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Describe the employment of women in Britain in 1914 at the outbreak of war

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As war broke out in 1914 about 1/3 of women were in some type of paid employment. The majority of this was domestic service or secretarial work and most people accepted, there was no place for women in manual labour e. g.

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dock-labouring, mining or road -digging. A woman’s role was very much as the homemaker. They were regarded as the weaker sex and the sex that had fewer rights than men. Decent women were expected to stay at home and rear the children of the family. They had to obey their husbands. Britain’s leisure class was kept in comfort by an army of domestic servants.

A large landowner with a wife, two children and a 62-roomed house n the West End required an indoor staff of 36. Some of the servants accompanied the family to its other homes – the country house, the seaside villa, the ‘shooting box’ in Scotland – each of which also had its own separate staff, containing many women. The working day could be a gruelling 17 hours long. The most important female servant of the household was the housekeeper, known by the title of ‘Mrs’, she commanded a platoon of female domestics like lady’s maid, housemaids, kitchen maids and the scullion who washed the dishes.

Upper class women were not expected to work. They therefore were involved in charity work and voluntary work also they were heavily involved with the suffragettes. Many working class women worked all day at jobs in their own homes, however some working class women worked in factories, to supplement the men’s income, which often wasn’t enough. Workrooms were often crowded, dirty, ill lit, ill ventilated and insufficiently heated. The hours permissible under the Factory Acts in 1901 were long. Women and girls over 14 years could be employed 12 hours a day and on Saturday 8 hours.

In addition, in certain industries, and dressmaking was one, an additional 2 hours could be worked by women on 30 nights in any 12 months. At the outbreak of war women earned about 65 per cent of the male wage. The employment of little errand girls, usually only 14 years of age was common. Their work was very varied – running errands, matching materials, and taking out parcels, cleaning the workrooms, and often also helping in the work of the house. To be running around doing ‘odd jobs’ for the employees of a busy workshop was hard work and tiring.

It was not surprising that the young women in those workshops often looked weary and overdone; but there were plenty of girls to take their place, so they would not give in. Many others were employed to work on the surface of coal mines or on fish docks at hard, tiring, physical labour. A sexist outlook upon women in the workplace operated throughout this period. It resulted in skill definitions and pay differentials. Women’s work was usually considered unskilled, where as a man doing the same job would be considered skilled.

For example welding was perceived as a skilled job when men did it but when women became welders during the First World War it was seen as unskilled, with women being paid half the male rate. Middle class women attempted to get into professions as doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers but found it incredibly difficult. The opinion of men was that they were not intelligent enough and too weak emotionally therefore unable to cope with the work. They did find employment easier to find as teachers, as this was dealing with children and they were able to find employment in the white-collar industries as clerks, telephonists and secretaries.

However female clerks would earn less than one third of the male wage, and a female typist would earn i??1 a week compared to i??3 a week earned by a man. Women from the upper and middle classes came to have more opportunities in the late nineteenth century. This was particularly so in education. Higher education was open to women, although they were restricted in taking degrees in either Oxford or Cambridge. Most women lacked such opportunities. Women mainly moved into the low-skill, low-pay ‘sweat shop’ sector as they were denied access to the new technologies.

Female factory workers were generally worse treated than men in pay, training and opportunities, and the trade unions mainly male organisations co-operated with the management or the definition of skills, which affected pay, were controlled by men and favoured them; skilled women were poorly recognised. Women were also paid piece rates and found their wage lowered if they earned too much. One factory inspector remarked that ‘What can one do when a girl is earning as much as 15 shillings a week but lower the piece rate? ‘ In a survey just before the war the social commentator and reformer, S.

Rowntree, had argued that i??1 a week was necessary in order to live above poverty but few women received this amount. In J. M Barrie’s comedy What Ever Woman Knows (1908), John Shand, the railwayman turned MP, owes his success as a debater to his wife Maggie, who has transformed his boring speeches when she typed them up. Women had achieved some degree of marital equality and been given some educational opportunities by 1914. They had also begun to make some inroads into traditional male occupations and they had focused political action on winning the vote.

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