To what extent were both the First and Second World Wars a catalyst for women’s enfranchisement and social change?
This essay explores how much the enfranchisement of women was facilitated by the two World Wars. It discusses the ways in which women were viewed in their newly discovered wartime roles, both the positive and negative responses from British society towards their place at work, and to what extent a predominantly male-led society encouraged the changes.
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Joanna Bourke, a Professor of History at Birkbeck College, states in her online article ‘Women on the Home Front in World War One’ (BBC History, 2011) that:
‘The war bestowed two valuable legacies on women. First, it opened up a wider range of occupations to female workers and hastened the collapse of traditional women’s employment, particularly domestic service… wages were higher, conditions better, and independence enhanced.’
Much of the suffrage movement was put on hold during war time, with energies channelled instead into the war effort. Despite this however, women over the age of 21 were given the right to vote in 1928, meaning equal voting rights with men. During the Second World War women were encouraged to join not only the Land Army, but the army, air force and navy. There was also the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), of which over 200,000 women were members.
The Annual Abstract of Statistics 1938-1950 (Great Britain Central Statistics Office, HMSO 1952) cites that, in 1938, 14.4 million men and almost 5 million women worked. By 1945 the figures had changed to 14.8 million men and 6.7 million women.
The shift in the number of women at work and the kind of work available to them as a result of the World Wars is not the whole story, however. Wages were still unequal, and at the close of war thousands of women workers were simply expected to return to domestic life. To what extent, then, were social attitudes towards women really altered as a result of the World Wars?
3. World War One – Women on the Home Front
At the time of World War One, there had been no previous comparable situation in which everyone, both men and women, were suddenly required to help defend their country. Thus there was no clear role into which women could fall; men were expected to fight, as was usual in a time of war, but what were women expected to do in a conflict of this scaleTraditional perceptions of what it meant to be a woman were already being challenged by the suffrage movement, and now the rest of the country had no choice but to re-think the place of women, specifically in the workplace. This re-thinking remained, however, within certain boundaries. In his book ‘British Culture and the First World war’ (Palgrave, 2002), George Robb asserts:
‘During the war women received a great deal of praise and positive attention for their work as nurses, munitions workers, and military auxiliaries, but were also the subject of gossip, parody, and censure whenever their behaviour seemed too unconventional.’ (p32)
The resistance towards a shift in the role of women in society was not only expressed by men. As Robb goes on to point out, ‘Domestic magazines like Everywoman’s Weekly and Woman’s Own published war recipes and military sewing patterns, but urged women not to be seduced by the glamour of war into ‘inappropriate’ war work.’ (p39).
Things were changing, including more freedom for women in fashion (shorter hemlines, more make-up) as well as a shift from the more Victorian attitudes of women’s place in the home, and yet in work such as munitions for example, women’s wages were still half that of men. Then once the war was over, many women were expected to return to domesticity:
‘During the war, the news media, government propaganda, and even commercial advertisements had celebrated women’s non-traditional war work, though almost as soon as the war was over, these popular representations reverted to images of women in the home, as wives and mothers.’ (Robb, 2002, p63)
4. World War Two: Further calls to Arms
In her book ‘Feminism and the Family’ (St Martin’s Press, 2000), Jennifer Somerville states that ‘The mass unemployment and poverty of the 1930s made agitation for equal opportunities and equal pay for women an unpopular cause’ (p43). At the onset of the Second World War however, women were expected to take on further roles that would previously have been viewed as ‘men’s work’, including more governmental positions, roles in the army, navy and air force. White-collar jobs were opened up to women, who by this time had also been given equal voting rights. It would, however, be far later in the century that women would begin to experience more equal pay. Things were only beginning to change:
‘The Second World War occasioned a substantial increase in the women in the workforce (from 25 per cent in 1939 to 36 per cent in 1944)… While women in the traditional male sector were laid off to make way for the returning veterans, the service and sales sectors became permanent. These sectors became major recruiters of female employees in the late 1940s and 1950s.’ (Somerville, 2000, p44)
Senior positions in spheres such as the government would remain rare until later in the century, but change was afoot never the less. The question remains: would these advancements have been made had the World Wars not happened, and to what extent was each war a catalyst to speeding up the enfranchisement of women, the process of which had already got under way?
5. Conclusion: World War as a catalyst for change?
The enfranchisement of women and fundamental social change is a complex issue, and one which is still prevalent in Britain today, not least in the issue of equal pay. One of the fundamental misconceptions faced by women at the turn of the 20th Century was that of capability: it was viewed very much that they were less capable than men in spheres outside of the home; that they were somehow not designed both mentally and physically to join men in the workplace. The World Wars forced this issue, and despite the ongoing problem of pay, worker’s rights (highly ‘skilled’ work – better paid – was still generally given over to men) and a fundamental attitude that men were better equipped to ‘fight’ in the traditional sense, women were able to prove themselves capable both mentally and physically. Not only capable, in fact, but essential to the war effort. During the Second World War, women were perhaps viewed slightly less through the lens of the paternal, rather patronising male-dominated society – a sign of gradual progress.
Despite the fact that the total acceptance of women in all spheres of work would come later, I do believe that the two World Wars were a valuable catalyst for social change, empowering women to gain confidence as more independent, better paid and more appreciated members of society. It was not the end of the struggle for equality, but it certainly facilitated its beginnings.
In ‘The World in the Twentieth Century’ (Longman, 2002), Jeremy Black sums up the tentative catalyst for change:
‘… across the developed world, there was a measure of liberalization in the treatment of women in the first four decades of the century. New opportunities were related to increased mobility and independence. This included a decline in control and influence over young women by their elders’ (Black, 2002, 74).
In my view, the shift in attitudes within these decades cannot be viewed without reference to the impact of the two World Wars that marked the period.
Black, Jeremy, 2002: The World in the Twentieth Century, London: Longman
Bourke, Joanna, 2011: Women on the Home Front in World War One. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/women_employment_01.shtml. Last accessed 16th October 2011
Great Britain Central Statistics Office, 1952: The Annual Abstract of Statistics 1938-1950, London: HMSO
Robb, George, 2002: British Culture and the First World War, London: Palgrave
Somerville, Jennifer, 2000: Feminism and the Family, New York: St Martin’s Press