WWI Working Women:
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Yorkshire Women at Work:

Within weeks of WWI starting, the war settled into a trench bound attrition, which was swallowing up vast amounts of men and resources; it was clear that Briish society would have to change in order to meet the needs of this total war and a key element of this new economy was the mobilisation of women and the feminisation of the labour force.

In 1914 women were a major part of Britain's workforce but they were its drudges, doing menial jobs for low wages and they only earned around 40% of what their male counterparts were paid for the same job, but the war provided opportunities for change; working roles expanded as women replaced male colleagues and made inroads into professions traditionally dominated by men; in addition, women who would never have dreamt of working had both the desire and the opportunity to do their bit.

Changes in the workplace were not immediate though; initial attempts to increase and diversify female employment were slow and disorganised and the government showed little interest in the subject, but encouraged by leading suffragettes, some women were driven to protest against this inaction and as the fighting continued women began to take up new duties; this prompted various reactions, some enthusiastic and some extremely hostile; prejudice was ingrained in British society; even in wartime, sexism proved a difficult barrier to break through; protest and publicity highlighted the issue, but it was a government crisis that ultimately led to the large scale exploitation of female labour.

In May 1915, news that troops were short of high explosives shocked the country; partly as a result of this scandal a new government was formed and one of its first actions was to set up a Ministry of Munitions (MoM), which was headed by David Lloyd George, MoM quickly brought most munitions production under state control and with the need to increase production, the employment of women was now positively encouraged.

Prior to the war, approximately 200,000 women worked in what became the munitions industry, but by the war's end the number was nearer 900,000.

The work was extremely hazardous and factory explosions causing fatalities were not uncommon, such as the 1916 tragedy at the Barnbow factory in Leeds.

The workers' hands and faces gradually turned yellow, due to handling TNT; this yellowish tint led to the munitions girls' becoming known as Canaries; they became a familiar sight in many towns.


South Yorkshire industries were crucial in the war effort; output in the coal mines and Steelworks had to increase and the railway network protected to allow the movement of crucial supplies; in 1915 the government set up the Women’s War Register and within two weeks 33,000 women had signed up; for the first time women moved into the male preserve of heavy industry working as crane drivers in the steel works and operating heavy machinery in the heavy engineering works; however, the employment of women and unskilled men in industry posed a real threat to the hard won agreements between men who had served long and lowly paid apprenticeships and their employers who now had an abundance of cheap labour.

A male lathe operator was paid 10¾ d per hour whereas a woman was paid 5¼ d for the same job; women went into these jobs without the skills to perform them and by 1916 industries were suffering an acute skills shortage and training centres were set up to train women in precision skills; in July 1914 276,000 women were employed in UK industry and by April 1918 this had increased to 4,808,000.

On the 27th January 1916, compulsory male conscription was introduced with the Military Service Act, meaning that more and more men were being forced to join the military and then be sent out to the trenches; a'conscience clause' in the Act did allow Conscientious Objectors a way out but they had to face a tribunal to argue their case as to why they should not be called up to join the army.

Conscription made the female workforce even more important; restrictions that had previously denied women access to particular trades were swept aside, albeit temporarily; with the country's ablest men now in action abroad, women were now expected to do work that they were previously thought incapable of, such as coal hauling and ship building.

In certain areas the effect was striking; in the field of public transport, the number of female employees increased ten-fold; administrative, commercial and educational sectors also saw large rises in female labour; elsewhere women donned police uniforms, joined special units of the armed services or became part of the agricultural Women's Land Army; others answered the call for more nurses and were sent to work, and sometimes die, behind the front lines in France.

It was a long war but most women had always accepted the temporary nature of their new work; returning soldiers also expected them to stand aside and let men resume their old positions and so by the summer of 1920, over 60 percent of all the women who entered employment during the war had left it again.

Despite some backward steps, the women's role in the workplace had moved forward and their position in society had also changed; the constraints of Edwardian life had loosened, certain prejudices been overcome and new opportunities had opened up; as the war ended parliament at last allowed women the right to vote, although only those over 30 who owned property; the timing suggests an acknowledgement of their contribution to the national effort.



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