Women’s War Work: HMSO September 1916

Rolling leather by machinery.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR1520

The Impact of the First World War

Official publications supported the war effort in various ways. This book (Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR 1520, box 62) demonstrates the roles that women were filling in order to release men to fight on the front line. There is a list of occupations ‘in which Women are successfully employed in temporary replacement of Men’. Some of the work was in occupations already employing many women during the 19th century: for example the textile industries. Many, however, were jobs that had been a male preserve up until that time. These included heavy and skilled work – such as stoking and welding.

Women Working In a Man’s World

The striking thing about these photographs is the inappropriate nature of the women’s clothing. Very few of the women were wearing trousers: almost all had long skirts that must have been an accident waiting to happen whilst working with machinery. Overall the photographs vividly demonstrate the wide range of work that women were undertaking by 1916, and they were labouring in a way that would have been unthinkable a couple of years earlier.

What Happened After the War

Returning troops wanted to return to work and women, by and large, were willing to return to a domestic role. There was not enough work to go round, even for the men, and the world was shortly to be plunged into a serious depression. However the genie was out of the bottle, and could not be forced back in. The fact that women had proved themselves in the world of work could not be denied. The movement towards equal opportunity in employment was slow (and still has a long way to go) but it was kick-started by the hard graft of women who demonstrated their abilities during the First World War. The other important outcome was votes for women, and before the war the suffragettes had fought bravely to establish their right to vote. The successful participation of women in such a wide range of occupations, and the fact that they headed up households whilst men were fighting abroad, meant that it became impossible to argue against giving them the vote. Even so, it took until 1918 for women over the age of 30 to be allowed to vote, while women over 21 were granted this right in 1928.


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