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How We'Re the Lives of Women Effected in the First World War

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How were the lives of women on the home front affected by the First World War?

WW1 broke out in August 1914 when the great powers of Europe went to war over territorial competition to increase their empires. The war was mainly fought in continental Europe. By 1918, after millions of deaths, the Germans were defeated. The role of women in Britain had changed in many ways during the war.

Before the war many working class women worked in mills in northern, industrial towns, always as a menial labour force - never in any sort of authoritative or responsible position and always supervised by men. However this sort of manual labour, especially after marriage, was frowned upon by many. This meant that the main sort of socially acceptable jobs for women were in areas such as domestic service or shop work.

Source 5 is a quote from Alfred Shears, a former London dock worker who was interviewed for a book on women's history in 1974. It is a primary source written in his exact words. His view backs up the ideas in the last paragraph and is probably quite typical of men at the time. He said, "Single women would be working in the shops, but a married woman - her place was in the home."

However during the war the amount of women in all areas of work increased apart from domestic service which saw a major decrease between 1914 and 1918. This is shown by source 1 which is a graph of the official statistics comparing the numbers of women working in 1914 to those in 1918. It is split into 7 major areas and it is a secondary source. Before the war industry is already the biggest employer of women, closely followed by domestic service. These statistics may not be extremely accurate as no-one really knew how many women were working in these years.

When World War One broke out many women were recruited to work in munitions factories. This work was high risk but was also paid a lot better than most of the jobs the girls had done before the war. Source 6 is a letter to the Imperial War Museum written by Mrs H. A. Felstead in 1976. She was in domestic service when the war broke out and jumped at the chance of a decent wage doing meaningful work for the war effort. Her letter shows she thought her wages were high for the work she was doing. She wrote, "...I thought I was very well off earning £5 a week." This letter was written many years after the war so the exact figures may not be accurate but her general view backs up my existing knowledge and other sources I have seen. She wrote the letter to tell of her experience to future generations so I don't think she would have had any reason to exaggerate. The main point she makes is that she saw munitions work for women as a positive change.

However, there was a reason for the high wages paid to munitions workers and the way many of the girls used the money as they earned it. There were great risks involved in munitions work due to the nature of the extremely volatile explosives. The worst accident of the war occurred at Silverton in 1917 when the factory exploded. There were 69 deaths and over 400 people were injured, illustrating the terrible conditions of women's war work. This case highlights the huge risks of fire in every munitions factory and shows the bravery of the girls who carried on working for their country. Source 8 is a poem by Madeline Ida Bedford, an educated upper-class woman. It was written in 1917as her response to what she saw around her. The poem is written in character as a working class woman who is happy to live with danger her job entails and to spend all her wages "On good times and clothes." Madeline deliberately misspells words throughout the poem to show the thick accent, which, as a lady she would not have had. The mood of the poem is gung-ho and cheerful in the face of danger. This is a primary source as it was written by someone present at the time, but it is unlikely that Madeline herself worked in a munitions factory so her view may not be representative of many munitions workers. However this point of view does correspond with my background knowledge and is also backed by other sources I have read so I think it is a fair representation of the general attitude of munitions workers.

The work women were doing in all fields during the war was instrumental to Britain's success at home and on the field of war, and in 1917 this was accepted by the government. Source 9 is a quote from Herbert Asquith, a former British PM, speaking to a public audience in 1917. Before the war he was opposed to women voting. He said, "When the war is over the question will arise about women's role in society. I would find it impossible oppose them getting the vote." This shows that the role of women on the home front changed his mind about whether they were equal members of society. I think that this source reflects the views of many middle/upper class men at the time and backs the changing of views which led up to some women getting the vote in 1917.

After the war many women reported feeling more confident and self-reliant though many did not keep their wartime jobs or wages. Source 10 illustrates this. It is a photograph taken in 1920 which shows 3 young women who are smoking and drinking in a restaurant. On the table rests a sign which reads, "Ladies, Please do not smoke." The 2 most important things in this photograph are that the women are without a male chaperone and that they are smoking though they are not supposed to. Before 1914 both of these things would quite unusual. They both show that the women are confident and that they are also spending their own money. This shows the many positive changes for women in Britain.

Though there were many positive changes, both in women's everyday life, and in their general role in society there was still a huge gap between women and men left to bridge for a great many years after the war. Though women were given the vote on 27 March 1917 it was not on the same terms as men; women had to be over 30, and a householder or a university graduate to qualify. Not all working women were as highly paid as munitions workers and conditions were often bad, sometimes made worse by the stigma held by some men working with women.

Source 12 is an example of a woman who had a lot of problems with the attitudes of the men at her work place. Dorothy Poole in a newspaper interview said, "My draw was nailed up by the men, and oil was poured over everything in it through a crack another night." This is an extreme account of prejudice by men but many women were made to feel inferior to men and were only employed as a stop-gap replacement for a male labour force. This source comes from a woman who worked in a mainly male work place which probably added to her problems but it does show that working class male attitudes to working women were still negative in some cases.

Some women war workers endured very bad conditions. This was often due to long hours and the dangerous or toxic substances needed for manufacture during the war. One example of this was munitions work; the girls tended to have yellow skin from the gunpowder they used. Another example was written about in 1932 in a history book by Sylvia Pankhurst, an author and campaigner for women's rights. A group of women, working at an aircraft works, had approached her in 1916. She wrote, "It was common, they told me for 6 or more of the 30 women dope painters to be lying ill on the stones outside the workshop..." I think that this is a reliable source though the author, as a campaigner for women's rights, may have had cause for slight exaggeration.

The jobs women were doing were often romanticised by the government, who quickly latched onto the idea of using the war workers for propaganda reasons. In 1988 a BBC educational series looked at this issue in women's history. This is a quote from the commentary, "Actual female dentists, barbers and architects - all of which were featured on war savings postcards - were extremely rare." The commentary went onto say that women's wages, often portrayed, as high were often low compared to their male counterparts. This is an educational source so it is very reliable.

This issue which affected working women most was being expected to give up their jobs, along with newly found freedom and financial independence, when the war ended. Many women in industry were not needed in times of peace and most others gave up their jobs to the 4,000,000 returning servicemen. Source 15 is a quote from an article written in a popular magazine. "...giving up your job for one of these men who has done so much for you, will be more than enough reward." The fact that this was printed in a popular magazine shows the pressure on independent women at the time. Women who were forced out of work often stayed on the dole rather go into domestic service.

In summary, I believe that WW1 changed many aspects of women's lives and that women did affect the outcome of the war. During the war many women were more independent, earned their own money, and felt needed and valued in society. There were problems; some men did not like women working, women were not granted the vote on the same terms as men and at the end of the war a lot of women went back to life as they knew it before 1914. However this was the start of a long process which eventually ended in equal rights for women.

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