How WWI changed the lives of Britain’s women
They were widows. They were bereaved mothers, sisters and friends. But women in the first world war were so much more too. It was to become a transforming moment in history for the role of many women – change borne of absolute and bitter necessity.
When war broke out no one could have predicted how long and devastating the conflict would turn out to be. So in those heady early days women’s role was pretty predictable. Their duty was to wave their men off to war, promising to “keep the home fires burning”, waiting at the window till they returned triumphantly.
There was no interest – or need – to allow women to work much beyond the traditional arena of domestic service, which employed around one and a half million women in 1914. Certainly, the trade unions had no desire to see women muscling in on their trades – as women, of course, were always paid less, it would set a dangerous precedent.
But soon it became brutally clear the lines of men streaming to war would be one-way, pitifully few would be returning and those who didn’t would need to be replaced. Someone had to “man” the ammunition factories, the transport network, the civil service – step forward Britain’s women.
But the oft used rather glamorous pictures of women smiling in their work belied a more prosaic reality -much of the work was hard, often monotonous and women were still expected to accept less pay for their particular war efforts.
The suffragette movement – which had caused such a stir before the outbreak of war – was diverted by the onset of conflict – and campaigned instead for women’s right to be at the heart of the war. And so by 1917 a move to create a Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was put in place. A short while later it was followed by a Women’s Royal Navy Service and Women’s Air Force.
So amid the anguish of loss of the war years there was definitely the exhilaration of emancipation for some women. But the many gains were offset by some depressing losses as the war drew to a close.
In 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote and a year later the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their sex. But the very same year, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices, meant that men should be given priority in employment. Many women found themselves pushed back into the home, back into caring roles for husbands many maimed and incapacitated by the fighting.
The debate has raged ever since about how much the war changed things for women – but it certainly did change them. They won the vote, and a taste of how different their lives could be. For many their spirits were changed, their psyche, their very expectations of what was possible.
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