If you’re asked to think about women in war, your mind will probably be cast back to the infamous poster of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ – sleeves rolled up, hair tied back and ready to get really stuck in to helping the war effort by working the jobs men left behind.
The poster has a rallying cry of ‘We Can Do It!‘ as Rosie flexes her muscles. The reality is, however, that this 1943 poster was scarcely seen during the war period and, in fact, only came to the public’s attention in the 1980s when it was rediscovered.
It’s interesting, because the fate of such an iconic image of feminist culture arguably mimics the treatment of ’empowered’ women during the war: unseen, forgotten and lost at the very moment they were deemed to not be useful anymore.
However, once given a taste of freedom and independence, women were unwilling to give up and go back to their designated stations and, despite there being positive steps forward in terms of their rights and freedoms, it was made clear that they still had a long way to go if they were to expect absolute equality.
Prior to WWI, the small number of women who worked (the rest were devoted housewives and mothers) were limited to the domestic field, with roles including teaching and textiles. These professions were all considered menial and unimportant ‘women’s work’, with their lower rates of pay reflecting this. Most women were also expected to stop working once married, a stark contrast to the 40% of married women who were later employed as part of the war effort.
This, however, all changed two years into WWI as men were conscripted to fight in the military, leaving a manpower crisis on the Home Front. Women, in turn, had to work to fill that gap, with them working in typically ‘male’ industries like engineering, transport, agriculture, and even law enforcement and the civil service.
These women mobilised to work were often sent far away to do so. With no husbands, children or any other responsibilities, women were free to do as they wished with their wages and led fully independent life. A lot of the women came from middle-class families and were married off at a young age, meaning that they had never experienced manual work or the independence this lifestyle had to offer.
They contributed widely not only to the Home Front but also to the munitions industry – by 1917, 80% of all weaponry used by the British Army was produced in munitions factories, who primarily employed women. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage even stopped campaigning during WWI and fully co-operated with the government to ensure women were able to contribute to the war effort. It is widely argued that the role of women in WWI contributed to our victory – as Germany’s inability to completely mobilise women in the same way that Britain did during this period is one of the most widely-cited reasons for their defeat.
However, they didn’t get a lot of thanks for it. They were paid significantly less than men despite them doing the same job, and actively campaigned in an attempt to get the pay they deserved. A committee addressing this issue was made by the War Cabinet in 1917 as a result of this campaign, but they ultimately ruled that women couldn’t possibly do an equal amount of work to men because they had ‘lesser strength and special health problems’.
Indeed, men were concerned that due to the fact women cost less, they would be kept on in the roles previously occupied by men after the war. They also argued the case for ‘dilution’, which is where unskilled women were taking on skilled employment, which led to men feeling threatened and undermined. As a result of these concerns, the ‘dilution agreement‘ was reached. As part of this agreement, women were only trained to a semi-skilled level and had to be supervised at all times.
In addition to this, the majority of working women lost their jobs after WWI ended to make room for the men. A law was put in place – The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act – which meant that returning soldiers could walk right back into their old job whilst women were meant to ‘restore’ their ‘pre-war’ position as a loving wife and mother. Within a few years of the end of WWI, 25% of all women were back in domestic service.
Furthermore, a lot of women working in munition factories worked with hazardous chemicals without any adequate protection. In the years that followed, women who worked in these factories faced a vast range of health problems including spleen enlargement, anaemia, a weakened immune system, infertility and liver failure, which led to these women being dubbed the ‘canary girls’ due to the associated jaundice. They were often deformed as a result of working with these chemicals – with a common side effect being the enlargement of breasts and other regions. There were also reports of babies born to munition workers being severely deformed, but there was very little press coverage of this issue and very few attempts were made to resolve it, meaning that munition workers in WWII faced similar conditions.
The good thing about women in war, however, is that it ignited in women a passion for a different way of life. In the decade following the end of WWI, women’s suffrage groups were campaigning harder than ever with significant results. 8.4 million women gained the right to vote in 1918, with the Representation of the People’s Act allowing suitably qualified women over thirty to vote. Later that same year, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act enabled women to be elected as members of Parliament – with a woman being subsequently elected as a MP in the 1918 General Election. Total suffrage equality was then granted with the passing of the extended Representation of the People’s Act in 1928, which extended women’s right to vote on the same terms men had had in the last decade.
Ultimately, although institutional sexism wasn’t solved in its entirety during WWI, it did give women a taste of life above their designated ‘stations’ and, in turn, inspired them to fight for equality for the years to come.