A Pitkin Guide by Carol Harris
In Britain, the First World War started in a blaze of volunteering based on patriotism, Millions of people supported the call to defend Britain and its Empire. Many women went to the War Office ready to organise hospital and medical services but, initially, most of these offers were swiftly rejected.
At that time, women had few rights in the home or at work. Many jobs, trades and professions were only open to men; their role was to earn money to support their wives and families, and people believed that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. Extending the vote to women was a major political issue and those active in that campaign soon played leading roles in the war some in support of the conflict, others who actively campaigned for an end to war as a means of settling international disputes.
As the First World War progressed and more men were conscripted, women were needed to carry out work which had previously been ‘a man’s job’. Government propaganda emphasised that everyone should be doing his or her part though there was concern at the perceived moral danger posed by men and women working together, and morality patrols were set up to prevent contact between young women and soldiers. Women working in ‘new’ jobs, such as postal workers, window cleaners and firefighters, became a common sight on the streets of Britain. And jobs that saw women in more traditional roles, such as nurses, brought women’s war work to the fore.
Inequality was ingrained in British society. People were judged by their social connections, class, ethnicity and gender. Women’s services in wartime were thus usually led and run by people who were related or ‘well connected’, and who ran charities in peacetime. But women from all backgrounds found themselves involved in war work in one way or another, from munitionettes to the military.
Women workers were tolerated ‘for the duration’, while the war lasted, and the First World War couldn’t have been won without them Yet while 1918 saw reform to women’s suffrage, historians today still argue about the extent to which the work of women.