What effect did the 1914-18 War have upon the role and status of women
In the years before 1914 there were many problems for women with their oppression, lack of respect and general mis- treatment by males. There were three different classes, working, middle and upper classes. Working classes were the lowest and they would work in factories, mines and farms, the middle class were much richer, they would be the owners of the factories and the large farms out in the rural areas whereas the upper class were the gentry, often friends or even related to the royal family. Women had trouble getting recognition in all the three classes.
The working class women were the most poorly treated. Often they would be made to go to work along with their husband to earn enough money for the large family to survive. They would have to be strong women so they could carry out the work in the factories and mines, the work at home and also to be able to give birth to many children as their survival rate was so appallingly low. At home their duties were to look after the many children and to clean the house. There were no labour saving devices or servants to help so the chores all had to be done by hand making them very tedious.
They didn’t have many prospects to look forward to either, they weren’t educated as many were brought up in a large, poor family who could not afford to educate their children. Even if there was enough money, the males would have been educated and not the females. This meant she couldn’t leave her job and find a higher paid career.
The living and working conditions were so poor; the life expectancy of a working class woman was only 22(on average). This was less than half as long as the middle class lady. The middle class lady was worlds apart from this hard life. She would wake up mid-morning, have her maid dress and wash her, cook her food leaving her to have time to perhaps, visit friends or do some needlework. Middle class gentleman would look for beauty in a wife and not much else, it would be a bonus if she had money, as for him she was nothing more than a fashion item.
They would have servants to do all their housework and a governess would look after the female children. The male children would go to school so they could go out into the world with their skills to get a highly paid job. The girls on the other hand would stay at home with the governess to be taught how to play the piano and maybe another language, this would not be so they could get a job, but so they would more desirable for a husband, who would often be chosen by the father.
The lady of the house would not be able to go to work even if she wanted, as her husband would not allow her, this was because it would give the impression that he could not afford to look after her. But, despite this he would encourage her to do charity work such as visiting the sick and needy, as this would build respect for him and the family. The difference between the middle class and upper class lady was very little as their husbands and fathers often had the same views. They could be financially supported so they should stay at home and look pretty. There were some things that all men and gentlemen looked for in a wife.
They all expected total devotion, they could commit adultery against their wives but if she were to against him then she would often be divorced immediately and as she had no rights would be left with nothing, not even the rights to the children. They would also look for total obedience, their wives should never answer back in public, they might be able to at home but never in public as this could embarrass him in front of his peers. Generally women were treated as second-class citizens. This was more than the women could take. They decided to join together into a group and lobby the MP’s together.
They called themselves the Suffragists and they prided themselves on their non-violent lobbying. To start with, in the mid 19th century they organised marches, sent letters and often, as they were middle class women, had MP’s round for tea to try to persuade them to give them the vote. This was more of a hobby for the women and even though they tried they were no match for a government and no direct progress was made but there was an up-side. They had begun to gain respect and to get the idea talked about in the Houses of Parliament; it was put to the vote but each time it was dismissed.
Due to the failure to make any headway using this method a break away group was started. Emily Pankhurst and her fellow WSPU’s (Women’s Social and Political Union) or as the media called them, the Suffragettes. They had a different approach, they used more violent tactics. They began in 1905 by disrupting a political meeting in Manchester, this got them the publicity they needed. In 1908 they begun to chain themselves to MP’s railings and organise newspapers to be there for when the police arrived, this gained enormous amounts of column inches.
From 1909 things started to get a bit more serious, they were smashing windows and burning down MP’s properties, this got them sent to court and imprisoned but to top it off they went on hunger strike for the extra publicity. To prevent the women dying from starvation in the police cells the government brought out the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, this meant as soon as the women got ill they would be released to recover then immediately arrested again, this would often go on for the whole sentence.
Until in late 1913 Emily Davison threw her self underneath the Kings horse at the Derby, being trampled to death. She was trying to stick a rosette on the horse in the colours of the Suffragettes, purple, white and green. She died a martyr and her funeral attracted much attention for their cause and was in the papers for weeks. The violence continued and the police began to get more and more violent back towards them. There was a stalemate between the two sides. Then, on the 4th August 1914 England declared war on Germany and the suffragettes called a truce.
The change in the suffragettes’ attitudes was almost instant. As soon a the Prime Minister read the declaration they stopped lobbying and attacking the MP’s and got behind the government and showed full support for them. Emily Pankhurst, the leader of their group became friends with an MP who was later to become the prime minister, this stood them in good stead at that time as they now had a contact in the houses of parliament and in the future when he became prime minister he would be friends of the leader of this movement, they worked together on many things.
The suffragettes began to organise rallies to gain interest into the war, they collected luxury items to send out to the soldiers, such as chocolate, whisky, cigarettes but often-unwanted gifts were sent, like Bibles and storybooks. They also boycotted the men, they wouldn’t go out with any of the men who weren’t out at war, and if they saw a man out of uniform in the street they would give them a white feather of cowardice. This showed public support for the government and was another part of the propaganda, there were posters everywhere, perhaps the most famous was Kitcheners ‘I want you! ‘ poster.
The country became besotted with the war effort; it was and still is the most popular war there has ever been. Lord Kitchener, a retired general who was now minister for war, asked for 100,00 men to sign up but due to the wars popularity, by 1916 he had 2,600,000 new recruits. The bulk of these were in the first few months of the war, the recruitment offices were swamped, people cued for hours and lads as young as 14 wanted to sign up and often lied to get in. Even more of an incentive was that the army had set up ‘Pals regiments’, which were made up of streets, football teams and in some cases whole school years.
The regular army were sent off to war first, they were mobbed by hoards of women trying to get attention and when they arrived in France they were mobbed even more. They often wrote back to there younger brothers and told them what they were missing; this led to a sudden influx of lads trying to get a piece of action. The popularity of the war was sky high and building as the media and the expectancy of it being over by Christmas hyped it up. This sudden departure of all the working men was a problem, immediately there were hundreds of thousands of job vacancies thrown into the open.
Often they were filled with the newly retired and school leavers. Women were still not given the jobs. The only women who immediately got jobs were when their husbands owned a business and could only trust their wives with the work, such as a milk round or a coal round, others went into the health service as ambulance drivers, the middle class women who could drive, and the women who couldn’t drive became nurses. The working class women couldn’t afford to do anything else, as they needed to carry on working to keep their families alive.
Some men did stay but only if they worked in essential industries such as the coalmines or agriculture, industries thought too precious to deplete during the war. Immediately, there was no real urgency for women to work, the employers chose lads who had just left school and newly retired men but these soon ran out. Many didn’t make it to retiring age due to poor health so something else was needed. Attitudes held back the entrance for women to enter the working environment as they were still thought to not be able to do a mans job and they were left at the bottom of the pile for jobs.
Some got jobs through family ties straightaway, e. g. milk rounds, chimney sweeps etc. They were given these jobs so that there husbands had the job to come back to but for many it was a chance to prove themselves and many loved the work. They could only do unskilled jobs though. Also during the war there was an increasing demand for typists, telephone operators and secretaries, even though these jobs had been around but the were now expanding rapidly and needed more staff and the women were the perfect option.
Another area that women could move into was the munitions factories, these were not pleasant jobs so women were more likely to be forced into working in these environments. One of the reasons that they were so dangerous was due to the Germans advances into attacking by air. There huge Zeppelin air ships were bombers. They would attack the munitions factories; the most famous was the Woolwich Royal Arsenal factory. It was the largest and most productive factory providing the men at the frontline with bullets and shells for the artillery.
They were also prone to explosions and little mistakes in the manufacturing process could cause catastrophic destruction. Around 1 million women worked in the munitions factories around the country. The factories were a terrible environment to work in, they were dangerous, they stank and the chemicals used were awful. The acid they used would get all over them as there was no protective clothing for them to wear. There were people employed to keep order in the factories that showed the environment was hostile in more ways than one.
In a large munitions factory there would often be between 16 and 18 casualties per night! , either from an injury or just the women falling ill. The lack of knowledge about the chemicals used in the making of the munitions caused terrible suffering to the women at the time and in the future. Many women became sick from TNT poisoning, the first signs was a common cold but they would quickly deteriorate and die a painful death and few survived. You would not go un-noticed in the streets either, the chemicals would turn the skin on the face yellow and the hair ginger. This is why they acquired the nickname ‘The Canaries’.
All of the women working there would become too sick to have children or not be able to have children due to the chemicals. There was a plus side to the job, it was well paid and gave the women more independence and when travelling to work on the train many men would say that they were doing their bit. Another main area that the women could move into was to train to be a nurse and go out to the hospitals near the frontline to tend to the soldiers, there was a great demand for this and the army turned to the women, as often all of their male family members had signed up and this was enough of an incentive for them to aswell.
The main influx of women was from the middle classes rather than the working class because of their attitudes. The middle class women were brought up with the motto “For king and country”; where as the lower working class had not and were more sceptical in joining the forces. There were 2 main groups of nurses the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachments) and the FANY (First Aid Nursing Auxiliary), both of these groups were poorly paid and had been part time nurses before the war so had the basic training to deal with some of the injuries.
They were not treated any differently to the men that were doing the same job. Extract from Elizabeth, Baroness de T’Serclaes autobiography. “We slept in our clothes and cut our hair short so that it would tuck into our caps. Dressing meant simply putting on our boots in the morning……… There were times when we had to scrape lice off our clothes with the blunt edge of a knife and our underclothes stuck to us. ” This shows that they were treated the same and with that had to suffer the same hardships that the men had too. The wards they worked in were noisy from the screams of men and gramophones.
Definitely not the way the fairy tales portrayed them. One negative point for the women who had signed up was that they didn’t actually know what was going on at the front and it gave them a lot of time to think. In 1917 many soldiers were lost in the big battles. The generals were getting worried that they would run out of men. To make sure they didn’t they needed to recruit the men that were doing all the ‘soft jobs’ to the front line, but they needed people to replace them. For this they set up the WAAC, Women’s’ Army Auxiliary Corps.
The plan was for these women to do all the menial but necessary jobs, such as, cooking, cleaning, waitressing, secretarial work and also to instruct the public how to put on a gas mask. They were given ranks to keep the structure an uniforms were also issued, a tight khaki cap, khaki jackets and skirts which had to be no more than 12 inches from the ground. Despite this the women in the WAAC were not given full military status. The women enrolled rather than being enlisted therefore were not to be punished by a military court but a civil one.
Between 1917 and the end of the war over 55000 women had served in the WAAC. Even though they were not in combat duties they had to endure shelling attacks and bombing raids and when nine were killed the newspapers were outraged and publicised it as another atrocious act of the Germans, but they were there to replace soldiers so they had every right to attack them. At the start of the Great War thousands of farmers signed up even before conscriptions were introduced and still after two years of war the farmers had not been replaced and there was a huge shortage of food.
In 1916 when conscriptions were introduced making it illegal not to sign up the farmers and miners were exempt from this law due to the shortage of food and fuel. There was even more of a need for food because of the German U-boats, which were sinking every food ship insight and leaving little reaching our shores with their vital cargo. At this time half of the country’s’ food was imported and now there was none so the land army was set up. Thousands of women from the cities went to work the and just to keep enough food for the citizens of the country to survive.
They had to produce enough food to eliminate the need for all the wheat imports from Canada and the meat from Australia but they succeeded. This immense change in the role of women had a dramatic affect on the attitude towards women. In the war work the WAAC suffered the same hardships a s the men. But not in all cases, they suffered them in the cushy jobs, such as, the nurses and cooks but nowhere near as much as the men at the front line did. In 1917 the army were getting desperate with 12,000 trained men behind the lines they needed to release them to fight.
Their only choice was to allow the women to come in and take over the more menial jobs. But under no circumstances were they allowed to fight in the frontline. The trade unions were also very wary of the women as they thought that in the long run they would work for lower wages than the men and take over their jobs for good. But, in 1915 the government and the trade unions came to an agreement specifying that women were to be paid as much as the men for the duration of the war ant for as long as needed until sufficient male labour came available. The attitudes towards women had changed but not to the extent that they could have wished for.
For example, in the war areas, “the women had no special privileges and suffered the same hardships as the men they replaced. ” This was true to a certain extent, they did suffer the hardships but this was only of the men which they replaced who where the men doing the menial jobs behind the lines, nowhere near the amount of suffering faced by the men at the frontline. In 1917 there were 12,000 women working behind the lines freeing the men up for fighting. The attitudes of the army personnel were that they were thankful to the women for freeing up the men who were needed to fight.
This was all due to the WAAC. The trade unions had not changed their attitudes much. They were still very suspicious towards the women. They believed that the women who were given jobs in the munitions factories would not leave after the war as they would undercut the wages of the men coming back from the front. However, in 1915 the government and the trade unions came to an agreement. This was that the women were paid the same as the men but when the men came back the women would have to leave after the duration of the war.
Before the war the media had been giving negative propaganda against the women and suffragettes but during the war the medias attitudes changed immensely. The Observer, J L GAVIN 1916 ” Time was when I thought that men alone maintained the state. Now I know that men alone never could have maintained it. ” This was a paper, which before the war was very negative towards women and you can see by this quote that their attitudes had changed. It was a major change for the women, from being dumbed down to being relied upon to run the state while all the men were fighting for it.
The governments attitudes was also changing. Here is a speech by Lloyd George during his role as prime minister, 1918. “It would have been utterly impossible for us to have won the war had it not been for the skill, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war. ” Lloyd George was the minister for munitions during the war and had set up a good relationship with Emily Pankhurst and they had been setting up good ties throughout the government and when he became prime minister the attitudes he had towards the women wanting the vote was favourable.
Before the war the party (lib dems) were split on the suffragettes but now Lloyd George was PM he brought them together behind the women. In 1917 6 of the 11 million adult women were given the vote through the law that middle class women should be able to vote. It was passed with only 23 votes against, a landslide result, which just showed how much the attitudes had changed. During the war the women’s attitudes changed rapidly. Before the war the men in the country oppressed them immensely, but because of their experiences during the war they had to change.
There work as nurses in the war gave them a chance to go abroad alone which gave them more independence and the things they saw were atrocious. They would have to treat and look after soldiers and civilians with limbs blown off, deep flesh wounds and often, horrendous burns. They showed that they could cope with this work well and begun to earn the respect of the men. Again as a result of the war women were put under stress and fear of receiving a telegram from the forces saying that their loved one, husband, son or brother, had been killed in battle.
With the start of huge battles, such as the battle of the Somme, where 20,000 were killed and 60,000 injured in the first day, some mothers lost all their sons in one attack, this caused great suffering for the women back in this country. To pay respect to these men, women wore black dresses and the men wore a black armband. Their fashions changed aswell. Women started to wear trousers as they were more practical for their everyday work and general mobility was easier dressed like this.
The men didn’t like this as traditionally the men wore the trousers and they were getting worried as they though that the women would begin turn into men and do as men do, such as: drinking, smoking and swearing. Despite this some women had already started smoking in public and going to coffee houses with their friends, this would have been quite shocking for that time. Now that women were working in the factories and less restricting jobs they had greater financial freedom, this meant that they could afford to do all the pleasant things they wanted to do, such as, going to coffee houses etc.
Before the war the largest employer was the domestic service, a very undesirable area of work, now there were munitions factories opening all over the country calling out for women to work in them. Although they weren’t getting as much as the men in the munitions factories they were getting much more money and freedom than if they were still in the domestic service. Generally, a more appealing job. This new surge into the munitions factories meant that there were 18-19 year old women earning more than their fathers, this increased the resentment that their fathers already had towards them having a job at all.
Plus they weren’t married so had no one to make decisions for them so they, again, had more freedom. Women’s attitude to sex had also changed. It was no longer a taboo subject but an everyday occurrence. Before the war you would not have even seen a women and man kissing in the street but now things had turned upside down. There was a new attitude to life with many soldiers being killed abroad they began to live for the moment and had sex much more often, sometimes in public. Due to this the number of illegitimate children shot through the roof. As a result of the war things had changed in some ways, for some women.
For many women, especially working class enjoyed their war work. This meant that they could escape their homes and to support them financially, it did wonders for their confidence and their hectic social lives introduced them to the real world. When surveyed over 2500 out of 3000 women wanted to keep their jobs after the war. Of course the numbers working in the munitions factories decreased because the weapons and munitions were no longer needed now that the war was over but other opportunities were closing for the women. Men expected the women to go back to the domestic service “where they belonged”.
They assumed that they could go back to living on a working mans wage and the women who stayed in their jobs were doing it out of selfishness. But, despite this, it was not the case for the women who lost their husbands in the war. They needed to carry on working to carry out the mans responsibility of bringing in the money. With three women to every two men, one in three women had to support their family alone. The war had made many women poorer. The cost of living had gone up but the wages had either stayed the same or stopped altogether. Women who had lived off small allowances or fixed incomes could do so for no longer.