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20 October 2014
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Women at War
What other roles did women undertake?

Some women drove for the first time in ambulances, © IWM

The increased demands on the medical services due to the heavy casualties of war saw a huge rise in the numbers of women involved in nursing work. Organisations such as the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY's) and the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD's) formed before the War saw a rise in the number of volunteers so that by mid-1917 around 45,000 women were in nursing occupations.

Kept away from the dangers of direct action at the outset, by 1915 women volunteers over the age of twenty-three were able to serve overseas in hospitals on the Western Front, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia.

WAACs and WRENs gave women in Britain their first opportunity to serve in the military, © IWM

Much later on in the War the armed forces began to recruit women. The Royal Navy formed the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) in 1916, this was followed by the Women's Auxiliary Corps (WAACs) in 1917 and the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) in 1918. These women filled administrative posts such as clerks and telephonists, worked as cooks, instructors, code experts and electricians. This freed up the men who had previously performed these jobs to join the fighting.

Thinking Point: What do you think the effect of the roles women played in the War had on their status and expectations?

The War had a big effect on women of all classes. As you have seen many working class women swapped poorly paid jobs as domestic servants for better wages and conditions in the munitions factories. This gave them greater economic independence. In the absence of husbands who were away fighting, many married women found themselves head of the household. For the first time they were in control of the wages and they were the decision-makers, increasing their independence and confidence. Middle and Upper Class women working in medical and military posts had a taste of a life away from home giving them much greater social freedom now they were not economically tied to their fathers or husbands.

Although many women lost their jobs when the hostilities ended and the men returned, the roles they had played during that time had opened up a wider world to many of them. Women were enjoying a degree of independence and 'for the first time became more conscious of employment opportunities.' The War had given women a more prominent status in society and increased expectations of what was open to them.

'The tangible results of this emancipation were seen in the fourth reform act of July 1918, which enfranchised women over thirty... the contribution of women of all classes to the war effort had made an overwhelming case for granting them the vote.'

In what ways do you think the roles women played in the War made it difficult for the government to deny them the vote?

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A - The War could not have been won without full-scale mobilisation of the Home Front towards the war effort. Women played a vital role in keeping society running as smoothly as possible.

B - Reasons for not granting women the vote prior to the War were swept aside as they had proved themselves equal to the ability of men in some of the most skilled and difficult tasks.

C - The roles women played in the War hastened the movement to emancipate women that had begun prior to the War.

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