Women in the First World War

During the First World War, the desperate need for labour would bestow unique employment opportunities on women of all classes. And among the women who seized the opportunity to change the nature of their work were some of those employed as domestic servants. Britain may have long been a fully-industrialised nation in 1914, but with a workforce of about one and a half million, the vast majority of which were women, domestic service was still the largest, single category of employment. However, with the coming of war, half-a-million women were able to escape the low rates of pay and long hours associated with service, and find work in munitions’ factories, transport, arsenals, engineering and offices.  A move which brought them higher rates of pay, and a new freedom. The war also brought a new form of freedom to girls from wealthy upper and middle-class families; until this point the only acceptable career path for them was marriage. Many of those privileged young women were determined to contribute to the war effort, and while some joined Voluntary Aid Detachments caring for the wounded in military hospitals at home and at the Front, others were among the 150,000 women of every class who volunteered to serve in the Women’s Land Army, or the newly-formed auxiliary branches of the armed forces – the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), the Women's Royal Air Force (WAAF), and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS). Four groups which would be disbanded with the coming of peace, but would later be re-formed and play a major role in the Second World War.

Aftermath of the First World War

In the aftermath of the First World War and the massive loss of life it inflicted, the political landscape changed dramatically. During the conflict the Government had recognised that one of the essential features of a post-war British society would be the extension of voting rights; before the war 40 per cent of men and 100 per cent of the nation’s women had been denied the vote.  In 1918 when the franchise was extended to all adult males, only women over the age of thirty were enfranchised and it took another ten years for women to achieve full citizenship on equal terms with men.  Many consider the vital part women played in the years 1914-18 to be a tipping point in a campaign for votes for women that had become increasingly persistent and intense in the early years of the twentieth century. And yet when war was declared on Germany in the autumn of 1939, the prevailing social and economic position of women was similar in many ways to that of pre-First World War Britain.  In 1931 over a third of women in paid work were domestic servants; a number which had increased by a million in the previous decade.

Although the four major organisations in which thousands of women volunteered to serve - as the “war to end all wars” raged - had been disbanded after the First World War, they were all to play a major role in the Second World War as the Government looked to the nations’ women once more.

This page was added by Malin Lundin on 19/11/2011.