How did world war one change the role and status of women in England and Wales?

Category: England, Women, World War
Last Updated: 15 Apr 2020
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During the nineteenth century, before war broke out new job opportunities began to emerge for women as teachers, shop workers, clerks and secretaries in offices. Even girls from working class backgrounds were able to achieve higher status than that of their parents and began to receive better pay packets.

Women from middleclass backgrounds were gaining better education opportunities and a few won the chance to go into higher education eventually becoming doctors to name but one thing. However education wasn't improving for the majority of women in lower classes often receiving no education. This left them no options but to go into domestic service or the "sweated industries" such as cotton factories or home dress making. Also between 1839 and 1886 there were a series of laws passed giving married women greater legal rights, however they couldn't yet vote in general elections. Some people thought that all women should be allowed to vote too as the number of men who could vote was gradually increasing. Others disagreed, yet the debate was not as simple as a case of men versus women.

Early campaigners for the vote were known as suffragists. These were mainly middle class women. Their leader was Mrs Millicent Fawcett. By handing out leaflets they began achieving some success with Liberal Mps and leading Conservative Mps. However this still got them know where.

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Then by 1903 Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst started the Women's Social and Political Union. The "Daily Mail" named this group the "Suffragettes" this got them into the headlines.

The "suffragettes" caused chaos disrupting political meetings and harassed ministers. Often ending up in prison, eventually going on hunger strike.

The above source shows that when many of the men signed up to be part of the Great War, there was no longer sufficient numbers left to continue making munitions and other industrial instruments. It was the women in the munitions factories that came out the worst in the end, after dealing with the harmful TNT their skin began to turn yellow and their hair became ginger. With this they became easily recognised and were given the nickname of "Canaries". The long-term effects however were much worse than they initially thought; many women were unable to become pregnant. However this job was highly paid and they women didn't have much other choice, it was also considered an important job and a valid contribution to the war effort.

The source published during the war showed the positive aspects of working women, however it portrayed the women as strong, healthy and capable of doing men's jobs while they were at war. Overall a positive image; hoping to encourage more women to join the war effort. Then on the other hand it does not show the illnesses that the women suffered and the dangers of working in the factory. As the image shows they were constantly surrounded by the shells of the bombs, which in this image were all, filled with TNT, you can tell this by the fact that the tops are on. They also had to be very careful when moving them as if they dropped one it cause the whole factory and its workers to go up with it.

While the majority of men were leaving home for the war many young women also found themselves leaving home for the first time. These women left to join the land army. As the above source shows women were beginning to take over the men's jobs that many of the farmers who gave the women board and lodge thought not very lady like. However without the women's help potatoes would not have been picked, sheep would not have been tended to. Women left for the land army as I thought it was a chance to gain freedom and new experiences. However it was not all that it seemed they were under strict discipline and once they were there they could not get out of it as they signed contracts for either six months or a year.

Overall this source is accurate, as the historian G. Thomas has gathered factual information from the time. Even though the source was recorded many years after the First World War the entire source is based on information of the time.

My daughter went out at 7am to the Maypole Diary Co. shop and after waiting till 10.30am was turned away without any margarine, came home chilled to the bone besides losing education. If we could have a system of rationing, I believe these hardships would be overcome.

"Workers" Dreadnought"

(A weekly newspaper of the East London Federation of Suffragettes,

and edited by Sylvia Pankhurst) 19 January 1918

Not all women had the chance to get good jobs in munitions factories or join the land army. Many had to deal with food shortages, and often as the source tells us queue for hours on end without any food by the end of it. The source gives us a realistic view of how working class women had to deal with life while husbands, sometimes sons were away fighting for the country. The "Workers Dreadnought" was aimed at the working class audience, bringing their suffrage to light. The source gives us just one example of how a young child had to find food as her mother had to work to raise some money that would supply a small amount of food. The source also informs us that many had already thought of rationing yet it was used until a month later, which was February 1918.

Nevertheless, many wealthy upper class people survived on their wealth. They were able to send out their servants to queue for them. Or they could barter on the black market. Through their wealth they were able to obtain any food they wanted.

Many women offered their services to help with the war effort, however both employers and trade unionists were reluctant to see women working in men's jobs, particularly in munitions factories. However women didn't take this lying down. As the above source shows they held a huge procession on the 17th of July letting the employers and trade unionists know that they were prepared to work. Within the procession there was a large banner reading "Men of the Empire are Fighting - The Women of the Empire are Working". This source proves that women are not just good at cooking and cleaning, but determined to contribute.

Nevertheless without the women's contribution to the war effort, especially in munitions factories Britain would not have won the war.

The above sources tell us of women's working lives during the war.

These posters show an idealistic view of mothers preparing packages for their beloved. These posters were far from the reality; there wasn't enough food to go around without sending packages to the battles. Even joining food queues did not determine even a small amount of food. This must have been so disheartening. "Pears' Soap" was advertised in "The Illustrated London news". An upper class newspaper that could not have been supportive of the ways in which everyone had begun cutting back.

"Only the Best is good enough" due to the war any soap would have done, the company could not have understood the ways that all classes were suffering. This included the upper class.

The Bishop of Liverpool said the other day that drink was now most deadly amongst women. He could speak of a street in which almost every woman was drinking and demoralised. The Bishop of London.........also said quite recently that the East End clergy told him that they had never known such an orgy of drinking among women as during the last 12 months.

'White Ribbon'

[the monthly newspaper of the

British Women's Temperance

Association]. December 1915

Women had little free time for any leisure activities as they were either working or if food was short queuing for what they could get. The above source is unreliable about what women were getting up to in the December 1915; this is as ' White Ribbon' concentrates on the big cities like Liverpool and London. It is also written by an anti alcohol association which could be making the circumstances under which they saw these women's drinking habits worse than they actually were. This source does not cover the country or smaller towns.

Therefore people who read this article would have been reading inaccurate information on women's leisure time.

With as the source says more than six million men going away to war, women were left with only their salaries to pay for the rent on their homes. Landlords felt that with constant increases in numbers to the cities as this is where the jobs were would cause people to take in lodgers which would help with the rent. However it didn't work out like this, once the landlords put up the rent women found that they couldn't make the payments and decided to go on strike. This left the landlords in a worse position than they had been, as they were now receiving no money.

This source shows a realistic view of what women had to deal with while their male relatives fought in the war. It is likely to be an accurate source as G. Thomas is a historian who would have used articles of the time to write this article.

Previous sources tell us about women's attitudes and domestic lives.

These statistics from a report written after the war show a positive change for women. There is an obvious increase of women in employment in every job except domestic service where there is a decline. However this decline cannot be taken in a negative way, this shows that during the war women found that they were better used in other jobs. These would have also been better paid. This source must have been very positive to the women who had worked to change men's attitudes to women and their working roles.

Even though this was published twelve years after the war it is still useful. Overall the source is biased as it is from the obituary of Millicent Fawcett. Yet it tells us of how the war acted as a catalyst to women getting the vote. The vote would have eventually arrived in Britain, but not as soon. Through the war politicians realised that women's voices now had the write to be heard, they then gained the vote for women over eighteen in 1918.

However there were probably other factors apart from the war that would have lead to women gaining the vote.

This shows that women involved in air factories that probably feared losing their jobs as they thought they would no longer be needed, now had a chance to remain in employment. However this time the work was more enjoyable as they did not have the worry of war over their heads.

This source proves that even though many women were at first reluctant to join the war effort. By the time it was over many didn't want to return to their lives of cooking and cleaning so jobs such as toy making which they not only enjoyed but they were good at proved a positive way to go.


World War One brought about the change in the role and status of women, as before the war as I stated in my introduction women remained in the home while the men went out to work and paid for food and anything that might have been needed in the home.

With the outbreak of war all this began to change, first slowly then as more and more men signed up the role of women quickly changed. For the employers and trade unionists this was hard to take in, they believed that many jobs women were now completing were not suitable. However they had no other option but to employ them. With the men at war women became the sole earners, just as their husbands had done. Except women also had to continue cooking once they had finished working as many had to provide for young families.

Young women also found new freedom in the land army giving them experience that they would not necessarily achieved without the war. Many travelled more than they would have done and began to enjoy jobs that before would have been considered 'men's ' jobs. Employers soon began to realise that assembly jobs for things such as gramophones were much better suited to women they had more nimble hands and enjoyed the work a lot more than men would have.

The most dramatic change however was women's political status. Mps soon realised that giving women the vote would say thank you for their contribution to the war. The war speeded up women gaining the vote as pre war there were two main groups who spent time handing out leaflets and making stands in political meetings, trying to persuade the government to give women the vote. Finally the government gave in giving all women the right to vote in 1918.

As far as women's role and status changed the war could not have helped more. The war allowed women to show their potential in a working environment, at the beginning it could have gone either way but employers gave them a chance and it all worked out for the best as when the men returned they went back to their jobs but women had realised what they were good at and new jobs were now available to them.

Overall The Great War brought about the most substantial change in women's roles.

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How did world war one change the role and status of women in England and Wales?. (2017, Nov 19). Retrieved from

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