Impact of the Great War

Attitudes of the suffrage movement during the war

When World War One broke out the whole suffrage movement immediately scaled back and even suspended some of their activities.

Emmeline Pankhurst remarked that there was no point in continuing the fight for the vote when there might be no country in which they could vote.

As men left their jobs and went overseas to fight in the war, Suffragist and Suffragette leaders volunteered their members to take their place.

A few women's groups were reluctant to support what they considered an imperialist war, but most laid aside political campaigning and took up the war effort.

War work

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

Hundreds of thousands of women were employed in industries key to the war effort - munitions factories and weapons manufacturers.

Many more women worked as conductors on buses and trams, as police, as labourers on farms and at docks, in hospitals as nurses, in offices as secretaries and assistants, as well as in the Civil Service.

With the majority of young men enlisted in the army, the role these women played was crucial not only to the war effort but also to the running of the country. Even during the worst days of the war, most services remained operational on the home-front.

Women's experiences during the war raised their self-image and sense of individual identity.

The success of thousands of women entering the workplace to do jobs usually done by men won them considerable respect and admiration. Women proved themselves to be every bit the equal of men.

Many served with such distinction, particularly in the medical services, that their political cause gained credibility.

Differing views on the impact of the Great War on female Suffrage

A 1917 recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army
A 1917 recruitment poster for the Women's Land Army

Historians take different views on how much impact war work had on the decision to grant limited enfranchisement in 1918.

Some believe that the extension of the franchise to include women was a token of gratitude for their effort during the war.

Historian Gifford Lewis believes that “The highly skilled and dangerous work done by women during the war was probably the greatest factor in the granting of the vote to women.”

However, women had been working for years in industry and business with little political recognition for their contribution.

Historians including Arthur Marwick have argued that the Great War only accelerated a process that had started well before 1914.

While it's possible that women’s role in the workplace would have earned them political advancement eventually, it was the war which highlighted the economic and strategic value of women to the country.

The contribution women made during the war had an impact on attitudes to women. Politicians and the general public alike recognised that women deserved greater political rights. It also dispelled any remaining widespread beliefs that women were unable to cope with traditionally male jobs.

The Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over 21, whether they owned property or not.

The act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, or whose husband did. This represented 8.5 million women - two thirds of the total population of women in the UK.

However, the women who benefited in 1918 were mature and married females.

It had been younger, mainly single women who had contributed so much in the munitions factories and elsewhere. They were given no recognition by the government until 1928.

In contrast to Britain, in France women were not enfranchised at that time, despite their war effort. It could be argued this was due to there being no French equivalent to the women's suffrage movement in Britain before the war.