During the early 20th century, an average women’s role in society would be to cook, clean and generally cater for her family. Along with this, they were not able to vote, work in industrial areas or be seen out and about without a chaperone. There was a scarcity of jobs for some women; and discrimination or low pay for the others. Although capable of much more, women never attempted to balance their opportunities with that of men’s. Whether it was because they never thought it would be possible to do as good a job or they just didn’t want to break years of tradition; World War One was about to affect the lives of these women in many ways.
While men set off for war in 1914, vacancies in the tertiary and secondary industry opened up. With the great demand of munitions and weapons, with higher pay and with no men to maintain things back at the home front, women thought they wouldn’t just be taking these jobs for themselves, but for the sakes of their husbands, sons, friends and family at war. The statistics in Source 1 are not only factually taken from the beginning and end years of the war, therefore proving reliable; but also supports this idea.
Areas, such as ‘Industry’ grew by 625,000 and areas where women were hardly to be seen working at the beginning of the war, grew rapidly towards the end of the war; such as in ‘transport’, where an average of 50,000 women workers were employed per year; throughout the duration of the war. While all these employment areas grew, the only one that had seemed to decline was that of ‘Domestic Service’. This decrease suggests that the 500,000 workers lost, went on to work in the other fields that needed workers.
Therefore showing that women were abandoning their responsibilities or rather the responsibility society had appointed to them. The jobs were not the only things that kept women motivated and grateful in their new fields of work. The pay did to. Before the war ‘£2 a month’ was practically the norm for a working class woman in domestic services. Mrs Felstead wrote in a letter about her experience to the Imperial War Museum in 1976; how she looked for every opportunity to ‘get out’. And ‘when the need for women ‘war brokers” came along, she jumped to it.
Although it meant dangerous jobs, she was in desperate need of money, and started ‘hand cutting shell fuses’. Looking back in hindsight, she feels she wasn’t earning a lot however, at the time she ‘was very well off earning £5 a week’. This is evident for the progress women made during World War One, and because Mrs Felstead wrote of her own experiences, it makes this source quite reliable, especially as it is from the records of the Imperial War Museum. This further outlines the economical progress women have made. Another significant change was in women’s political status.
In 1917 in a speech by the former prime minister, H. Asquith congratulated women for working ‘out their salvation’ ‘during the war’ and therefore he found it ‘impossible to oppose them getting the vote’. Before the war he was divergent to it. Women shifting his mind and achieving this was a major breakthrough for them politically. And this political change is significant because it meant women could vote and in turn let their voices be heard. The source is very useful in helping us to understand why some men were convinced by the contribution of women during the war that they deserved the vote.
However it is not entirely reliable as we cannot be sure of Asquith’s motivation. Earning loads of money didn’t change women’s life straight away like it was thought to have done. A poem called munition wages, written by Madeline Ida Bedford states ‘I’m acting the lady but I – aint living bad’. This shows how working class women benefited economically from the war. She shows off her ‘sergeant to swank with’ and ‘silk stockings’, as though it was never even dreamt of by her before.
When really this primary, not so reliable source, was written by this upper-class woman, meaning she was always able to ‘do theatres in style’. So she was in no position to talk about the changing experiences of working class women because she didn’t experience the real problems faced by them. On the other hand Munition wages touches on the changing wages that woman got working in munitions factories as well as other social changes, for example Bedford talks of ‘driving out in taxis’ as if she was without a chaperone, before the war this would have been looked down upon.
Overall this source although partly unreliable is useful to an historian as it elucidates the change for women’s social life. Within this transition, women also faced many problems and challenges. In 1920 an article was published in a popular magazine, ‘Live wire’. Saying women didn’t deserve the occupation of which were normally held by men. This primary source, 15, was written to persuade woman to give up their jobs for the men to take back. As it is highly opinionated and with a motivation to persuade, meaning there’s a lot of exaggeration and generalisation behind it, it isn’t a very reliable source.
The unknown author is ‘sure’ that women ‘giving up’ their ‘jobs for one of these men who have done so much for ’ ‘will be more than enough reward’. This source is a clear example of the constant criticism women faced, and although it is anonymous and could be the view of the minority, it does fit with the widespread view in the media at the time; that women were selfish if they did not return to their homes or domestic services. These sorts of attitudes made women ‘think of the agonies’ the soldiers went through, consequently some did leave their jobs in guilt.
But others chose to leave the ‘cotton stockings’ and keep the ‘silk ones’, those of which formed the suffragettes. Suffragettes weren’t the only offspring from constant criticism; problematic, rebelling women were characterised in many other ways. Josh Brooman, a well known historian wrote in this secondary source of 1994 that women were known as ‘heroines’ during the war. This status immediately dropped as women who ‘stayed on the dole’ even after the war, were thought to be ‘pin money girls’. The difference in the names represents the difference in the attitudes of men and the media.
This source is quite reliable, because although Brooman wasn’t there at the time to gain knowledge of the full effect and transition of women’s roles, his being an author of history textbooks shows he has the benefit of hindsight and through research is able to make these conclusions. Additionally, this source is useful in that it illustrates the titles and respect for women that were so quick to change. Other problems and challenges women faced as a result of changes bought by the men’s insensitive behaviour is reflected in source 12.
Dorothy Poole, in an interview recorded in 1919, making this a primary source claimed her ‘drawer was nailed by the men’. Implying she was being picked on; ‘None of the men’ liked that she was receiving their full ‘rate of pay as a result they never ‘spoke to her’. This source is reliable as it was recorded around the time of the incident. It is useful in that it shows us an example of some of the mistreatment women suffered in doing what they felt was right for them and future generations.
Another sacrifice that woman took was in keeping their jobs, while not even enjoying it. The only thing that kept them going was the higher wages, claims Sylvia Pankhurst; whose mother was a suffragette and father was a lawyer. She wrote in a history book in 1932 that it was common and very often you would find women ‘lying ill on the stones’. They would be recovering themselves from the smell of ‘dope varnish’ for more than ‘half an hour’, ‘before being able to return to their toil’.
This source is fairly reliable; she writes of her own experience and so we are forced to believe it, however, as she is a campaigner for women’s rights, there is scepticism as to whether exaggeration is used. This source represents the massive amount of desperation as well as devotion from the working class women. It also shows a change in motives, women were no longer doing this for their men at war, but for themselves; surely they urgently needed the money enough to have suffocated themselves.
To conclude, whether it meant; the right to vote, working in industrial areas or being allowed out without a chaperon, the First World War had affected the lives of women, especially working class women in many ways in the home front. Taking into eye-witness accounts, historical records, and statistics and other historian’s research through hindsight, I can see that women’s lives changed economically, politically as well as socially.
The seeds of the women’s liberation movement were seen before World War One but it was the war that allowed those tiny seeds to begin to germinate. They were able to see through the problems and challenges while it went from scarcity of jobs and low pay, to abundances of jobs and higher pay. Women had started to be seen as equal. This is evident now since, the type of jobs afforded to men, is equally given to a woman. Women nowadays leave the home front to join the army at war. In some cases women such as, Margaret Thatcher have reached the very top and become prime ministers.