The years 1914-18 saw women pushing boundaries in work and social life. Although this didn’t always lead to permanent changes after the war ended, it was an important step towards changing both how British society perceived the female gender and how women thought of themselves.
As military service depleted the male workforce, women stepped in to take on their roles. Before the war began, women were already numerous in some sectors, especially as domestic servants, on farms, and in the textile industry and Dundee’s jute industry, where they generally earned just 45% of a man’s wages. During the war they were paid better, although not as much as a man was.
Many women worked in munitions factories, where the pay was relatively good, but working with highly flammable and explosive materials was dangerous and unpleasant. Filling shells with TNT caused the skin and nails to turn yellow, a symptom of potentially fatal toxic jaundice. By 1918, almost a million women were employed in making munitions across Britain. Many of the factories had their own female football teams and social clubs.
Women served as police officers for the first time, in Women’s Patrols that monitored the behaviour of women working in factories and staying in hostels, among other things. Women also began working in transport – collecting tickets, cleaning railway carriages and driving buses and trams. About 23,000 women were recruited to work in the Women’s Land Army, set up to increase agricultural production. They worked on farms in fields and as milkers, thatchers, threshers, tractor-drivers and ploughwomen, felled and processed timber and made hay for horses.
For the most part, increased opportunities for work were not matched by childcare provision, although the Government did support the cost of day nurseries for munitions workers.
After a War Office investigation demonstrated that women could do many of the jobs done by soldiers in France, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was set up in December 1916, followed by the Women’s Royal Naval Service in November 1917 and the Women’s Royal Air Force in April 1918. Up to 100,000 served as non-combatants for the first time in British history.
Women also provided medical care behind the lines on the Western Front and other theatres. When the Scottish doctor Elsie Inglis, one of the founders of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, offered to set up a field hospital for the War Office, she was told to ‘go home and sit still.’ She ignored the advice. France and Belgium accepted the offer and later so did the British, and the SWH were especially active in Serbia.
The suffragette movement and its militant campaigns for the female vote were mostly put on hold during the war, partly in support of the conflict but also as a tactical move that foresaw it could benefit the movement. In February 1918, the vote was extended to men over 21 and women over 30, and finally to women over 21 in 1928.