A Woman’s Place in WW1 – In the years preceding the First World War employment was not the ‘norm’ for many women.
Those that did work worked in ‘female friendly’ roles such as domestic service and so called ‘luxury trades’. Ordinarily, once married, women would give up any paid work to focus on fulfilling their role of wife and mother.
Those that continued to work tended to be poorer women for whom paid work was the only option in order to keep food on the table for their family.
For the women that did work there were a number of problems, not least of all that women’s work was poorly paid.
This was partly due to the fact that it was viewed as separate and inferior to men’s work. This attitude would prove to be a considerable barrier to achieving equal pay for equal work during and after the war.
The 1901 census provides a useful snapshot of ‘women’s work’ in pre-war Britain.
Women were listed as lawyer’s clerks, physicians, dentists or dental assistants, teachers, authors, journalists and shorthand writers. But these women were in the minority.
The reality for 40.5% of working women was employment as a domestic servant. This was a hard life where hours were long and irregular, work was manual and unpleasant and pay was very low.
Perceptions about women and work were powerful and highly influential in pre-war Britain. Women workers were viewed as deficient due to family responsibilities, physical weakness and a lack of work experience.
The image of ‘wife and mother’ was so strong that working women were not discussed in terms of workers but as potential or actual mothers.
Motherhood, within marriage, was seen as a woman’s highest achievement and portrayed as sufficient emotional fulfilment for them. ( BBC History Trails, Victorian Britain Published: 2001-08-09 ).
This image would continue throughout the war, with increased pressure on women to do their bit for the war effort while continuing their duties as mother.
Debate continues about the lasting impact of the war on women in the years following 1919, but what is clear is that the war certainly challenged ideas about women’s ability to work.
Women proved that they were able to do the jobs that had traditionally been held by men which helped to drive forward the calls for change following the end of the war.
By Natasha Davies. Twitter: @daviesna2.