The battle between the ideal and the reality.

Perceptions of women in the workplace during the First World War varied but were largely driven by the battle between the need to fill the jobs left vacant by men called up to fight and the desire to maintain the traditional feminine image of women as wife and mother.

Many of the roles that women were required to take-up were in stark contrast to the feminine images that people were used to.

For a society dealing with one of the most horrific and far reaching conflicts in history, seeing women in male clothing and undertaking heavy, manual work was yet another reminder of the war and its impact on their lives.

For the Government, maintaining the status quo as far as was possible and promising a return to normality once the war was over was a key driver in how they viewed and portrayed women workers.

Women who entered traditionally male dominated sectors were viewed as temporary workers who were not capable of matching skilled men in quantity or quality of output.

This view was evident in the use of the dilution and substitution schemes, which saw employers divide skilled jobs into a number of semi-skilled jobs or employing a number of women to carry out a job previously done by a single man. A knock-on effect of these schemes was enabling many employers to get around equal pay rules.
The battle between the ideal and the reality of women’s role during the war was also evident in other areas.

For example, women who wanted to serve as war nurses were not only welcomed but actively encouraged, while women who wished to serve as doctors were greeted with suspicion.

The press were banned from reporting on the realities of work in the munitions factories, particularly of the dangers and health implications, in part to not discourage others from taking on the role but also to protect more traditional images of women.

For British society in WW1 the influx of women into the workplace and more specifically into roles that jarred with traditional ideals about women’s position in society, was a constant reminder of the upheaval of war.

This fed negative perceptions of women workers both during and after the war, while the need to return to normality after 1919 served as a significant barrier to women who wanted to continue in their new found roles.

By Natasha Davies. Twitter: @daviesna2.