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Ww1 Woman Workers

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One immediate result of the war's outbreak was the rise in female unemployment, especially among the servants, whose jobs were lost to the middle-classes' wish to economise.

However, it was soon seen that the only option to replace the volunteers gone to the front was employing women in the jobs they had left behind; conscription only made this need even more urgent as had the Munitions of Work Act 1915 by which munitions factories had fallen under the sole control of the Government.

As the main historian of women's work, Gail Baryon, claims, for many women the war was "a genuinely liberating experience" that made them feel useful as citizens but that also gave them the freedom and the wages only men had enjoyed so far. Approximately 1,600,000 women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918 in Government departments, public transport, the post office, as clerks in business, as land workers and in factories, especially in the dangerous munitions factories, which were employing 950,000 women by Armistice Day (as compared to 700,000 in Germany).

Women's job mobility also increased enormously, with a large number of women abandoning service for factory work never to return to it to the chagrin of the middle-class women that were left without home help in many cases.

In general, women did very well, surprising men with their ability to undertake heavy work and with their efficiency. By the middle of the war they were already regarded as a force to be proud of, part of the glory of Britain. However, their entrance into the workforce was initially greeted with hostility for the usual sexist reasons and also because male workers worried that women's willingness to work for lower wages would put them out of work.

The Government, besides, combined a welfare policy offering subsidies to families with husbands at the front with increasing female work in order to conscript skilled workers formerly regarded as indispensable to the war effort. To make up for the loss in the skilled workforce the entry of women in factories was often facilitated by 'dilution', that is to say, the breaking down of complex tasks into simpler activities that non-skilled women workers could easily carry out.

The women employed in munitions factories, popularly known as munitionettes have became the most visible face of the woman worker in WWI, though doubt remains as to whether their motivation was patriotic or simply economic. The factories they manned had been seized by Lloyd George's Government and he also caused suspension of all trade union activities in them.

Munitionettes produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army and daily risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures. Although this can be seen as a gauge of their will to sacrifice everything for Britain it should be read, rather, as part of their treatment as cheap, easily replaceable labour.

The public recognition and sympathy that the 'canaries' (thus nicknamed for the yellow tinge that skin exposed to sulphur acquired) received could not make up for their work conditions. Leading trade-unionist Mary MacArthur, Secretary since 1903 of the Women's Trade Union League, led an energetic campaign to demand they were paid as much as the men employed in the same industry Ð'- the women only got half the men's wages - but by the end of the war the proportion was roughly still the same.

The Government also invited women to join the ranks of the Women's Land Army, an organisation that offered cheap female labour to farmers not always keen to employ women. The 260,000 volunteers that made up the WLA were given little more than a uniform and orders to work hard as the fuel restrictions made a return to manual agricultural labour unavoidable; unless, that is, the Government used this as an excuse, counting on these women's cheerful acceptance of any hardship to make working the land as cheap as possible.

It's hard to say whether women workers understood from the beginning that their employment could only be temporary but so it was. The same situation was repeated in the main belligerent countries: women were dismissed back home to make room for the returning veterans, only in some cases their efforts were thanked with the right to vote. There are, besides, disagreements among historians, depending on whether they call themselves feminist or not, as to how much resentment this return home generated.

We must assume single women in families



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