Women’s roles on the home front

illustration from left to right of a fisher wife, suffragette, munitions and office workers, post woman, domestic maid and land girl. Women took on many roles during World War One including working in offices, factories and on the land

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Before World War One began, men were thought of as the 'breadwinners', bringing in the weekly wage. The jobs they did were often tiring and required a lot of strength.

Women worked hard too, but their jobs were often done in their own or someone else's home. Only about 30% of the workforce was female and the majority of unmarried, working women were servants.

Piece work

Working class women also took in paid 'piece work' at home, as they had for generations. Carrying out piece work meant that women were paid depending on how much they produced. They undertook tasks such as washing, ironing, sewing, lace-making and assembling toys or boxes. Women also worked hard as housewives, taking care of their families and homes. Women carried out many jobs in the countryside, supporting men on farms by milking cows and helping with the harvest. They also often kept chickens and sometimes geese.

Jobs outside the home

Women teachers

 A vintage postcard of a mixed classroom of young children with their teacher, circa 1900.
  • In 1911 there were over 187,000 female teachers.

Many employers refused to let married women work for them, so single and widowed women were more likely to have a job outside the home. Women worked in a variety of roles but their jobs were less manual than those carried out by men. Some women worked as school teachers or as governesses, teaching children at home. Well-off families would employ a nursemaid to care for their babies, a nanny to look after children and a governess to teach them until the boys went away to boarding school. Girls usually continued to be educated at home in these types of families.

Women workers
 circa 1916: A British recruitment poster urging women to work in the munitions factories as part of Britain's home front during World War I. A British recruitment poster urging women to work in the munitions factories

Some women worked as nurses before the war and a very small number worked as doctors. Many more women began to train and work in medicine and education during the war.

In the early 1900s, there was a rise in the number of women taking jobs in offices. Their duties were mainly limited to small administrative tasks. Other women worked in cotton factories where some of the roles involved labour-intensive work. Women prepared the cotton fibre for spinning and worked on weaving machines. The larger machines were thought to be too heavy for women to operate and were mostly worked by men.

Dramatic changes

Life for women changed dramatically during the war because so many men were away fighting. Many women took paid jobs outside the home for the first time. By 1918 there were five million women working in Britain. The money they earned contributed to the family's budget and earning money made working women more independent. Many enjoyed the companionship of working in a factory, office or shop rather than doing 'piece work' at home.

How did life change for women?

With men away at war, many women ran their homes alone. They cared for children and older relatives, managed money and often had a job as well. Shopping during wartime was hard with food and coal shortages and higher prices. The average food bill for a family of four rose from less than £1 a week in 1914 to over £2 in 1918.

Women's pay was lower than men's, even when they were doing the same work. However many working women were better off than they had been in the past. Women who took jobs in munitions factories, for example, were better paid than they had been in their previous jobs sewing clothes or cleaning houses.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at women's roles on the home front during World War One

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