The story of the stoic and diligent women of the Great War, newly mobilized and feted as heroines of the home front, is by now one well told, particularly in the history of feminism.
But was there really a sea change in attitudes towards gender roles in those tumultuous years, or was there a return to the status quo in peacetime? Were these new freedoms for women long-lasting, or did they merely amount to emancipation ‘on loan’? Inevitably the truth lies somewhere in between.
One enduring legacy of the war seemed to be the opening up of alternative areas of employment, as seen in the decline in the percentage of women working in domestic service. While the rise of domestic ‘labour saving’ appliances played its part in that statistic, the war undeniably opened up a number of alternative areas of employment for women. Though this was borne out of necessity, it resulted in the development of the ‘expectations’ of women.
The number of women working in the Civil Service more than tripled between 1911 and 1921; jobs which compared favourably to domestic service in terms of wages, working conditions and genuine responsibility. 8 million (aged 30 and over) were given the long sought-after vote by the Representation of the People Act – though this move is widely perceived as a bartering tool for men to coax women into wartime action, given that suffragette movements had been gathering momentum since the turn of the century but only achieved success after 1914. Nonetheless, the policy’s lasting effect was consolidated in 1928 when the vote was extended to all British women over 21.
The tide of feminism that had been coming to fruition in the years leading up to the war was presented with a potential roadblock when the conflict began. A divide opened up in the suffragette movement – the majority called for a truce in the campaign, while radicals were determined to push on with their struggle. The majority were vindicated: focusing on the war effort did more to earn public respect than continued protestations. Home Secretary George Cave introduced the reform act of 1918 with a speech that signified the war’s catalytic impact on women’s rights. It implied changes were pragmatic rather than idealistic: ‘war…has brought us closer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides.’
Serious doubts are raised when political changes hinged on the extreme circumstances of war are linked to any wholesale rethinking of gender roles. Could these be trusted to be sincere and long-term proposals? In any case, change did come. British women were empowered, enfranchised and employed.
On the surface, a win-win situation: men were fed, armed and clothed, and a generation of females had a new purpose in life. This was propagated by the romanticised visual legacy of women working in munitions factories (many people’s mental image most likely consists of a cartoonized, patronising poster of a hearty glamour girl in overalls).
The reality was not quite so rosy. Working conditions were often appalling. TNT plants were notoriously dangerous, with workers’ skin turning yellow from exposure, and explosions taking over 100 lives. The psychological damage was another story altogether; young women scarred for generations, either widowed or left caring for traumatised survivors. Life would never be the same again.
Meanwhile, the hostility and suspicion of male unions and employers towards the potential morphing of gender roles formed the glass ceiling that reminded women of their status as merely ‘temporary men’. Equal pay for women was avoided by subdividing tasks – the notion of replacing a man with merely one woman was considered absurd by reluctant employers, who reinstated men after the war on the grounds that one man alone could fulfil a role that required 2 to 3 women.
Inevitably, as men came home and factory production slowed, most women were forced to leave their wartime roles. But all was not lost: women had proven more than capable of matching up to the work of men, and had paved the way for their acceptance as contributors to society. This was consolidated when they gained full enfranchisement in 1928.
The war presented a complex and turbulent experience for women on the home front. A simultaneously liberating, harrowing and frustratingly transient experience for the many, many women who were catapulted from domesticity to the beating heart of wartime Britain, only to be sent back to kitchens of the suburbs come 1919.