooks, clerks, wireless telegraphers, code experts and electricians) were established.


This played a detrimental role in supporting Allied troops as women sustained the economy. Furthermore, women were actively involved in encouraging men to enlist, and were utilised within pro and anti-conscription propaganda. This assisted in increasing recruitment rates. Due to this, in December 1917, the British government passed a bill that allowed women suffrage, which earned their right to vote. Thus, the war presented an essential opportunity for women to gain the respect of males within society and in achieving the right to vote.

Women's Suffrage: Crash Course US History #31

Conclusion

Economic reliance on female labour due to the war elevated their place in society. The maternal ‘housewife’ archetype was challenged through the duties women partook in to assist the war effort. The assistance of women within munitions production and the health issues that were faced were a result of the war. Male biases within trade unions were disputed with the increasing rates of women within the workforce.

Women had partaken in encouraging the increasing rates of male recruits within the war and created organisations to support the war. It was arguable whether Allied victory would have been obtainable without the assistance of women, and women would not have a prominent role in society today.

Do you think that without women suffrage women would many rights today?

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