How the war changed the lives of women forever

PUBLISHED: 16:08 18 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:08 18 August 2014

First World War. Pictured: Norfolk women munition workers pose for the camera. Picture: SUPPLIED

First World War. Pictured: Norfolk women munition workers pose for the camera. Picture: SUPPLIED


As Britain’s men marched off to fight in a conflict, the like of which they had never seen before, it was not just their lives which would be changed for ever. Reporter Kim Briscoe looks at the role women played during the war.

The legacy of Edith Cavell

As well as women flooding into the workforce, many took up volunteer roles, with organisations like the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) mobilising to help the war effort.

Many religious groups and charity organisations started up with thousands of women working in soup kitchens and first aid centres. Despite their role being sometimes overlooked, some 656 women are included among the casualties of the First World War.

The most notable female death to occur during the conflict was that of one of the most celebrated women of the First World War – Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell.

Cavell was born in Swardeston, where her father was a vicar. She had been working as a nurse in Belgium before the war and, on the outbreak, returned to the continent from a visit to her native Norfolk.

After the German occupation of Belgium she began sheltering British soldiers until they could be smuggled across the border into the neutral Netherlands. She was arrested by the Germans, court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite an international furore, she was shot by a firing squad on October 12, 1915.

Cavell’s remains were returned to Britain after the war and a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. On May 19, 1919, her body was reburied on the east side of Norwich Cathedral.

The part she played in the conflict will be highlighted in our ongoing coverage of the centenary.

As the First World War broke out, the suffragette movement was reaching a crescendo.

Campaigners had turned to increasingly extreme measures in their efforts to secure greater electoral representation for women, including reportedly burning down Great Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier in April 1914.

While the conflict led to an end to such militant activities, it was to alter women’s lives beyond recognition as they found a new freedom and independence that some had only started to strive to achieve. Ultimately, too, it would lead to full enfranchisement.

Undated File photo of The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) during the First World War. Undated File photo of The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) during the First World War.

As hordes of men went to war, the jobs they left behind had to be filled by women. With this came the burden of work as well as looking after their families, but for many it meant more independence and financial gain.

Before the war, women were principally employed in domestic service and production. Now they found themselves moving to traditional “male” jobs as part of the war effort – although often paid at a lower rate than their male counterparts, with reasons given as tiny differences between what the two sexes did.

In Norwich, 1,226 women were employed by Boulton and Paul, on drilling machines and lathes, and they even undertook welding.

The Ministry of Munitions was so impressed by the female workers in the firm’s metal shops that it sent workers from all over the country to see how the job should be done.

First World War. Pictured: Norfolk women munition workers pose for the camera. Picture: SUPPLIED First World War. Pictured: Norfolk women munition workers pose for the camera. Picture: SUPPLIED

Other city firms came increasingly to rely on female workers. They made heavy boots for the British and Allied armies at Norwich workshops and at Harmers factory they made uniforms.

In 1914, roughly 23pc of women were in employment. By 1918 it had almost doubled to 45pc –- although, with many women taking over the running of their husband’s businesses informally, it is hard to work out the precise proportion.

But the changes were not without controversy. In the Boulton and Paul works magazine in 1917, one writer argued that by working side by side with men, a woman’s “character and breadth of mind” became “far more enduring than the delicate indefinite charms of pre-war times that so often permitted a woman becoming merely a wife, but never a companion”.

However, others strongly disagreed, saying that “to broaden a woman’s mind is to limit her charm” and that if you give a woman power she becomes “cruel and relentless” and “unnatural”.

There were also concerns about the greater freedom women were enjoying as a result of their newly acquired disposable incomes and absence of men.

The sight of unchaperoned women, often living away from home, going out at night, worried many. The newspapers of the period were often dominated by discussion of the issue.

Kate Marshall, education co-ordinator at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, says: “Lots of people who were working with the women, factory inspectors, factory owners, they were seeing what the women were doing and recognised it. But the mass media, masculine politicians, they didn’t want to give the women that accolade of being okay to work in these jobs, because that would change the whole world.

“It would mean they had to give them suffrage, it would mean when the men came back they would have no jobs to go to, and that would affect morale.”

While the discrepancies and controversies were to endure, the changes precipitated by the war were to be irreversible. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender, while the 1918 Representation of the People Act enfranchised 8.5 million women, giving them a voice in Britain’s government for the first time.

For more in depth stories from the First World War click here

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