Had jobs in the civil service, factories, docklands and arsenals, tramways, Post Office and farms were all run by woman. In July 1914, 3.2 million women were employed in industry; this had jumped to 4.8 million by April 1918. Some 40% of these women were married (compared with only 14% prior to the war). Many encountered hostility from male workers who were worried about competition and the loss of their jobs. “Dilution”, or the breaking down of complex jobs into simpler tasks, was introduced to solve the problem of the shortage of skilled male workers without threatening male wages.
Givers of life were being trained to take it. In the words of a woman writing for the magazine of a projectile factory: “the fact that I am using my life’s energy to destroy human souls gets on my nerves”. She was proud that she was “doing what I can to bring this horrible affair to an end. But once the war is over, never in creation will I do the same thing again”.
Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931). Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
Propagandists attempted to reconcile women’s dual roles as life-givers and manufacturers of death-dealing weapons. Thus, in Our Girls: Their Work for the War (1916), Hall Caine adopted the language of trashy romances, pointing out that munitions workers had learned to show a “proper respect” for their machine’s “impetuous organisms”. By learning their machine’s “whims”, munitions women speedily “wooed and won this new kind of male monster”. Making bombs was as “perfectly natural” to women as making love.
The effect of widening employment opportunities for women was ambiguous. On the one hand, women were admitted into industry under strict conditions, including the fact that they did not actually replace the men but were allowed to perform only certain tasks. Feminist lobbying for equal wages never succeeded: women were paid about half of what men earned. In munitions factories, they risked dying in explosions or suffering TNT poisoning. After the war was over, they were expected to return to traditional roles. The pervasive theme of feminine self-sacrifice meant that they lacked the economic and political power after the war to transform their world.
On the other hand, many women revelled in a new sense of purpose and emancipation. As Naomi Loughnan admitted in 1917, she was “sick of frivolling” and “wanted to do something big and hard, because of our boys and of England”. Factories offered better conditions, higher wages, more interesting work and greater freedoms than domestic service had done. Female factory workers challenged the gender order: they were earning much more than previously (three times more in some cases), were able to demonstrate their ability to carry out skilled work in areas previously barred to them, and were allowed greater leeway in the way they comported themselves publicly.
As trade union leader Mary Macarthur concluded in 1918: “No longer are we told that ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’. Today it is the hand that drills the shell that determines the destiny of the world; and those who did not hesitate to refuse the rights of citizenship to the mothers of men are ready and anxious to concede these rights to the makers of machine guns.”
Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragetteleader, arrested outside Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
Macarthur believed that women’s war work would make female suffrage politically unavoidable. The suffragettes (members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the more militant wing of the suffrage movement), who a few months before had been torching churches and cricket pavilions, became patriotic war workers. Although a sizeable minority of the more moderate members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (“suffragists”) joined the peace movement, most also threw themselves into the war effort in an attempt to link their demands for citizenship with service during a national emergency.
Vote granted
By June 1917, a combination of admiration for women’s war work, judicious lobbying by suffragists and debates about re-enfranchising men who were serving in the armed services abroad convinced parliament to pass the Representation of the People’s Bill by 385 votes to 55. This gave the vote to an additional 5 million men and nearly 9 million women. Crucially, however, the vote was granted only to women over 30 years old who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property of an annual value of not less than £5, or university graduates. Ironically, the young women who had toiled in war industries or in the Land Army did not gain the vote on the same terms as their male counterparts until 1928.
Searle (2004) argues that the British debate was essentially over by the 1890s, and that granting the suffrage in 1918 was mostly a byproduct of giving the vote to male soldiers. Women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928.