Question Lise Social Sciences

Women and employment during and after World War I

How did women's work change during and after World War I ?

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At the start of the First World War, working class women occupied paid employment in the traditional areas of agriculture and pit brow work, although to a lesser extent than in the nineteenth century, and also in sectors such as laundry work, domestic service and manufacturing (Holloway, 2005). An emerging group of more educated women from the working and lower middle classes had begun to carry out low status work as shop or clerical assistants, and there was a growing presence of women in teaching and nursing. In Britain a few wealthy few women attended university which was the first step towards women entering the traditionally male professions such as law and medicine. Few married women worked outside their domestic role in the home, and wages for women were significantly lower than wages for men (Tilly and Scott, 1987).

As the First World War progressed, many of the roles that had been dominated by men became vacant because so many men were required to join the military forces, and so the range of working opportunities for women expanded rapidly and pay began to rise. Work in domestic service declined, and women took up roles in factories and the service sector. In some countries, such as Italy, many women returned to agricultural labour rather than industrial production (Grayzel, 2014). This was always understood as a temporary arrangement, however, and after the war was over, most of them were dismissed from these roles. Some animosity against women was shown by men returning from the war and seeking to resume their previous roles (Greenwald, 1990). Gender segregation was therefore re-established in the workforce. Most women were again consigned to lower paid positions, or, in the case of married women, to the traditional roles of motherhood and unpaid domestic labour.


Grayzel, S. R. (2014) The role of women in the war. In H. Strachan (Ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 149-162.

Greenwald, M. W. (1990) Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Holloway, G. (2005) Women and Work in Britain since 1840. Abingdon: Routledge.

Tilly, L. A. and Scott, J. W. (1987) Women, Work, and Family. New York and London: Routledge.