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20 October 2014
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Women at War
In what ways were women involved in the War effort?

Largely ignored by the Government, women did not become involved in war work on a huge scale until after the first year of war. To begin with their growth in the workplace was confined to the munitions factories and voluntary work. However, women wanted to do more than simply knit socks and raise money for the boys at the Front. Their chance came after the famous 'Shell Scandal' in 1915 which, coupled with the rise in need for army recruits, highlighted the need for a drastic increase in munitions production.

Miss Joan Williams at her lathe, © IWM

Lloyd George enlisted the help of the well-known Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, to help advertise the need for female labour. In July 1915 she successfully organised a demonstration to march in the name of a woman's 'right to serve'.

After the introduction of military conscription in March 1916 the need for female labour became even more vital and the Government began co-ordinating the employment of women to fill the gaps.

The types of work that women became involved in was varied, often skilled and sometimes dangerous. For example:

'Women working in larger munitions factories were known as Canaries because they dealt with TNT which caused their skin to turn yellow. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during World War One. Other hazards were more obvious and minor problems were common.'
From the biography of a 'Munitionette', Miss Joan Williams

Women in factories were given new freedoms, but worked in dangerous situations, © IWM

However, munitions work was highly paid and it had the effect of attracting a lot of women from jobs in domestic service, which saw a large drop in numbers during the war years. These 'Munitionettes', as they came to be called, accounted for a large proportion of women in the workplace. To the extent that by mid 1917 it is estimated that women produced around eighty per cent of all munitions.

Women conducting buses and trams was a new sight, © IWM

The largest influx of women into the workplace was in the transport industry where they took on work as conductresses (and sometimes, as drivers), on buses, trams and underground trains.

' February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses leapt from the timorous handful of the previous year to about 2,500, some half of whom, it was said, were former domestic servants.'
Arthur Marwick

As the public encountered them on a daily basis they provided the most outwardly visible example of how women had entered the workplace.

The Land Army provided much needed food supplies to the nation, © IWM

A great number of women had come to work in fields as varied as commerce, administration, education, forestry and agriculture. The 'Women's Land Army' alone employed over 260,000 women as farm labourers.

How did people on the Home Front react to women entering the workplace?

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A - There were some complaints from worker's unions who were opposed to women joining the workforce for fear of a 'dilution' of skilled labour.

B - Some men were opposed to women joining the workforce as they believed they would be taking jobs away from the men when the war ended.

C - The work of women was also seen as an important role, although it was not until after the War had ended that people realised the diversity of the roles women played on the Home Front.

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