Thursday, 10 April 2008

Women get the vote: What role did women play during the War?

Historians have described the First World War as the nation’s first experience of ‘total war’. By this, they mean a war in which society is organised in such a way that all available resources are channelled into the war effort. As a result, total war has an impact on the lives of everybody in society, not simply those directly involved in the fighting. Some of the experiences of the First World War that can be said to have made a social, cultural and psychological impact are as follows.

  • The emotional trauma suffered by many men who were forced (because of conscription) to serve in the Armed Forces.
  • There was widespread bereavement because of the death of family and friends.
  • There were changes in diet and habits resulting from food rationing.
  • People lived in a society in which government propaganda and government controls were more extensive than in pre-war society.
  • The new experience that many upper and middle class women gained from taking up paid employment for the first time.

The social, cultural and emotional impact of the war was such that it has led some historians to argue that the period after 1918 witnessed a fundamental realignment of moral and social attitudes.  Stanislaw Andreski developed the idea of a ‘military participation ratio’ in the early 1950s[1]. He argued that, after a period of war, government rewards proportionately those sections of society on whose support it has depended. The greater the contribution made by the middle classes in a war, for example, the more likely a post-war government is to pass reforms to address middle class needs. The more ‘total’ the war and, therefore, the greater the involvement of the working class, the more likely that there is a post-war process of social levelling by removing class inequalities. According to Andreski, it was because the First World War was so large in scale and involved, for the first time, virtually all sections of society that Britain became a democracy in the 1918 and 1928 Representation of the Peoples Acts. The war itself was instrumental in providing the environment in which democracy could emerge.

Andreski’s theory has been challenged in a number of ways. First, he placed too great an emphasis on military participation suggesting that this was the key to post-war social levelling. Arguably, the most significant social change resulting from the war was the changed role and status of women. Yet, women’s direct military participation was, in Andreski’s terms, limited. Second, the idea of the ‘ratio’ implies that social change can be isolated and precisely measured. However, many of the changes that can be seen in British society in the post-war period can be traced back before 1914. Indeed, it could be argued that the war alone was responsible for few of the social changes that took place. Some historians suggest that, rather than initiating changes; the war accelerated and intensified changes that were already underway. Finally, Andreski’s theory has been seen as an oversimplification. Other societies, hardly affected by the First World War, showed similar patterns of development after 1918.

A different approach has been adopted by Arthur Marwick. He identifies four ‘dimensions’ that, he claims, help us to understand the complex inter-relationship between society and its experience of war. First, he identifies the destructive and disruptive dimension, the notion that destruction in the war created an impulse towards rebuilding after it. Second, there is a test dimension. This is the idea that wars place society under a great deal of pressure (that is, they provide a ‘test’) and society has to adapt to avoid defeat. Third, there is a participation dimension. This revolves round the idea that total war requires the involvement of under-privileged groups and their participation in the war changes attitudes towards them, bringing the possibility of social change after the war. Finally, the psychological dimension. War encourages intensity of emotions (for example, it encouraged hatred of the enemy) that stimulate a new cultural response.  The critical question is whether these ideas help to provide an explanation for why some women got the vote in 1918. Andreski’s theory of ‘direct military participation’ does not seem to relate directly to the experience of women who were non-combatants. If the notion is stretched to include those involved directly in the war effort, for example by taking over jobs so men could fight in the trenches, then Andreski may provide a possible explanation for women getting the vote in 1918. However, this only works if those women directly involved in war work got the vote in 1918. The 1918 Act gave the vote largely to middle class women not to the working class who made up the bulk of working women. Marwick’s dimension may provide a better explanation of why women got the vote in 1918, especially his emphasis on continuity between pre- and post-war experiences.

It has long been assumed that the most important indirect effect of the war was to bring about a fundamental change in attitudes towards women and their economic and social roles. This argument suggests that the vital contribution women made to the war effort opened the eyes of men to their capabilities and revealed them as citizens in every sense. There is certainly widespread newspaper and film evidence on women’s work that is very flattering. However, historians have increasingly come to regard much of the contemporary record as largely ephemeral. By 1918, the press had already begun to lose its enthusiasm for women workers who were now being urged to surrender their jobs to returning soldiers. By the 1920s, it was clear that there had not been a fundamental reappraisal of the role of the sexes and women were increasingly excluded from employment by the combined actions of employers, government and male-dominated trade unions. The extent to which the role and status of women changed during the after the First World War is at the heart of the debate about the nature and extent of change brought about by the war.

Some historians have argued that there is a direct link between the economic role of women during the war and the granting of the vote to most women over thirty in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. It was because women made a contribution to the war effort, they argue, that they won the right to vote after the war. Arthur Marwick argues “it is difficult to see how women could have achieved so much in anything like a similar time span without the unique circumstances arising from the war”[2]. Other historians argue that such an interpretation underplays the significance of the suffrage campaigns before 1914. Martin Pugh, for example, places greater emphasis on continuities and claims that the nature of the pre-war suffrage movement determined the shaped of legislation in 1918. He maintains, “It is significant that, where women who undertook male tasks during the war have left a record of their feelings, they seem to have taken in for granted that they were stepping in on a purely temporary basis and they vacated their jobs at the end of the war without protest. This is not surprising in view of the relatively conservative, middle-class nature of the pre-1914 women’s movement that had confined itself to the narrow question of the franchise and neglected the wider social objectives that the vote might have helped them to attain. In this light, either the grant of the franchise in 1918 to women over 30 who were local government electors themselves or wives of parliamentary electors is understandable. Members of Parliament were determined to keep women in a minority among voters, and to enfranchise only those who, as relatively mature family women, seemed likely to make up a stable, loyal section of the community.[3]

By November 1918, 947,000 women were employed in the munitions industry. This was unpleasant and potentially dangerous work and more than 300 lost their lives because of TNT poisoning and explosions. Women also served with the military forces. There were 40,850 in Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps by the end of the war. Some 17,000 women were employed with the British Expeditionary Force in August 1918. Many of these were nurses. In all, the total number of women employed during the war rose form 5.96 million in 1914 to 7.31 million by 1918. Some changes were particularly striking. The number employed in metalworking rose from 170,000 to 594,000, in transport from 18,200 to 117,200, in commerce from 505,200 to 934,000. In national and local government, the number of female employees rose from 262,000 to 460,000. At the same time as the number of women in munitions and factories went up, the numbers working in ‘traditional’ areas of female employment such as domestic service and the clothing trade declined[4].

Although there was an overall rise in the number of women employed during the war, female employment was an established feature of many pre-war industries. What gave the impression of change was the temporary change in the background of the women employed. In particular, many middle class women took on jobs that had previously been done by working class women. It has been suggested that both the increase in and changing character of, female employment during the war has been exaggerated because of some historians’ readiness to rely too much on the evidence of contemporary propaganda. This was produced both by the government (that hoped to give the impression that it was solving a national crisis) and by feminists (who hoped to use the image of wartime involvement as a lever for further expansion of employment opportunities after the war)[5]. Despite the formation of the Women’s Land Army, there were only 23,000 more women working on the land in 1918 than there had been in 1914. It could be argued that the overall increase in the number of women employed during the war – around 1.5 million – was not particularly large. In addition, many women lost their jobs when the war was over. In fact, the overall percentage of women in work fell from 35 per cent in 1911 to 34 per cent in 1921. The net impact of the war was a temporary increase in female unskilled munitions workers and a permanent shift in the bulk of women’s employment from domestic service to white-collar and service-sector employment.

During the build-up to the 1918 Representation of the People Act, government propaganda suggested that the sacrifices made by women during the war had earned them the right to vote. When women were enfranchised, billboards announced “The Nation Thanks the Women”. In reality, most historians agree that there is little evidence that war service caused a change in attitude towards women’s political rights. The restrictions on women’s voting in 1918 suggest that there was little alteration in the treatment of women as second-class citizens. Men continued to oppose the idea that women should come out of the private sphere and into the workforce, because they believed that the employment of women would push their wages down. Attitudes towards women in work did not shift in any fundamental way.


[1] Stanislaw Andreski Military Organisation and Society, Routledge, 1954.

[2] Arthur Marwick The Deluge: British Society and the First World War, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 1991, page 333.

[3] Martin Pugh The Making of Modern British Politics 1867-1939, Blackwell, 1982, page 188.

[4] Arthur Marwick Women at war, Fontana, 1977 is both well written and well illustrated. Gail Braybon Women workers in the First World War, Routledge, 2nd ed., 1989 looks in greater detail at industrial workers. Carol Twinch Women on the land: their story during two world wars, Lutterworth, 1990 considers the agrarian dimension. Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard Working for victory? Images of women in the First World War 1914-1918, Routledge, 1987 provide a visual dimension.

[5] On this issue, see Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard Working for victory? Images of women in the First World War 1914-1918, Routledge, 1987; it provides an interesting visual dimension.

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