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Bomb Girls: Exploring the History of Women Workers during the First World War

Updated on February 12, 2013

The First World War rattled Europe, resulting in a dramatic upheaval in normal daily activity. Of notable interest is what this meant for women living at the heart of the conflict, particularly in Britain, France, and Germany. As many men left home to fight in the war, they left behind their jobs, resulting in a dramatic increase in occupational vacancy. In addition to this, munitions industries vastly expanded as a result of the demand for weapons to fight the war with. It was women who replaced the industrial labour left behind by men and took up the reins for the expanded munitions industry. This was a significant change to the social and economic landscape surrounding established gender roles in Europe at the time, and many have cited this phenomenon as a highly liberating experience for women and a major contributing factor to their historical emancipation. However, through a critique of women’s working conditions, work in practice, supervision, public reaction, and the postwar conclusion to their roles as workers, it is clear that the war did not free women from the social constraints of their gender, but even reinforced them.

The most important thing to note when considering the impact labour mobilization had on women workers during the war is that many women were already working outside of the home before the outbreak of war. Gail Braybon asserts that the notion of a dramatic influx of women into the European workforce is based on propaganda, and that millions of working class women merely shifted from their prewar trade to the better paying opportunities that opened up during the war.[1] In fact, about one third of British women in 1911 were working outside of the home, primarily as domestic servants or in the textile industry.[2] Statistics such as this were similar for France, where slightly over a third of women claimed occupation of a similar nature, and in Germany, whose urban numbers were about a fourth of the population, with rural statistics closer to those overall for Britain and France.[3] Working women in Britain, France, and Germany actually faced unemployment upon the onset of war[4] because it meant that fewer people could afford to keep domestic servants as well as the decline of the textile industry. As a result, women shifted to the new occupations resulting from the war.[5] Their movement into war related occupations, and replacement of male labour left behind by men fighting on the front, is more accurately described as a shift from one form of work to another, rather than a dramatic entrance of women into the workforce.

Now it is important to consider the role that women actually played in the workforce. Braybon points out that the work done by men in factories was highly skilled and specialized, requiring a lengthy training process, often requiring some form of apprenticeship.[6] There was simply not enough time to give women the same level and degree of training necessary to fully replace men on an individual basis, so their work was broken down and diluted. For example, the work of one male technician in a factory would be broken down into parts that several women could do individually, requiring little training, involving careful and repetitive tasks.[7] James McMillan emphasises that women were working in very unskilled positions within munitions factories under the supervision of male colleagues.[8] These points are evident in a report by Captain C. Farrot to Lieut. Colonel L.E.O. Charlton on December 4, 1916 regarding the employment of women in London factories:

It seems to be the general opinion of the Works Managers that training women as skilled hands on machine tools takes much the same time as training a youth, but for ordinary simple operations women labour is giving satisfactory results, provided the work is properly supervised and the machines are set up by skilled men.[9]

Heyman notes how women were considered to have an aptitude for the careful, repetitive labour discussed above. This sentiment is also evident in the report by Farrot:

For repetition of manufacture women can be utilized much more than they are at present but in connection with jobbing work where difficult and varied operations have to be carried out, they are of little use not having had sufficient experience.[10]

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that women may have entered the work force, but they did not completely replace men. The work that was left behind by men fighting and dying in the war was broken down for unskilled women who worked under, rather than alongside, the remaining men.

Unfortunately, inferior work sometimes translated into inferior treatment. McMillan points out that the male colleagues of women often deliberately gave them undue stress out of malice.[11] Heyman cites abuse a woman faced from a foreman who “over and over again . . . gave [her] wrong or incomplete directions and altered them in such a way as to give [her] hours more work.”[12] He offers another example, this time of a woman whose “drawer was nailed up by the men, and oil was poured over everything through a crack.”[13] As if such treatment from male colleagues was not enough to assure women that their positions were not as valued, there is also the official matter of unequal payment between men and women. Heyman notes that British and French women earned lower wages than men,[14] while Ingrid Sharp points out that German women at this time earned one half to three fourths less than men.[15] As discussed above, work previously done by men was altered for women, and the changes are what justified paying them less than the men before them. In fact, women who manufactured TNT explosives (putting themselves at high poison exposure) were still considered to be doing “women’s work,” and not considered to be functioning on the same level as men.[16] While women did fill the labour gap left by men on the front, they did not fully replace them on an individual level, and were treated with much inequality amongst their colleagues and higher officials.

This feminising of the that labour women did, in lieu of men on the front, was a consistent theme for general gender relations during the war, related to a strong need by the government and the public to reassert women’s domestic and nurturing role. This is most likely in response to the social threat the war was leading women to become. This notion is well illustrated by a sample of German propaganda noted by Sharp, featuring a woman working in the munitions industry, with the slogan “earlier I buttered bread for him, now I paint grenades and think, this is for him.”[17] This further exemplifies the notion that women were working in what was culturally a man’s field, but they were still, in a way, subservient to the male presence. Sharp continues by asserting that war in general is a period where gender distinctions are particularly strong. The image of men going to fight, and women staying to maintain the home, manifests deeply engrained gender ideals which were very much alive at the time, exacerbating the notion of men asserting themselves outside, and women remaining passive inside.[18] France played on the reproductive role of women. There was much campaigning for women to become ‘intimate’ with their men upon their arrival home on shore leave, in order to produce offspring to replace the population lost in combat. The point is that women may have broken down walls upon their need in previously male dominated occupations, however, they were still confined by a multiplicity of limitations imposed on their gender.

In addition to facing segregation in the workplace, female munitions workers in Britain and France were the target of much civil and public criticism regarding the behaviour they were said to exhibit in their new ‘masculine’ roles. Heyman claims that propaganda against female workers in France portrayed them as frivolous; spending the money they made working in factories on a variety of shameful luxuries, while women in Britain were rumoured to supplement their factory income by selling themselves into prostitution.[19] Sharp draws attention to the anxiety in Germany about the perceived blurring between masculinity and femininity that women’s entrance into the workforce posed, as well as concerns about selfishness and indulgence similar to those in Britain and France.[20] Braybon makes specific note of how women were considered guilty of sloth, drinking, and debauchery,[21] sentiments which are clearly evident in a report by the Restrictions Committee of the Central Control Board on July 1, 1915. The report considers a petition on the limitation of alcohol consumption and late night activity by young women working in the munitions industry:

The Board should make an Order prohibiting girls under the age of 21 in Birmingham and District from being served with intoxicating liquor, or being allowed on licensed premises, together with a statement of facts in support of the Petition. The statements bear closely upon the condition of girl workers in munitions factories.[22]

What is important to note is that women were not only being criticised for, and barred from activities involving vice and vulgarity, but that these activities are what were tolerated when men did them before the war, and that this is merely a further reassertion of woman’s place in response to the social upheaval of the war.

The perceived lack of integrity expressed of women workers during the war prompted trade union leaders to campaign for women to return to their place in the home. Heyman cites them as claiming that women working is not consistent with their natural duty within the home and “that they ever left is one of the evil results of the war.”[23] This proposition was indeed fulfilled as women were immediately dismissed from their work after the war.[24] Sharp notes how German women were replaced by men returning home from the war[25] and McMillan points out that French women were even given a bonus as an incentive to give up their positions to men after the war.[26] In fact, British women who retained their wartime occupations were barraged and condemned by others.[27] Tucker asserts that when women gave up their role in the workforce, “many simply returned to their prewar status.”[28] It is evident from this that, far from liberating women, their role in the wartime workforce sparked a backlash by which women were restored to their traditional gender roles after the war. As Braybon accurately states, “the world, it seemed, had not been turned upside down by the millions of women who worked in munitions factories.”[29]

In addition to being dispossessed of their wartime occupations, gender roles were strongly reapplied to women as it was considered to be their responsibility to restore homes broken by the war to their original function and capacity. A major aspect of this was repopulation. Women were needed to fulfil their traditional maternal role, having as many children as possible. France was particularly interested in prohibiting contraception and abortion,[30] while Germany was interested in strengthening the population through an increased birth rate touched with the ideals of the eugenics movement.[31] In general, there was a desire to return to the way things were before the war, which meant a reassertion of traditional femininity for women. While women in Britain and Germany did get the Vote just after the war[32] (in France, not until after the Second World War),[33] on the social level, the war was a greater force for the reassertion of their limited gender roles as mothers and housekeepers than it was an emancipating and liberating experience.

Women were called upon to replace the work that men left behind when they went to fight on the front, but their work in the factories was reduced to unskilled labour that paid less than the skilled work of men before them, and usually had them under the supervision of men who resented their presence. Their role on the home front was greatly feminised, suggesting that they were working to support the men rather than contributing directly to the war effort in their own right. There was also an unfairly negative opinion of women who worked during the war, and this exacerbated the backlash leading to their reasserted gender roles. In conclusion, the war was not as much the stride toward female liberation that it has often been interpreted to be, but a set-back to European women’s movements which were under way before the war.

[1] Gail Braybon, "Women, War, and Work," in The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War, ed. Hew Strachan (Oxford, Oxford UP, 1998), 154.

[2] Spencer C. Tucker, The Great War: 1914-18 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998), 212.

[3] Neil M. Heyman, Daily Life During World War I (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002)211-12.

[4] Heyman, 212.

[5] Heyman, 214.

[6] Braybon, 150.

[7] Heyman, 213.

[8] James F. McMillan, "World War I and Women in France," in Total War and Social Change, ed. Arthur Marwick (Houndmills, MacMillan Press, 1988), 10-11.

[9] L.E.O. Charlton, "Adastral House." in Home Front 1914-1918: How Britain Survived the Great

War, ed. Ian F. W. Beckett (Surrey: The National Archives, 2006), 84.

[10] Charlton, 84.

[11] McMillan, 10.

[12] Heyman, 217.

[13] Heyman, 217.

[14] Heyman, 216.

[15] Ingrid Sharp "Frauen und Fraß: German women in wartime," in The Great World War: 1914-15, ed. Peter Liddle (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 78.

[16] Braybon, 155.

[17] Sharp, 75.

[18] Sharp, 75.

[19] Heyman, 223.

[20] Sharp, 81.

[21] Braybon, 157.

[22] The Restrictions Committee. "Petition of Birmingham White Ribbon Bands." in Home Front 1914-1918: How Britain Survived the Great War, ed. Ian F. W. Beckett (Surrey: The National Archives, 2006), 97.

[23] Heyman, 213.

[24] Tucker, 213.

[25] Sharp, 81.

[26] McMillan, 8.

[27] Braybon, 161.

[28] Tucker, 213.

[29] Braybon, 162.

[30] McMillan, 13.

[31] Sharp, 83.

[32] Heyman, 227.

[33] McMillan, 12.


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