Women in wartime
by Dr Martin Johnes, University of Wales Swansea
The demands of the war economy meant that old prejudices about what females could and should do were cast aside in the name of patriotism.
Women were encouraged to join the war effort in factories, farms and the forces and women at work became one of the enduring images of the war. But women's contribution to the war effort extended far beyond paid employment. Equally important was their role as mothers, housewives and volunteers, helping with everything from dealing with air raids and evacuees to cooking and cleaning for the troops.
Factory work paid well and many of the early volunteers were motivated by the desire to earn money.
The biggest demand for female labour came from the new munitions factories. In Wales the largest such factories were in Hirwaun, Glascoed and Bridgend which alone employed over 60,000 people between them, the majority of whom were women. There was some reluctance among women to enter such factories. Some did not want to leave their own district and others had husbands who were reluctant to let their wives work. 'She's not going! Let bloody Mrs Churchill go and make munitions', the husband of one volunteer told the Labour Exchange at Blaina and Nantyglo.
The insufficient level of volunteering and the rising demands of the war effort meant that at the start of 1942 conscription into both factories and the armed services began for women in their twenties. In 1943 this was extended to women up to fifty, although those with domestic responsibilities or children under fourteen were exempt. That year, 55 percent of Welsh war workers were female, the highest percentage anywhere in Britain. The growth of female workers was all the more significant given the previously narrow number of jobs open to women in industrial Wales before the war.
Despite the fact that most women had little choice about working, there was patriotism in the factories and women were sustained by the knowledge they were doing something that would contribute directly to the defeat of Germany. Factory work also paid well and many of the early volunteers were motivated by the desire to earn money. This was especially true for women from the south Wales valleys who had shouldered the burden of running a home during the inter-war years of mass unemployment.
Munitions work could turn women's hair and skin yellow, while some blonds went green.
The hardships of war work
Despite the extra money, the experience of working was not all positive. Leaving home could be traumatic, especially for Welsh-speakers sent to English factories. Munitions work could turn women's hair and skin yellow, while some blonds went green because of the chemicals! The hours in factories were long, the commuting tedious, and the work itself monotonous. Many still had domestic commitments and finding time for shopping became a particular cause of complaint. The 'land girls', women sent to work on farms, also often endured a difficult war. Long hours, poor food, hard physical work and the isolation of rural farms were all common complaints.
Men were also not always happy with their women working. Some husbands could no longer expect dinner on the table when they got home. Other men who struggled to find work due to ill health resented the employment of women and there was indignity amongst some miners when they discovered that they were earning less than their wives or daughters. There were also accusations that the children of factory workers were being fed from tins and not disciplined properly.
Coping with the problems of war work was made much easier by the camaraderie that existed in all spheres of employment. Female workers also had money to spend in a climate where the social rules on what women could do were changing. The cinema, the dancehall and even the pub were all important places where women could relax. To cope with the hardships and tragedies of war, many women adopted a philosophy of living for today, spending freely and worrying less about what others thought and what the future held.
Even during the war there were more women in Britain who were housewives than there were in full-time paid employment.
Many women found war work an enriching personal experience that developed their self-confidence and sense of what they could do. But the war did not bring female emancipation. Domestic responsibilities remained central to both women's lives and aspirations. The marriage rate in Wales grew by over a quarter between 1938 and 1940 and having a husband and family rather than a job was what most women wanted after the war, too.
Even during the war there were more women in Britain who were housewives than there were in full-time paid employment. They had their own problems to cope with, whether that was enduring endless shop queues, coping with air raids, feeding the family on meagre rations or worrying about a husband or son fighting abroad. Some also endured a degree of angst and guilt that they were not contributing to the war effort in a more direct and obvious way. But their contribution to the war effort, ensuring that communities and the social fabric did not collapse, was vital too. Victory was won at home and abroad.