A Woman’s Place in WW1 – The First World War and the lasting impact that it had on women and their role in British society has been the subject of much historical analysis and debate, with two main schools of thought developing.
One suggests that the war was a “watershed of social change” that had a dramatic and beneficial impact on women’s lives, opening up new opportunities. ( Noakes, 2007 ) The other is more cautious and argues that the impact of the war on women and gender roles was limited and temporary, overshadowed by a backlash against women in the post-war years.
There were certainly some gains for women in terms of their position in society. Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918 under the Representation of the People Act, in 1919 the Sex Disqualification Act made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender.
The war had allowed women to prove themselves capable in the workplace, particularly in food production with many farmers wanting to keep women on. And some new opportunities for employment opened up in light engineering, retail and office work.
However, these gains were accompanied by a number of losses. As Britain strived to return to normality the desire for many women to continue working in non-traditional roles was a stark reminder of a conflict most wanted to forget.
As a result women were demonised for wanting to keep their higher paid jobs and often portrayed as taking jobs away from returning war veterans. In 1919 the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act ordered women to leave their wartime jobs to make way for returning men.
This had a noticeable impact on the number of women in work and by 1921 the percentage of women in the labour force was 21%, lower than in 1911. By 1931 women’s weekly wages had returned to the pre-war rates at half that of men.
What seems clear is that the post-war situation was complex and placed women in a unique position.
The war had allowed them to prove that they were capable of doing many of the jobs traditionally carried out by men and had given them a taste of the independence and financial freedom that such higher paid jobs could offer. Yet culturally Britain was not ready to accept this new role for women.
The war was certainly a defining moment for women, opening the door to new opportunities and allowing them to challenge traditional ideas about men and women’s position in society and the workplace.
Tackling these perceptions continues to be a key element in the fight to close the gender pay gap. Many of the jobs taken on by women during the war were in what we would consider the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sector, an area where women continue to be under-represented even today.
100 years on from the start of the First World War it’s important that we commemorate the part that women played in Britain’s war effort.
What better way than to finally put an end to the negative impact that traditional ideas about women’s role has on their position in the workplace and the home and to secure an equal place for women in the sectors, such as STEM, where they remain noticeably absent.
Lucy Noakes, 2007 — Demobilising the Military woman —.
By Natasha Davies. Twitter: @daviesna2.