Elaine Roberts and Francesca Capaldi Burgess talk about how the First World War affected women on the home front.
Elaine: My World War One (WW1) saga, The Foyles Bookshop Girls, is based in London’s West End. When I started writing, it I must admit to being a little ignorant of how life was back in 1914. History wasn’t my strong point at school; I only remember learning about dates and royalty. However, I knew about the suffragette movement and the trench warfare of WW1, but I had to do considerable research about women at the home front, at this time. To be honest, I knew more about World War Two, so I don’t really know why I didn’t choose to write about that.
While the First World War wasn’t the only catalyst for change for women, it did bring women to the forefront of society. Prior to the war, many employers refused to take on married women, so it was mainly single women or widows that were employed outside of the home. Once the men had enlisted to fight for King and Country, women were actively encouraged to leave domestic service and take on more difficult and strenuous work. It’s no coincidence that it was after WW1 that some women got the right to vote and a few were allowed to stand as members of parliament, although that did take a few years to happen. On a practical level, hems got shorter and, in some cases, fashion took on a more military theme. With the men away, they also became the main wage earner; in some cases, the only wage earner. They took on managing the home, the family and elderly relatives, as well as managing the money. Earning a wage, albeit less than men doing the same work, also brought about the feeling of independence for the first time.
Francesca: The novel I’m currently working on, set in a Welsh mining village in the First World War, had its origins in my own family. Both my maternal great grandmothers were bringing up small children in 1914, two miles away from each other in the Rhymney Valley. I first got interested specifically in social history in the late Seventies, during my history degree. The story of the woman on the street, field, or in the case of my novel, the mine, is so much more fascinating than that of politicians and monarchs.
The experience of women in coal mining towns would have been a little different to that of other women in Britain, since most still had their men at home, precluded by the 1916 Military Service Act from enlisting. Life on the monetary front was a little easier than it had been before the war, because of pay increases due to the urgent necessity of steam coal for the navy. But a little more money in your pocket is of no consequence when food becomes short, as it did quite quickly. Women tended to feed their husbands and children first. This often meant they went without. Their health suffered as a consequence. Many women in these working class environments died of diseases they couldn’t resist, or in childbirth.
Women were considered feeble not only physically but often intellectually. Most working women were in domestic service or did shop and clerical work. Others, mainly middle class women, went into nursing or teaching, but had to leave once they married. Many women, including those in mining villages, took work in at home, like laundry, sewing and knitting.
Women’s position in the work place changed during the war, as more men signed up and were eventually conscripted. Women took on factory jobs, then farming jobs when the Women’s Land Service Corp got going in May 1915 (Becoming the Women’s Land Army in 1917). In mining villages, women had long done the job of screening coal. As the labourers who emptied trucks at the top of the pit were sent to war, women were employed to take these back breaking jobs on too.
Some men refused to work with women, afraid that if they could handle the work, it would be undervalued. They were right to be worried. After initial scepticism about women’s ability to cope in the factories, a report in November 1915 found that women were, in fact, more efficient!
Despite coping and getting on with the challenges, women were still seen as poor, weak creatures, in need of ‘Guardians’ to look out for misconduct. The police were also encouraged to keep an eye on them. Women got an allowance while their husbands were away fighting, but the newspapers created the idea that women were frittering it away on items like alcohol. Regardless of this, for many women who’d been bullied by their husbands, it was a time of freedom.
By the end of the war, there were many widows, or women who would never get the chance to marry. They found themselves in a position where they had to work, or keep on working, in order to live. Many women who campaigned to retain their jobs after the war, and fought for equal pay, were considered ‘hussies’. They weren’t discouraged, but kept on fighting to improve their working lives.
We have a lot to thank them for.
Amazon: The Foyles Bookshop Girls