Women On The Home Front History Essay
Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
The First World War had a great impact on the lives of the British population between 1914-1918, particularly for women. Although the war caused death and suffering for many families, there were many positive things that came around for women due to the war. At the outbreak of the Great War, women had very little independence of their own, no suffrage and were financially inferior to men. However, the war brought about many opportunities and changes to women’s lives, which eventually led to suffrage and better treatment for women.
One of the greatest changes seen due to the war was the increase in confidence and independence of women. The war brought about new job opportunities for women, due to the eventual conscription of men, and therefore many women changed careers because of this. These new jobs that women now worked in, such as farming, public transport, munitions factories and police wardens led to many women receiving an increased wage, when compared to the wage many would have received when working in domestic service. These new opportunities led to many women becoming financially independent of their husbands, and in 1918, the Representation of the People Act allowed many women the right to vote. These new roles even led to many women becoming more confident, which was shown after the war by women now wearing trousers and clothes previously seen as male clothes, along with the change of hairstyles to short hair. This clearly shows the change in attitude of women due to the war.
Many women were also actively involved in the war effort against Germany, most notably the Suffragettes. The leaders of the Suffragette movement, such as the Pankhursts, saw the war as an opportunity to improve the situation and social status of women, and campaigned for patriotic women to help with the war effort, as they argued that a victory for a “male nation”, i.e. Germany, would be a “disastrous blow” for the movement. These campaigns spurred up confidence and support for women in the war effort.
The most immediate change to the lives of women due to the war was the new work in industry for women, who had previously been limited to domestic service. Due to the enrolment campaigns of the government from the very start of the war for male soldiers, and the eventual conscription of all able men in the country, many jobs dominated by men were without workers. The government tackled this problem by opening up these jobs to women to fill the gap left by the soldiers. New jobs necessary for the country, such as the Women’s Land Army, public transport, nursing, police officers and post office workers were now all recruiting women for the war effort. By the very end of the war, even more jobs had been opened up to women, such as recruitment into the armed forces as cooks, clerks, telephonists, electricians, instructors and code breakers, all in order to free up men to fight.
The war also opened up a wider range of occupations to female workers and sped up the downfall of traditional female employment, especially domestic service. From the 19th century to 1911, between 11-13% of all women worked in domestic service, but by 1931, this percentage had dropped below 8%, which clearly shows the effect the war had on the domestic service industry. The increase of women in industrial employment is also clear to
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see, as there was a rise from 2,000 female workers employed in dockyards, factories and munitions factories in July 1914, which increase to 247,000 by the end of the war in November 1918.
This change in roles for women was a major goal that the Suffragette movement fought for in the years leading up to the war. Many women saw themselves as slaves in the domestic service before the war, due to their long hours and small wages. This situation was seen across the country, as most women were restricted to this female dominated industry. From my own knowledge, 1 know that Millicent Fawcett, a leading feminist and suffragette at the time of the war, said that “the war revolutionised the industrial position of women” due to the opening up of new industries for women, and for many, better conditions and pay.
Civil service saw the biggest industry rise in women employment. The numbers of women employed under the government in jobs such as secretarial work and communications rose from 33,000 women in 1911, to 102,000 women in 1921. Many women chose these new jobs during the war not only to help the war effort, but to also receive better wages, better conditions and also gave women more independence. Another example of the mass movement of women away from domestic service was in the London Omnibus Company. In 1916, around half of the newly employed workers were previously in the domestic service industry.
Another large change seen in employment for women was the change of attitude from unions towards women. Before the war, most unions were completely organised and led by men, and some unions were even hostile towards women. Due to this reason and also to their restricted line of work, few women were members of a union. However, the war opened up several new opportunities for women, as discussed above, and therefore a huge increase was seen in women joining unions. In 1914, around 357,000 women were represented by a trade union, but by the end of the war in 1918, over 1 million members of trade unions were female, and saw a rise of over 160%. These figures clearly show the sheer numbers of women changing from domestic service that had no union, to the industries, which were represented by trade unions.
All of this knowledge is backed up by Source A2. This source is an official government bar graph, which shows an increase in female employment, during the war years of 1914-1918, across all of the presented industries, such as industry and commerce, except domestic service. The graph shows that industry saw an increase of around 750,000 women during the war period, while domestic service saw a decrease of around 500,000 women over the same period. This clearly shows the movement of women from a previously restricted career in domestic service, as very few women worked in the other careers presented in 1914, to many of the other industries opened up to women because of the war.
This source is quite useful to a historian studying the affect of the war on the lives of women, as the statistics are set out in a very clear bar chart, and therefore it is easy to see the changes of careers for women. It is therefore accessible to many readers. However, only a few industries are used in the graph, and for a historian to get a good picture of the situation at the
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time, they must study many different industries, to see if they saw a similar change, and therefore the graph is only partly useful in this way. To be even more useful, the graph would need to include more dates, and industries, to show a clearer and more accurate picture of the career changes of women. Similarly, the statistics do not take into account the national increase in women in the population, and therefore the statistics may not show the complete picture.
As the statistics were released by the government, the numbers are likely to be accurate, as they would have carried out extensive research before presenting the information to the public, and therefore the source is probably reliable. However, as only a few industries are presented on the graph, this may suggest that the government were only publicising the successful statistics that showed them in a good light and that their policy of opening up industry to women was successful. Therefore the government may not have publicised the more unfavourable statistics and may have left out industries that women did not move to, such as healthcare.
This source may also have been used by the government not just to show the reader how successful they are at getting women into jobs, but also may be used as a piece of propaganda by the government. This graph may have been published to encourage men to volunteer for the army, by showing men what women are willing and eager to do for the war effort, and therefore embarrassing them into conscribing to the armed forces.
However, from my own knowledge of the employment at the time, 1 know that many jobs given to women did improve their previous wages from domestic service, but not to the extent that was previously hoped for. In 1910, the average single domestic servant working in a large household could expect to earn around 13 shillings a week, whereas this increased slightly over the next six years, to £ 1 10 shillings a week, on average. The lack of increase in wages was mainly due to the fact that groups of women were often given jobs that previously only needed one man to do, such as agriculture labour and munitions work. Therefore, the government and private firms split the original man’s wage between several women working on the one job, and the large wages and equal pay compared with men was rarely seen. As a consequence, women did not receive anywhere near equal wages as their male counterparts, and in some cases were not officially declared as replacing a man in employment. This consequence was still apparent long after the end of the war, and even today, women in high positions of business still receive less wages than an equivalent man would.
Another positive consequence of the First World War for women was that the war proved to men that women were capable of being financially and socially independent and could work in both industry and the professions. This improvement in attitude towards the roles of women was brought about through many ways. One way was that the Liberal government in power at the time, didn’t originally conscript men into the armed forces, and therefore relied on male volunteers to increase the numbers in the forces. One of the main ways they encouraged men to go and fight was through the use of emotive propaganda, and especially using women to get their point across. From many pieces of propaganda used at the time, they actually contained several layers and purposes. In many of the posters, women were
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shown working in factories and in agriculture, which not only encouraged women to enrol in The Women’s Land Army, but also embarrassed men through showing what women were willing to do, which promoted many men to “do their bit” and enrol in the army.
At the outbreak of war, many jobs that women were now asked to take up were thought to be too strenuous and dirty for women, especially by the government at the time. The government saw this as a potentially devastating problem, and was therefore one of the main reasons why rationing was introduced. This is because many believed that the food and production output would be dramatically reduced now that farmers and factory workers had left to fight, and they also believed that women, having taken up these roles, would not be able to produce anywhere near the output of that of a man. However, in most cases, women performed just as well as male farmers had previously, and in some cases, women performed even better than their male counterparts. This is one of the reasons for the dramatic change of attitude towards women in employment after the war.
This knowledge is strongly reinforced by Source A4. This source is a propaganda poster encouraging women to take up the roles that men have left for the war, and in this case, farming with The Women’s Land Army. However, an underlying purpose behind this poster may also be to show and inform men of what women are doing for the war effort, and therefore in a sexist way, embarrass them to sign up for the armed forces – If women are doing their part, why aren’t you? This piece of propaganda complements Source A2, as it clearly agrees with the statistics shown on the graph, puts the statistics into a physical and visual form, and therefore makes the government statistics even more valid and appropriate.
This source is very useful to a historian studying the period of the First World War, as it is a piece of propaganda, which is always useful in getting an insight into one particular point of view. ADD MORE ABOUT THE USEFULNESS OF PROPAGANDA HERE. The poster is also very clear and accessible, as its purpose is to attract attention to all passersby, and is therefore useful. The source is also useful as it clearly shows the government’s campaign and drive to get women to work in men’s roles, and shows the government’s commitment to tackling the problems of sexism and the classing of women as inferior to men.
However, as it is a piece of propaganda, the conditions and content may be exaggerated to persuade the reader of the author’s point of view. For example, the woman pictured in the farming scene, ploughing the land, is dressed in smart, clean and fashionable clothing at the time of the war, and therefore the conditions of the job are very likely to be exaggerated to encourage more women to take up these “glamorous” jobs. Similarly, the work pictured of the woman ploughing the land doesn’t seem to cause too much stress on the woman, and doesn’t seem to be extremely strenuous manual labour, another method the government has used to try to move women into these careers. In real life, farming doesn’t actually look anything like what is pictured in the source, and so the source is used to encourage women into the roles without showing them the less desirable aspects and tasks, or the hard work involved, but instead appeal to what they may look for in a new job.
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Also, in a historical view, the main use of propaganda for historians is to see what the government wanted to happen at the time. This poster, along with numerous others, were all methods of recruiting women into men’s roles during the war, as it was a government campaign to do so. Therefore, as it is a piece of propaganda from the beginning of such schemes, we are not told from the source itself whether the campaign was successful, or the actual numbers of women actually took up these positions. Therefore, for this source to be more useful to a historian, it would need to be accompanied by multiple statistics to show whether the government policy of recruiting women through propaganda truly worked.
One of the major consequences of the war, that was to change the lives of women in Britain forever, was the winning of suffrage and political representation for women. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 was used as a reward for the contribution female workers to the war effort, and achieved the main goal of the Suffragettes who had been campaigning for decades previously. However, the Act only permitted a minority of women voting. While the new Act granted the vote to all men over the age of 21, only women who were over the age of 30 were given this right. Even then, women still had to own property themselves to gain suffrage. It was not until 1928, when this Act was revised, and women over the age of 21 could vote. By 1918, at the release of this Act, only 40% of women in Britain were able to vote, however, by 1928 at the revision of the Act, this had increased significantly to over 53% of all women.
However, from my own knowledge, 1 know that this Act was not passed solely on the grounds of the hard work that women contributed in the war effort. While this was one factor, it was not the major factor. The current policy stated that only those who had lived in Britain for the previous four years were eligible to vote. This policy, therefore, completely removed the voting right from thousands of veteran soldiers, after returning from, in some cases, five years of fighting in the trenches. Therefore, the government decided to amend these rules, and due to this new Act, the feminist and suffragette movement pounced on the opportunity, and were able to achieve suffrage for women. Some historians consequently believe that the return of soldiers from the war brought about suffrage for women earlier than it would have happened, and that the hard work of women during the war was not the main reason for their suffrage in 1918.
One of the greatest lifestyle changes for women due to the war was greater wages and financial independence. As discussed beforehand, many women had either a slight or substantial increase in wages due to the new roles opened up for women. As a consequence, many women could now be more financially independent of their husbands, as they were able to purchase their own necessities, and even luxuries such as clothing and jewellery. Some women had such a substantial increase in wages that they were able to pay their own taxes and bills, purchase houses and set up their own businesses.
This knowledge is backed up by Source A5. This source is an account of a woman who changed from domestic service to a munitions worker, as many thousands of women did during the First World War. She recalls a dramatic increase in salary, and also her eagerness
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to leave her past job as a domestic servant. She describes that she “hated every minute” of the domestic service industry, showing how much she disliked the job.
This source is very useful to a historian studying the change of lifestyle for women. This is because it provides an alternate and opposing view to the previous sources, in that it is a personal account of a woman during the war who was actually there and experiencing the events, instead of propaganda produced by the government. This source therefore complements the previous sources, as it shows that the campaigns led by the government to get women into work were successful. It is also useful as Mrs. Felstead was there at the time of the events, and so should remember the key facts of how her life was changed by the war.
However, it is secondary evidence as it was written over 50 years after the war, and therefore Mrs. Felstead could be looking back at the events with particular fondness, and therefore becoming less reliable as she could be looking through “rose-tinted spectacles”. The fact that she describes her previous job in such a bad way therefore suggests that any change in job for her would be better, as she hated her old job. It is also only one woman’s view on how the new roles of women were received, and for a historian to gain an accurate picture of the feelings of women who changed roles from domestic service to war-time jobs, they would need to study several sources from women all around the country at that time.
Nevertheless, the source is still likely to be reliable and valid, as it was requested and displayed at the Imperial War Museum, which is a very respectable and high status museum, so the content must have been verified.
Although the increase in wages was greatly received by some, others criticised how these women now spent their newly acquired wealth. Many people in the higher classes of Britain criticised how women now spent their wages in public houses and on entertainment. ADD MORE HERE.
Therefore, Source A7 backs up this alternate view to the increase in wages. This source is a poem written by a high class woman, who was looking at what the working class woman had become. She talks of the frivolous spending on jewellery, “good times and clothes”, and that the reason that women are working in industry is solely for the wage increase, and not for the false image of patriotism.
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