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Women in the British War Effort: 1914-1918

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Assess the extent of the contribution made by women to the British war effort 1914-18.

When discussing World War One, one point that is often brought up is the contribution women made to the British war effort. It is clear that many women contributed to the war effort, be it through volunteering or working in factories to produce bombs and shells. Women were called to help through requests printed in newspapers, and hundreds enthusiastically volunteered to care for those who were sick or injured.[1] It is often thought that many women jumped at the opportunity to help their country during the war, either due to their patriotism or because of the many new opportunities that were now opening up to them. It is often thought that the contributions that women made to the war effort eventually led to female suffrage in 1918. Though the right to vote was limited to women over the age of thirty, it was seen as a large step forward towards gender equality at the time by many. However, the question remains: what contributions did women make to the British war effort that led to this? This essay shall explore the many different ways in which women contributed to the war, from manual labour to domestic chores.

Regardless of the roles they played, many historians agree that the contributions that women made to the British war effort was vital in ensuring victory. As World War One was the first instance of total war, a joint effort by both men and women on the front lines and back home was needed in order to succeed. It is often interpreted that the situation of women during the war was simple. Gail Braybon explains that it is a common misconception that women took over men's jobs during the war, and because of the work they did they were rewarded with the vote; the reality, however, is more complicated.[2] He states that in order to understand women during this period, one must '… consider women both as subjects, and as 'objects' - of pity, derision, hostility or admiration'.[3] Alan G. V. Simmonds agrees with this, stating that historians are presented with many uncertainties when it comes to studying working women during the war.[4] Indeed, exploring this area of history does prove to have challenges, from inaccurate government figures and the many different experiences that the war brought. Even then, it is agreed by many scholars that the contribution made by women to the British war effort was of high importance for many different reasons.

When discussing the role of women during the First World War, many immediately think of those who volunteered to help with the sick and wounded during the war. The Voluntary Aid Detachments, also known as the VAD, was founded in 1909 and were a group of untrained nurses who assisted trained nurses by caring for patients. According to Anne Summers, the VADs have been portrayed as 'the epitome of enthusiasm, dedication and efficiency'[5], and between 1914 and 1919 at least 32,000 women served as military nurses.[6] While the VADs were not permitted to ride to the front lines in order to treat wounded soldiers, many were sent abroad in order to serve at British bases; one of the most well-known was in Calais. Despite this, many VADs remained in Britain. The VADs were seen as highly important during war-time Britain, as they were needed in large numbers and quickly.[7] It is often thought that a vast majority of those who volunteered to be part of the VAD were from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, and while this is true, it is important to note that a large flux of working class women joined the VAD towards the end of the war.[8] The contribution that the VADs made towards the British war effort, in the end, was extremely important. It is argued that they were so important that they were often compared to volunteer soldiers,[9] which at the time would have increased patriotism in many. This comparison between soldiers and VADs is extremely important in showing how much these women contributed towards the British war effort; that is, arguably, if the comparison had not been made then it would be safe to assume that the role women played was not of great importance in comparison to the men. Therefore, from this is can be proposed that the contribution that the VADs made to the British war effort was very important.

Alongside the VADs, there were other important volunteer groups set up during the war. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), later renamed Queen Mary's Auxiliary Corps, were a group of women who were attached to the army that was founded in 1917. It was founded in order to help solve the issue of providing manpower for the army,[10] though it was not taken very serious, especially by men. This was due to how, according to Gould, "The idea of women performing military service… was both disturbing and offensive to many people…".[11] Women were not expected to partake in activities such as this, which is why the WAAC was not taken seriously when it was founded. Even in 1907, when preparations for war were already underway, women were not expected to join the Territorial and Reserves Force, which aimed to train people to defend Britain against invasion.[12] Due to how they were not harshly disciplined and were not expected to fight like men were, it can be disputed that the WAAC did not necessarily contribute much to the war effort in comparison to the VADs and munitionettes. Other organizations, such as the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) and the Women's Land Army (WLA) were set up in 1918 and 1917 respectively in an attempt to get women to do their part. The WLA aimed to get more labour onto the fields in order to produce good harvests during the war and take over from men who had been called to join the army. Around 5,500 women applied by April 1917 and 45,000 women volunteered by the end of the war, only 23,000 women actually worked due to the reluctance for farmers.[13] By volunteering for the WLA, women were able to help with food produce as well as have a sense of patriotism. As food is a necessity, it can therefore be argued that this contribution was important. Without the WLA it is possible that rationing in Britain would have been worse. That being said, as so many women were turned away it can be said that perhaps the need for farmers was not as drastic as initially thought. Regardless, this contribution can still be seen as important due to the necessity for food.

Another key role that is often discussed alongside the topic of women's contributions to the British war effort is women at work, especially the factory workers who were also known as the 'munitionettes'. According to Angela Woollacott, '… women munition workers received public acclamation for their part in the war effort'.[14] Working in munitions factories was extremely dangerous due to the high risks of injury and accidents, and it was because of this that many women involved in these accidents received the Order of the British Empire after the war.[15] While the middle- and upper-classes tended to volunteer as nurses, a vast majority of women who worked in munitions factories were working class women who had to make a living in order to keep their families fed. After the Shell Scandal of 1915, there a greater focus on producing munitions for the war. Due to this, the number of workers who worked in industries classed under 'munitions' increased; for example, in 1914 170,000 women worked in the metal industry, though this increased to 594,000 by 1918.[16] Other industries appeared to experience a decrease in workers as women changed occupations to be of more use to the war effort, such as clothing and textiles. Alongside this, many factories turned to making munitions in an attempt to help with the war effort. For example, Woollacott mentions that a tobacco factory began making shells whilst a gramophone factory turned to making shell-fuses.[17] However, working in industry did not come without backlash. It is often thought that women replaced men, and this belief was strong during the war. In The Aberdare Leader, an article about a brawl between two women stated that 'Women have replaced men in many a walk of life since the out- break of the war…".[18] This belief that women had replaced the men who had gone off to war was fairly common during this period, and women were often reminded that their jobs were only temporary. Deborah Throm writes that the number of women who joined the workforce 'replacing' men is questionable,[19] mainly due to the lack of official figures that support this view. Women were also excluded from certain jobs, such as coal-mining and dock work, meaning that it is impossible for women to have replaced men in the workforce during this period.[20] Regardless, the contribution women made to industry during the war is quite important, especially when one considers the Shell Scandal of 1915. With women working in munitions factories, the possibility of another crisis happening had decreased, and even then they were working in a dangerous environment that saw thousands of injuries and fatalities.

Alongside working in factories and volunteering, women were also expected to keep performing their regular domestic duties. This resulted in a double burden, meaning that many married women had to work in order to feed their family as well as care for said family when they were not working. In some cases, it was noted that some women had barely six hours sleep due to her duties at home and at work. [21]It was important that women kept the 'homefires burning' and acted as though everything was normally back home, mainly due to the fear that fathers and sons would not make it back home. During the war married women were expected to leave their jobs in order to look after their family, though not many wanted to or could afford to.[22] Many middle- and upper-class women were in the position where they could afford to leave work, thought the working-class could not. Therefore, regardless of whether they were in employment or not, women were expected to look after the home as though was had not happened. Alongside this, many women did all they could to ensure that they could help those on the front lines. Watson mentions that during the war many women 'adopted' prisoners of war and sent them letters.[23] Homemade goods such as knitted mufflers and socks were also sent to men on the front lines, alongside chocolate and cigarettes, as a form of comfort and a reminder of home.[24] This was quite an important contribution towards the war effort. This is because, by doing this, it was believed that goods from home would increase morality for the men who were fighting on the front lines. Women also tried to persuade men into joining the war through the White Feather Movement. While in some cases this can be seen as cruel, women would bestow men who were not at war with a white feather to show their cowardice. To some this may have encouraged them to enrol before conscription was introduced, though to others who may have received them it would have been unfair, mainly due to invisible disabilities that may have prevented them from enrolling. Nevertheless, the White Feather Movement during the war would not have contributed to much long-term. Women's domestic roles, however, was an extremely important contribution that kept the illusion that everything was normal afloat. Therefore, it can be argued that women's contributions to the home was important for the war effort, even as important as the munition workers and those in employment.

The overall contributions that women made to the British war effort were extremely important, both in helping those abroad as well as those back home. Despite the fact that many people were still prejudiced against women working outside of their normal occupations, such as nursing and sewing,[25] it is undeniable that the overall contributions women made to the British war effort was of high importance. Women workers and those who volunteered during the war were, arguably, the most important when it came to contributions, due to the overall impact and contributions that they made. With VADs helping the sick and munition workers making shells and bombs for the army, it is understandable why women were praised considerably during the war despite initial prejudice. Their hard work during the war it why many say that it led to women gaining the right to vote. While this is still somewhere debates amongst historians, it is somewhat clear that their hard work had some role in ensuring women suffrage. All women were seen as having an important role at home and abroad during the war, be it volunteering or simply looking after the home. The contributions that women made to the British war effort are important in the sense that it helped women experience a new life, for example working in areas that they may not have worked in before, as well as help the war effort as a whole; to undermine women's contributions is, in a way, to undermine an entire part of the war.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources:

The Aberdare Leader, 29th June 1918, National Library of Wales.

Secondary Sources:

Beddoe, Deirdre. Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars 1918-1939, London, 1989.

Constantine, Stephen, Kirby, Maurice W and Rose, Mary B. The First World War in British History, Great Britain, 1995.

Gowdy-Wygant, Cecilia. Cultivating Victory: The Women's Land Army and the Victory Garden, Pittsburgh, 2013.

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, Jenson, Jane, Michel, Sonya and Weitz, Margaret Collins. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, New Haven and London, 1987.

Marwick, Arthur. The Deluge, Hampshire, 2006.

Simmonds, Alan G.V. Britain and World War One, Oxon, 2012.

Summers, Anne. Angels and Citizens, Newbury, 2000.

Wall, Richard and Winter, Jay. The Upheaval of War, Cambridge, 1988.

Watson, Janet S. K. 'Khaki Girls, VADs, and Tommy's Sisters: Gender and Class in First World War Britain', The International History Review, Vol. 19, No. 1, Feb 1997, pp. 32-51.

Woollacott, Angela. On Her Their Lives Depend, California, 1994.


[1] Gould, Jenny. 'Women's Military Service in First World War Britain' in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, Jenson, Jane, Michel, Sonya and Weitz, Margaret Collins (eds.), p. 116.

[2] Braybon, Gail. 'Women and the War' in The First World War in British History, Constantine, Stephen, Kirby, Maurice W and Rose, Mary B (eds.), p. 141.

[3] Braybon, Gail. 'Women and the War' in The First World War in British History, Constantine, Stephen, Kirby, Maurice W and Rose, Mary B (eds.), p. 141.

[4] Simmonds, Alan G. V. Britain and World War One, p. 129.

[5] Summers, Anne. Angels and Citizens, p. 227.

[6] Summers, Anne. Angels and Citizens, p. 231.

[7] Summers, Anne. Angels and Citizens, p. 232.

[8] Watson, Janet S. K. 'Khaki Girls, VADs, and Tommy's Sisters: Gender and Class in First World War Britain', The International History Review, p. 33.

[9] Watson, Janet S. K. 'Khaki Girls, VADs, and Tommy's Sisters: Gender and Class in First World War Britain', The International History Review, p. 34.

[10] Gould, Jenny. 'Women's Military Service in First World War Britain' in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, p. 114.

[11] Gould, Jenny. 'Women's Military Service in First World War Britain' in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, p. 117.

[12] Gould, Jenny. 'Women's Military Service in First World War Britain' in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, p. 115.

[13] Gowdy-Wygant, Cecilia. Cultivating Victory: The Women's Land Army and the Victory Garden, p. 40.

[14] Woollacott, Angela. On Her Their Lives Depend, p. 8.

[15] Woollacott, Angela. On Her Their Lives Depend, p. 8.

[16] Woollacott, Angela. On Her Their Lives Depend, p. 25.

[17] Woollacott, Angela. On Her Their Lives Depend, p. 28.

[18] The Aberdare Leader, 29th June 1918, p. 8.

[19] Deborah Throm. 'Women and Work in Wartime Britain' in The Upheaval of War, Wall, Richard and Winter, Jay, p. 308.

[20] Braybon, Gail. 'Women and the War' in The First World War in British History, Constantine, Stephen, Kirby, Maurice W and Rose, Mary B (eds.), p. 150.

[21] Warwick, Arthur. The Deluge, p. 154.

[22] Woollacott, Angela. On Her Their Lives Depend, p. 152.

[23] Watson, Janet S. K. 'Khaki Girls, VADs, and Tommy's Sisters: Gender and Class in First World War Britain', The International History Review, p.p. 36-7.

[24] Watson, Janet S. K. 'Khaki Girls, VADs, and Tommy's Sisters: Gender and Class in First World War Britain', The International History Review, p. 37.

[25] Gould, Jenny. 'Women's Military Service in First World War Britain' in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, p. 118.


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