Prior to the First World War women's role in society in western countries was generally confined to the domestic sphere (but not necessarily their own home) and to certain types of jobs: 'Women's Work'. In Great Britain for example, just before World War I, out of an adult population of about 24 million women, around 1.7 million worked in domestic service, 800,000 worked in the textile manufacturing industry, 600,000 worked in the clothing trades, 500,000 worked in commerce and 260,000 in local and national government (including teaching). The British textile and clothing trades, in particular, employed far more women than men and could be regarded as 'women's work'.
While some women managed to receive a tertiary education and others to go into non-traditional career paths, for the most part women were expected to be primarily involved in "duties at home" and "women's work". Before 1914, only a few countries (New Zealand, Australia, and several Scandinavian nations) had given the right to vote to women (see Women's suffrage), and apart from these countries women were little involved in the political process.
More than any previous wars, World Wars I and II hinged as much on industrial production as they did on battlefield clashes. With millions of men away fighting and with the inevitable horrendous casualties, there was a severe shortage of labour in a range of industries, from rural and farm work to city office jobs.
During both World War I and World War II, women were called on, by necessity, to do work and to take on roles that were outside their traditional gender expectations. In Great Britain this was known as a process of "Dilution" and was strongly contested by the trade unions, particularly in the engineering and ship building industries. Women did, for the duration of both World Wars, take on jobs that were traditionally regarded as skilled "men's work". However, in accordance with the...