Changing role of women

Traditional attitudes

Before the Great War, a woman’s role was considered to be within the home. Public life, including politics was widely seen as for men only. It was believed that women involved in politics would neglect their responsibilities at home.

There had been progress towards a change in this attitude to women. A number of laws were passed to improve their standing. Women had increased rights over property and children within marriage, and divorce. They were also receiving more education and could be involved in local politics. All of these laws paved the way for further reform in favour of women’s position in society.

Women had become more involved in ‘white-collar’ (professional) jobs by the turn of the century.

Involvement in the war effort

Women working at Gretna munitions factory, Scotland in 1918
Women working at the Gretna munitions factory

During the war the biggest increase in female employment was in factories, particularly in munitions. Previously, fewer than 4,000 women worked in heavy industry in Scotland.

  • By 1917 over 30,000 women were employed making munitions in Scotland.
  • Nationally, by late 1918, 90 per cent of the workers in the munitions industry were female.
  • Women also worked as conductors on trams and buses, and as typists and secretaries in offices and factories.
  • Thousands worked on farms in the ‘land army’.
  • Others filled more traditional jobs such as nursing, becoming important role models for women eager to feel they were ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort.

During World War One, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) stopped its political campaign and offered its full cooperation to the government.

Meanwhile, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) became a patriotic movement during the war. It promoted male enlistment and encouraged women to become involved in what was traditionally seen as male employment.

Impact of the war on the position of women

At first, men working in factories were worried about their loss of status and the threat to their wages. The problem was called ‘dilution’. It was seen as an issue because unskilled workers were being employed in skilled jobs.

Eventually an agreement was reached - women could only be trained to a semi-skilled level and had to work under supervision. This meant that the men would not feel that their status as skilled workers was undermined.

The Great War is often seen as a major turning point in the role of women in British society. However, when the war ended the majority did not keep their wartime jobs:

  • The Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act meant that returning soldiers were given their old jobs back
  • Closure of most munitions factories meant women workers were no longer needed.
  • Within a few years of the end of the war, over 25 per cent of all working women were back in domestic service.