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20 October 2014
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Women at War
What was the role of Women at the outbreak of War?

Women had been employed in pre-war trade and industries since the Industrial Revolution. The working classes were mainly involved in domestic service or 'sweated' labour and dressmaking. Along with middle class women, they were also employed as shop assistants, waitresses or clerks.

'By 1914, a quarter of all clerks were women, double the number ten years earlier. At the outbreak of the War, just over three million women were employed in commerce and industry.'

Voluntary work was usually only undertaken by those in the upper classes who did not have to work to support themselves.

The campaign for greater freedom and the vote was well in progress under the leadership of Suffragettes such as Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst. When War broke out the role of women in society was to become increasingly more important.

Recruitment and propaganda
At the outbreak of war, women were used to great effect in recruitment. The Government used propaganda posters to encourage women to persuade their men-folk to volunteer.

Those who had been in conflict with the Government prior to the war, such as the Suffragettes, now played an active part in encouraging recruitment, by making a number of speeches in support of the war outlining what men and women could do to help.

Some women under the direction of Admiral Charles Fitzgerald created the Order of the White Feather in January 1915. This group handed out white feathers to any young man not wearing a uniform whom they suspected of cowardice, in attempt to shame them into enlisting. Some complained about such behaviour, one man argued that these 'idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired'. (Compton McKenzie)

Thinking Point: Do you think the White Feather Brigade was fair in its actions?

The death of women was useful as a propaganda weapon, particularly when those women were nurses. The story of Edith Cavell is a good example of this. She had been serving as a professional nurse in Belgium, however she was accused of helping British and French prisoners of war to escape. She was court-martialled and shot dead by the Germans. She became the 'first nationally acclaimed heroine and female martyr of the war'. (Condell and Liddiard). Her death and the outcry that followed provided the Government with a strong icon for British War propaganda.

Why do you think women were so eager to see men go to war?

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A - They were persuaded by the propaganda about German brutality in Belgium and stories like Edith Cavell's.

B - They did not want to be criticised if their own male relations did not join up, giving the impression that they were cowardly or lazy.

C - They did not think it would last very long and they did not realise the real dangers of war.

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