Before the Second World War women were seen as housewives and mothers, most women didn’t go out to work everyday and earn a comfortable wage like men did. However, these perceptions changed during the war. As a result of WW2, women’s chances of having the opportunity to show their intelligence and capability in the workplace increased. There was a shortage of workers in typically ‘male jobs’ of essential industries like metal work and engineering. Women were given the opportunity to train and take on these jobs. Women started to work in industry, the Land Army, and in the Women’s Armed Forces.
Their expectations and opportunities improved but after the war a lot of what they had, had disappeared and most things returned to normal. Before the War had started, women had little to no respect and were seen as inferior to men. Although women had the right to vote since 1918, women’s rights and opinions were not as valued as those of men’s. It was only in 1928 when all women were given the right to vote. The average woman was at home; a woman was expected to cook, clean, look after the children and tend to her husband/father’s needs, and was not expected to earn her living outside of the home, or have any social life at all.
However, the First World War had given women some job opportunities but were very limited. Some women became secretaries or office workers but most women stopped working once they got married, except for the lower class women who had no choice but to keep on working to keep food on the table. When the War broke out, many working men had to enlist in the army that consequently gave women the opportunity to work outside of the home, doing jobs that they could have never imagined doing before the War. Women suddenly became a vital factor in the War effort.
The government knew they had to keep production levels up otherwise it would have resulted in many problems and maybe even defeat. At this time, Britain was going through the Rationing period so they had to make sure that they kept import levels to the absolute minimum. As a result of this, in December 1941 women between the ages of 18 and 40 could be made to work in war industries. In the same year, women between 20 and 30 could be conscripted into the women’s armed forces-though not for combat duty. However, in 1943 the government widened these age limits so more women could be used.
By then nine out of every ten single women were contributing. Even married women began to work, that would have been unheard of before the War. For the first time, women were given the chance to do more physical jobs, go out and socialise and be a part of society. They also experienced real freedom. Moreover, women’s home life had changed dramatically; their main priority was not their home, but now their work. Many women had to work numerous hours that resulted in them being unable to do less work around the house.
Work also limited the time mothers had with their children, and several mothers had to put their children in childcare whilst they went to work. Another dilemma, working women had was finding the time to go shopping for the family’s food. A family’s ration book could only be registered at one grocery shop, and by the time a women got there after work, it would be likely that she would find the usual queues. This problem contributed to high rates of absenteeism in the factories. It was only in the summer of 1942, when the Ministry of Labour called on managements to give women time off to run their errands like shopping.
They stated that “Women cannot be expected to work long hours, week in week out, if they have to spend in addition, several hours in travelling or if they have homes and young children to look after”. However, even after the matter was settled, the problem was never satisfactorily dealt with. Some of the types of War Work women did included joining the armed forces or working in the factories. An example of a military job was the the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or ‘Wrens’) that was the most popular service peaking to 75,000 women in 1944. Factory jobs mainly consisted of munitions and armaments production.
Taking the role of men was very hard for some women. A number of women couldn’t adapt to the common practice of men; the physicality of the work they did was just too intense for them. Some jobs were also very dangerous and resulted in several deaths. For many women, War work changed their lives, depending on what jobs they did and what social class they were, their lives became more accustomed with War work. Lower class women were desperate for the extra income so they had to work in the munitions factories doing countless hours of heavy work to provide food for the family.
Civilian jobs like Road sweepers and coal miners were all occupied by the lower classed women whilst office and secretarial work was done by Middle class women. One of the main factors that changed women’s lives was the increase in their wages. This was due to the large numbers of women joining the trade unions in the war years. Women’s average weekly earnings rose from £1. 63 to £3. 16 between October 1938 and July 1945. Another aspect of women’s lifestyle, which changed dramatically, was women’s education. For the first time, women went to college to achieve qualifications in more exclusive jobs and gain promotions.
The large variety of jobs also meant women were discovering new talents and abilities that they had never thought of having. As well as civilian jobs, there were also military-related jobs. When women were conscripted in 1941 they were in theory, given the chance of joining one of the armed forces. They could have either joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS or ‘Wrens’), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), or the Auxiliary Territorial Force (ATF). Depending on the service women were enlisted in, their experiences were different.
Women in the ATF found themselves doing very dangerous jobs. They worked as mechanics and welders etc. Consequently, 335 were killed and another 300 were wounded. It is clear to say that women’s lives had unquestionably changed from before the War. Women’s lifestyle didn’t only change within work, but also outside of work. They had become much more social than ever before; groups of mixed-classed women went out to pubs, went dancing etc. In addition, the increase in wages also meant women had more disposable income and could buy luxuries like chocolate.
In 1944, when an increased amount of American servicemen were placed in Britain, women started to behave differently. Some women started dating American GI’s and started to have more fun with their social lives. They were seen as symbols of glamour. ‘Overpaid, oversexed and over here’ was the resentful catchphrase of some British men. Fashion also became a huge part of women’s lives. To reduce accidents in the factories, women had to wear shorter skirts or trousers that ultimately changed women’s fashion; many started to wear shorter skirts when going out and socialising.
Women’s lifestyle had definitely changed from what it was like before the War. Immediately after the War, Britain was a completely different country; so much had changed since the beginning of the War. The returning men were shocked to see how women had so much freedom and confidence. Women had a lot of difficulty trying to keep their jobs as many returning soldiers wanted to get back into work. Many women’s lives changed to co-operate with the needs of the men; they had to regress to their pre-war existences. However a majority of women looked forward to settling down and making a home after the War.
Less than a quarter wanted to continue their present work. This was due to the jobs they were doing being very dangerous and physical, and they expected the husband to be working instead of them. Conversely, there were women that were reluctant to give up their jobs, so they had to be forced by the effectiveness of government propaganda. In spite of this, there were women that carried on working in offices and non-war related work. There were also women that had a mixed life; balanced between their work and family. In 1947 around 18% of married women worked, compared to 10% in the 1930s.
In the longer term, women’s lifestyles changed even more drastically. Women became more independent than ever before. There had been a record marriage boom in 1939-40, when young couples had married hastily without really knowing each other, before being posted abroad. It was inevitable that many of these couples had difficulties living with each other after the War. This resulted in divorce rates increasing radically, also, the illegitimate births rate almost doubled between 1940 and 1945, to more than one-third of all babies born. This was due to contraception not being very effective at the time.
Emigration also became a concern, 20,000 British brides followed their American husbands to the United States. Attempts for equality also start to be seen by many women as they become more and more self-governing. In general, this shows that there was a fair amount of continuity from during the war but there was also some change. In conclusion, there was a great deal of change from before the war to during the war. For the first time, women were able to do more physical jobs. Many women gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from their war work.
They made new and lasting friendships, enjoyed new-found independence, and discovered new abilities and skills. There was a reasonable amount of change from during the war to after the war. Many women had to regress back to their pre-war traditional roles to free up jobs for the returning men. Women only achieved any permanent improvement to their lifestyle and social status in a few areas. There is still continuity of many stereotypes from the War, such as; even today women are still not allowed to go to the frontline. It is fair to say that there was much change but only lasted for the duration of the War.