Issue 184 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

World War 2: 50th Anniversary

The women's army

The war changed home and family life forever. Judith Orr explains how the needs of war production drew millions of women into work outside the home, and the impact this had on their role as wives and mothers
Women had to fight to get nurseries

'Women can do almost every job a man can do except those requiring sheer physical strength ...subject to proper safeguards, women have tackled really heavy work, especially in loading vehicles, trucks and machines.' Ministry of Labour pamphlet 1942

Government propaganda that had to challenge previously held views about the capabilities of women was a key part of the campaign to get much needed workers into the factories during the Second World War. Traditional values were turned on their head. Suddenly it was a woman's duty to leave her children in the care of others while she went out to earn a living. Indeed women were criticised if they wanted to stay at home to look after their children.

The huge influx of women into the workforce that resulted did not only affect the world of work. The social upheaval had an impact on family life, marriage, divorce, sex and fashion. All of them would never quite be the same again.

Not that women were strangers to the workforce before the Second World War. In fact, the 1930s had seen larger numbers of women working than ever before as the recession led to the collapse of the old heavy industries and many skilled men lost their jobs. Women were then to become key to the growing number of light engineering factories with their new production line techniques.

Yet the numbers involved once war broke out are still startling. In the US over 5 million women went into the workforce between 1940 and 1944 while in Britain 2 million went into industry and over 500,000 went into the auxiliary forces and civil defence.

The numbers were greater than the previous high during the First World War when 1.2 million women entered industry. The numbers of women who stayed on in work after the war in 1945 were also greater than in 1918.

The British government was forced to conscript women into the factories and the armed forces, so it also had to at least attempt to deal with the problems that women faced when doing a full time job. For the first time caring for children, cooking and shopping for a family, all of which had been previously seen as belonging solely to the private domestic world of the home, were discussed by civil servants and were the subject of government regulation.

Most dramatic was the number of married women workers--75 percent of new workers--for up until then it had largely been young and single women who worked. Eventually 3 million married women and widows were employed--almost double pre-war figures.

Women did every sort of work--both manual and skilled--in shipbuilding, engineering and on the railways. By 1943 all women between the ages of 18 and 50 were registered at employment offices. All jobs eventually came under the control of the government as women were directed away from non-essential work (no one could change their job without permission) to factories all over the country. Single women found themselves staying in hostels with hundreds of other women of different ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. For many the experience was an eye opener. One teenage recruit to the Land Army wrote, 'I defy anyone who has lived in a hostel for any length of time to be narrow minded on any subject... My companions just said what they thought, and if I didn't like it I could just lump it.'

Soon many took up the idea that if they were doing men's jobs, then they should get men's pay--a logic that the government and employers would rather they had overlooked. Yet equal pay for women workers became a key debate that occupied the unions during the war and which led to several strikes, most famously at Hillington Rolls Royce plant near Glasgow in 1943. Here, out of a workforce of 20,000, 39 percent were women and only 4.5 percent were skilled men. When the workforce rejected an initial settlement to their pay claim, 16,000 women and men walked out. One of the leaflets during the week long strike read, 'It is said that the workers have no right to take advantage of wartime conditions, but... the employers have taken advantage of wartime conditions by paying unfair wages to women workers.'

Women did every sort of work

Initially other local workers joined the strike despite the fact that the local and national press had labelled the strikers 'traitors'. But the dispute eventually went to arbitration leading to a complex settlement which studiously avoided advocating equal pay but named every machine in the factory and laid down a rate for it regardless of the sex of the operator!

This wasn't the end of the battle for equal pay. Other disputes followed and eventually the government was forced to establish a royal commission on the issue.

Yet women's pay did increase during the war and the main engineering union, the AEU, was forced to drop its ban on women members in 1942 and take up the issue. Women clearly identified unions as the place to fight over pay and working conditions. They joined unions in their hundreds of thousands; female membership of TUC affiliated unions in 1939 stood at 552,585, whereas by 1945 it had grown to nearly 1.4 million. By the end of the war several engineering factories had elected women as their TGWU convenors. All this was despite the fact that women often had to fight within the union structure for recognition of their grievances.

For example, women workers were assumed to be the worst absentees. It was some time before even the government acknowledged that many women had to take time off to travel long distances to shops and queue for scarce rationed goods. Some factories introduced a 'shopping hour' so that women could officially leave early to do essential shopping. Others employed professional 'shoppers' for the women or obtained passes for their employees to go to the front of the queues at selected shops.

The biggest problem facing war workers was childcare which the government promised it would provide. The number of nurseries mushroomed from around 100 before the war (mostly run by volunteers and financed by charities) to a peak in 1943 of 1,450 local authority day nurseries with places for 65,000 children. Yet even including those provided by individual factories and nursery schools, this provision fell far short of what was needed. Angry resolutions to the 1943 TUC women's conference called on the government to fulfil its responsibilities.

The government also had to ensure the workforce was getting fed. In 1944, 170 million meals were eaten outside the home each week both in factory canteens and in the 2,000 government funded 'British Restaurants'. These served 600,000 cheap meals a day. Although again the provision fell short of government promises, it pointed to the possibilities of feeding people outside the home.

The fact that many of what were previously seen as women's responsibilities were being seen as those of the whole of society both changed society's view of women and women's view of themselves. Many women for the first time thought of themselves as individuals with aspirations and lifestyles that might have been shocking in prewar years.

There was a huge boom in the marriage rate, yet the rate of births to married women fell. At the same time the rate of illegitimate births to single women or widows almost trebled to 16.1 in every thousand--a total of 255,000. Some of these births were to wives of soldiers who were clearly not the father. Some marriages survived but many others did not; during and after the war the divorce rate soared.

For women with children there was a huge improvement in state maternity services which led to a dramatic fall in the number of women who died in child birth--from 497 to 232 in every 100,000. The infant mortality rate also fell, by 28 percent.

The increase in sexual activity led to a 113 percent increase in new cases of syphilis amongst men in the early years of the war. The government had to lift the taboo on venereal disease to launch an unprecedented press campaign on the facts and the treatment of VD.

By the end of the war the sight of women workers in overalls or trousers was no longer a curiosity. But once the war was over the government made it clear that the women had done their duty but now the men would be returning and would need their old jobs back.

To encourage those in skilled jobs to go, the old values of womanhood and domestic responsibilities were promoted, while the nurseries and restaurants were hastily dismantled. The minister in charge of reconstruction said the government's aim was 'to maintain employment at the highest possible level and yet to interfere as little as possible with the speedy restoration of home life'.

But the taste of independence was something that not all women were willing to give up. One survey in the US reported that three out of four women wanted to continue to work. In Californian factories in 1947 there were still 86 percent more women working than there had been before the war. In Britain by 1948 there were still 683,000 more women in industry and over 750,000 more women in trade unions than before the war.

Many women who were forced out of jobs quickly found other employment. Some combined part time work with bringing up a family. The impact of the war may have seemed only temporary yet no one could turn the clock back completely. The experience of a life outside the confines of the home was to have a lasting effect. Women were now a permanent part of the workforce and the fight for jobs and equal pay were a foretaste of battles to come.


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