Within weeks, the First World War settled into trench-bound attrition – swallowing vast amounts of men and resources. It was clear that society would have to change in order to meet the needs of ‘total war'. In Britain a key element of this new economy was the mobilisation of women – the feminisation of labour.
In 1914 women were a major part of Britain's workforce but they were its drudges, doing menial jobs for low wages. The war provided opportunities for change. Working roles expanded as women replaced male colleagues and made inroads into professions traditionally dominated by men. In addition, women who would never have dreamt of working had both the desire to ‘do their bit’ and the opportunities to do it.
Changes in the workplace were not immediate. Initial attempts to increase and diversify female employment were slow and disorganised and the government showed little interest in the subject. Encouraged by leading suffragettes, some women were driven to protest against this inaction. But as the fighting continued women began to take up new duties. This prompted various reactions – some enthusiastic, some extremely hostile. Prejudice was ingrained in British society. Even in wartime, sexism proved a difficult barrier to break through.
Protest and publicity highlighted the issue, but it was a government crisis that ultimately led to the large-scale exploitation of female labour.
In May 1915, news that troops were short of high explosives shocked the country. Partly as a result of this scandal a new government was formed. One of its first actions was to set up a Ministry of Munitions. Headed by David Lloyd George, it quickly brought most munitions production under state control. With the need to increase production, the employment of women was now positively encouraged.
Prior to the war, approximately 200,000 women worked in what became the munitions industry. By war's end the number was nearer 900,000. The work was extremely hazardous. Factory explosions, sometimes causing fatalities, were not uncommon and workers' hands and faces turned yellow through handling TNT. Known as ‘Canaries', munitions girls became familiar sights in many towns.
In the following year, compulsory male conscription was introduced, making the female workforce even more important. Restrictions that had denied access to particular trades were swept aside – albeit temporarily. With the fittest men in action abroad, women did work they were previously thought incapable of – such as coal hauling and ship building.
In certain areas the effect was striking. In the field of public transport, the number of female employees increased ten-fold. Administrative, commercial and educational sectors also saw big rises in female labour. Elsewhere women donned police uniforms, joined special units of the armed services or became part of the agricultural Women's Land Army. Others answered the call for more nurses and were sent to work – and sometimes die – behind the front lines in France.
It was a long war but most women had always accepted the temporary nature of their new work. Returning soldiers also expected them to stand aside and let men resume their old positions. By summer 1920, over 60 percent of all the women who entered employment during the war had left it again.
Despite some backward steps, women's role in the workplace had moved forward. Their position in society had also changed. The constraints of Edwardian life had loosened, certain prejudices been overcome and new opportunities had opened up. As the war ended parliament at last allowed women the right to vote – although only those over 30 who owned property. The timing suggests an acknowledgement of their contribution to the national effort. Without war, the wait for such rights would probably have been longer.