A Turning Point? Women in WWI

Votes for Women - Wiki Commons

Annie Kennie and Christabel Pankhurst – No Known Copyright

This month saw the release of the film, Suffragette, a historical drama depicting women’s fight for the vote in pre-war Britain. Set in 1912, the events depicted in the film are soon followed by the outbreak of war just two years later. By the end of the war, female suffrage had been won – albeit only for a specific proportion of Britain’s women.

Say Go Poster - Wiki Commons

“Women of Britain Say – Go!” Wikipedia Commons

The First World War is often cited as a key turning point in the history of women’s rights. Women took up roles that were largely unimaginable before 1914, and options taken for granted today only became possible as a result of women’s war work. The Representation of the People Act, passed in 1918, granted the vote to women over the age of 30 that could be classed as ‘householders’. It was not until a decade later in Britain, that suffrage was extended to include all women over twenty one.

When war came, the government asked women to support the effort by encouraging her husband, son or brother to enlist. Posters called upon women to say “Go!” to their men. But with patriotism sweeping across Britain, many women clearly wished to make another contribution – even if they were not permitted on the battlefield. In 1914, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies suspended its campaigning for the vote in order to concentrate on the war effort.[1] A number of groups and societies were established – often led by women of middle class or aristocratic backgrounds – with the aim of contributing to the war effort in a variety of ways. This enthusiasm and patriotism was also reflected by the work of many women in Richmond. The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), founded in 1909, was predominantly made of up women and girls.[2] The VAD had groups of women working across the Borough, with a Mrs Prendergast running the Richmond detachment. In Hampton, VAD nurses practised stretcher drills, bandaging and first aid.[3] Initially, VAD nurses were not permitted on the front line, but instead cared for wounded soldiers in British hospitals. As the war continued, the shortage of trained nurses on the battlefield led to the eventual acceptance of women in military hospitals overseas. Dorothy Hardy, from Twickenham, was awarded an MBE at the end of the war, for her service caring for injured soldiers in France and Germany.[4]

RichmondHospital_Nurses&WoundedSoldiers1914

Nurses and Wounded Soldiers at Richmond Hospital, 1914 From Original Material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies

With vast numbers of men serving overseas, or recuperating from their injuries in hospitals, women began to take up the vacant positions in simple shop work, clerking and light agriculture. In March 1915, this expanded when the Board of Trade issued an appeal for women to register for paid ‘war service’ work.[5] In 1916, conscription was introduced, taking single men between the ages of 18 and 41 out of their jobs and their homes, and into khaki. As a result of this loss, more women were brought into the national workforce to fill the gaps. In East Twickenham, the ‘Canary Girls’ worked with a substance at Pelabon Munitions Factory that would turn their skin yellow. Lucy Joshua joined Kew Gardens as a female gardener in 1915, and played a key role in the growing of vegetables in the gardens at a time of shortage.[6]

Original material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library and Archive

Women at Work at Whitehead Aircarft Factory, Richmond, Original material held at Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library and Archive

Between 1916 and 1918, women took on work that would have been unimaginable to pre-war Edwardian society. They worked as road sweepers, ticket collectors, messengers, drivers, gardeners, window cleaners, bricklayers, coal heavers and in munitions manufacture.[7] However, this work was largely labelled as temporary. When war ended in 1918, many women returned to the home, and those men who were able took up their jobs once more. Lucy Joshua left Kew in 1918, but with a good reference to allow her to secure employment elsewhere.[8] The Women’s Land Army was disbanded in 1919. With no war to fight, there was no longer a need for the ‘munitionettes’. Some effects of the First World War for women were longer lasting – the trouser, the bob – and although there would be some years until full women’s suffrage, the journey to greater freedoms had begun.

Links:

12 Things you didn’t know about women in WWI

What did WWI really do for women?

[1] Women in the First World War, Neil R. Storey and Molly Housego, (2010) Oxford p. 6

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voluntary_Aid_Detachment

[3] Information Courtesy of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Library and Archive

[4] 1914-1918 Richmond at Home and at War, Museum of Richmond (2014) p. 7

[5] Women in the First World War, Neil R. Storey and Molly Housego, (2010) Oxford p. 51

[6] Women Gardeners at Kew During the War of 1914-1918, Lucy H. Joshua http://www.kewguild.org.uk/articles/article/1807/

[7] Women in the First World War, Neil R. Storey and Molly Housego, (2010) Oxford pp. 34-35

[8] Women Gardeners at Kew During the War of 1914-1918, Lucy H. Joshua http://www.kewguild.org.uk/articles/article/1807/

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