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The Role of Women and Work in World War One – General Background

From the late eighteenth century the Industrial Revolution used the labour of women, both single and married. Most women still worked in domestic service,  though many worked in textile production and even in coal mines. They often worked in poor conditions and treated unfairly, arguably like the plight of women in countries described as ‘Third World’ today. 

Many professions requiring a more formal education and skills set were closed to women. During the nineteenth century a are regular role for a young, unmarried, possibly middle class woman who had to work to support herself was a governess (a role made immortal in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) or a school teacher. Mina Murray, the heroine in Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a school teacher, before she gets married to Jonathan Harker. However, the end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the New Woman and the suffrage movement, a campaign to allow women to vote and eventually stand for Parliament. 

‘Suffragists’ were peaceful or law abiding in their methods, which included sending letters to their elected representatives to raise
Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested
at Buckingham Palace. Image Women’s Library
at LSE Library.

voices in their support. Suffragettes, on the other hand were militant and could be violent in their methods and their approach because they felt as though they had to go to extremes to make their point, which included arson, smashing windows, protests and demonstrations. 

The outbreak of World War One accelerated not only the Industrial Revolution but also the ‘Suffrage Movement’, in one way, as women took on the jobs that the men who went to fight left behind. But they were expected to return to their regular roles as wives and mothers once the war was over (which did not happen for everybody). It also meant that Suffragette activities had to be scaled down and even suspended for the greater threat of war to Britain. In fact neither the Suffrage Movement nor the War Effort was restricted to British Nationals; Queen Victoria’s god daughter Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh of India was both a Suffragette and a Red Cross volunteer at a Brighton hospital tending to wounded Indian soldiers. 
Before the war, men brought in the weekly wage doing tiring and strenuous jobs. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century the main occupation for women was still that of governesses and teachers, otherwise they either took care of their own houses or did paid domestic work in someone else’s house. Working class women also took on paid ‘piece work’ at home, which was a traditional occupation and included tasks such as washing, ironing, sewing, lace making, or assembling toys or boxes. As well as that, they also had to take care of their homes and families.
Well-off families could afford to hire a house maid to take care of babies, a nanny to take care of small children and a governess to teach the older children. Boys were sent away to boarding school when they were old enough while girls were taught at home, probably until they were of marriage age. 
A woman working signals in World War One.
The Women’s Library at LSE Library
Women also worked as nurses and a small number were doctors. Some middle-class women had new opportunities to go women’s colleges at universities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, more women took on administration work in offices; other women worked labour jobs in cotton factories. Teaching was also still a popular occupation but had to be given up when a woman married.
During the war many more women trained and worked in medicine and education. In fact pressure from women to assist in the war effort began as early as August 1914 and led to the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), formed in November 1917 with 3000 women, and the Women’s Army Auxilary Corps (WAAC) , formed in December 1916. Women also worked in Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS)  air stations. In fact the WAAC was originally formed to perform non combat tasks to free up soldiers in France, up to 12,000 men for front line service as were the WRNS. Their recruitment posters had the slogan “Free a man for sea service”. 

On 31st March 1917 a party of 14 women were sent to the Western Front. After starting with domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning their roles expanded to wireless telegraphist or electrician. They were divided into trade categories (denoted by blue trade badges worn on the right arm). The main categories were: a scallop shell for household workers; a three spoked wheel for motor driver; an arrow crossed by lightning flash for signals; crossed keys for a store keeper, porter or messenger; an envelope for a postwoman or telephonist; crossed hammers for a technical worker and miscellaneous workers wore a star. 
Written by Tania Rahman, Visitor Services Assistant at the British Museum

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