Until the start of the First World War, domestic service was the largest single area of employment for English women – as far as society was concerned their place was still largely in the home. Only about 30% of the country’s workforce was female, with the majority of unmarried women working as domestic servants.
As men left their work to become soldiers, there was a huge shortage in the labour market, and as a result the industrial workforce began to change. Thousands of women were drafted into previously male-dominated industries, which saw a positive shift in attitudes to women at work.Meter readers in 1917. Photo courtesy of the National Gas Museum.
Filling the gap
Life for women changed dramatically during the war. They worked across the economy, as police officers, tram drivers and civil servants. It’s estimated that around two million women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918, and by the end of the war, that number had risen to five million.
WWI saw British industry enter a new phase of military production. New opportunities in manufacturing and engineering meant that female workers were very much in demand. The need for war munitions meant that women worked long hours employed in manufacturing jobs.
Women were also involved in agricultural labouring and were invited to join the ranks of the recently established Women’s Land Army. With 260,000 volunteers, the Land Girls did a wide range of jobs ranging from milking cows and managing poultry, to tree felling, ploughing and carrying out farm maintenance.
Greater demand for gas
Increased industrial production supporting the war effort also boosted demand for gas. Women working in the gas industry initially only held clerical or meter-reading roles. However, as demand for their efforts increased, women began to take on heavy-duty and often dangerous jobs. These included shovelling coal, cleaning furnaces and handling chemicals. As they were working with poisonous substances and without appropriate safety measures, the conditions were often hazardous.
After the war
Many women chose not to return to their original jobs as servants working for wealthy families or on country estates, which resulted in the beginning of a decline in the domestic service industry.
At the same time, there was a rise in the availability of household appliances such as gas powered fridges, cookers, electric irons and vacuum cleaners. The middle classes embraced the new laboursaving technologies and gradually came to depend less on household staff.
The war also led to the expansion of women’s political rights. With women allowed to perform jobs that they’d been excluded from prior to the war, the face of traditional women’s employment had been changed forever. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 entitled women to enter the legal profession and the civil service, becoming jurors and magistrates for the first time.
In 1918, women over 30 were given the same political rights as men. In 1928 this was extended to all women over the age of 21.
The Great War had a huge effect not only on the lives of those fighting on the front, but also on those who took responsibility for the industries at home. The war gave women the opportunity to establish themselves by taking responsibility for previously male-orientated jobs.