Between 1914-18 approximately 2 million women replaced men in the workforce. Lets have a look at four of the jobs they did…
Despite their contributions at home, women in uniform still remained a novelty. Nursing became one of the few areas of female employment that would involve both experiencing the war first hand and being at the front line.
Between 1914-18 around 38,000 auxiliary nurses, ambulance drivers and cooks were employed from all backgrounds, from working class mother, to educated ladies, finding themselves in crowded makeshift hospitals with low levels of hygiene, attempting to put back together the remnants of shattered men.
Many nurses found themselves performing operations in the absence of surgeons, treating men in hospitals established in disused barracks or schools, sometimes even under the protection of thin canvas on hills and valleys.
Nurses were expected to maintain a cheery disposition, despite the cold, wet conditions, basic ration food, and constant sound of guns and explosions. Many nurses would become prisoners of war, standing firmly at their posts treating both home and enemy soldiers in the face of warfare. Their kindness and compassion was much needed to help rebuild broken men in ill-equipped wards which resembled battlefields themselves.
But what about at home?
With combat on an unprecedented scale, wartime women pitched in with the production of munitions. These mainly young and working class women were known as known as munitionettes, helping to produce approximately 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army during World War I.
Munitions labour was dangerous work, with heavy manual labour and the ever present risk of explosions. The women employed as shell makers became exposed to harmful chemicals such as TNT and sulphur. Repeated exposure to such chemicals caused a reaction in the skin, creating an orange-yellow tinge which would earn these dedicated ladies the nickname of the ‘Canary Girls’.
Posters calling for women’s efforts of labour were plastered around towns, thus creating a sense of patriotism within the women, helping to not only provide extra income for the household, but to allow the women to contribute to the war themselves.
Not all work taken on by women involved manual labour. The Suffragette movement remained strong during the war, with women campaigning vocally for a change. They fought for the 1918 Representation of the People Act which granted the vote to women over 30 who owned property, giving women a voice in government for the first time.
This lead on to Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, making it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender, opening the doors not only for the working class, but for middle-class women to enter previously male dominated professions.
Mrs Millicent Fawcett, president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1897-1918 described that “The War revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free”.
Of course, not every role was so dramatic. Some women contributed to Britain by being both mother and father to their children, raising the next generation in a world depopulated by men. Women knitted socks for soldiers on the front, as well as undertaking voluntary work. Even the brief task of writing a letter to a loved one could boost morale on the front, providing comfort like nothing else.
When it came to the war, every effort, both big and small made a difference to our heroes away from home.
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