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The role of British Women in World War One

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Women in World War One
On the eve of war, the position of women in British society was largely unfavourable. In the workplace, 'women's work' - most commonly, domestic service - was poorly paid and considered separate from, and inferior to, 'men's work'. Women were still expected to give up work once they were married, to revert to their traditional roles of wife, mother and housekeeper. After the war, the status of women and Britain was entirely changed. The women used the war to show their patriotism, and to prove that they deserved to be treated equally with men. They did this in a number of ways. First, women took the jobs of men when they left for the war, breaking the traditional stereotype that women were not suitable for men’s work. Second, the effort of women in the industry was crucial not only to the war effort, but also to the running of the country as a whole. Third, the aid of women in the military showed that they could handle the same situations as men. Of these, the most important contributing factor to changing the position of women in British society was breaking the stereotype that women could not handle men’s jobs.
Because of their status in Britain, the suffragette movement in Britain was the most active feminist movements in Western Europe. The suffragettes pressured Asquith for equal treatment of women and men. Asquith, however, was reluctant to give women these rights. He believed that women would not use their rights effectively and they could not effectively take advantage of the right to vote. When the war came along, much to Asquith’s relief, the suffragettes postponed their movement to contribute to the war effort. One way that they contributed was by offering to take the jobs of men who had left to fight the war. At first, the government did not take their offer seriously, but by 1915, as Britain the lack of men in the workforce increased, the government could no longer ignore their willingness to volunteer. Hundreds of thousands of women were employed in industries key to the war effort, such as munitions factories and weapons manufacturers. One of the main reasons women were employed was because of the shell shortage in 1915. The production of shells was crucial to the war effort, and with few men to produce them, the government fell back on women to work in the factories. Many women also took jobs not necessarily key to the war effort, but key to sustaining the nation. For example, women took jobs in offices as secretaries or in agriculture. 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. 200,000 women took up jobs in governmental departments, 500,000 took up clerical positions in private offices, 250,000 worked on in agricultural positions, and 700,000 women took up posts in the munitions industry, which was dangerous work. Many more women did hard heavy work, including ship building and furnace stoking. These types of jobs had been exclusive to men prior to the war. In July 1914, before the war broke out there were 3.2 million women in employment. This had risen to 5 million by January 1918.

By taking the jobs of men when they volunteered or were conscribed to the military, women broke their traditional stereotypical role. Before World War One, women were seen as inferior to men. They were expected to work menial jobs such as cleaning. Many women were employed as maids or other domestic services, and women in the men’s workforce were almost inexistent. The jobs that women were expected to have were of little importance, done with no education or skill, and not well paying. Also, when women were married they were expected to leave their jobs to look after the home. They cleaned the house and raised kids. They relied on their husband entirely to monetarily support the family. When the men left for the war, women were eager to show that they could accomplish more than menial tasks. By taking the roles of men in the workforce, they showed the nation how useful they could be. They proved that they were not limited by their gender, and that they were equals to men. Also, by taking the roles of men, women showed that they were not dependent on their husbands. Many women were forced to enter the workforce because of their husbands volunteering, being conscripted, or dying in the war. These women became accustom to higher paying jobs, more interesting tasks and a higher status in society. Needless to say, they were reluctant to give this up when the war was over.

Not only did women take up jobs in the workforce during WW1, they also took jobs in the military. An estimated 80,000 women worked in the armed forces. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed during World War One. This showed women’s willingness to serve their country. It also showed that they were not innocent children, and they should not be treated as such. Also, many women volunteered to be nurses in the war effort. Some worked in local hospitals while others were employed nearer to the front. More enthusiastic women volunteered to transport wounded back from the front to hospitals in ambulances. The wounds that women treated in the war were horrific. This showed men that women could handle the horrors of war as well as they could. It also showed that women were willing to give their lives for their country.

After the war, women experienced immense social change. With the Representation of the People Act in 1918, women over the age of thirty were given the right to vote. The significant role of women in World War One was a huge contributing factor to the decision to give women the vote. Men were enlightened to the potential that women have and to their significance in society. The work done by women in World War One was extremely important to changing the role of women in British society. The long term nature of the war demanded that women play a different role in the British economy. After the war ended, some men tried to implement the traditional roles of women again. Women were expected to give jobs back to the men. Due to the high casualty rate of the war, some women kept their jobs in the workforce. In all, women experienced vast social change after the war. They experienced new social rights such as smoking in public and wearing their hair short. Women retained some but not all of the social independence that they gained during the war. In 1919, gender could no longer disqualify someone from holding a job in profession al or civil service. Most significantly, in 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave women equal voting rights as men. Of the work done by women in World War One, their willingness to take men’s jobs was the most significant in their social status change. By breaking the stereotypical role of women, they were able to show their potential in British society and that they could handle the right to vote.

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