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Employment of Women in Britain during the First World War

Employment of Women in Britain during the First World War

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Percentage of Women

to men in employment









All Workers


July, 1914






July, 1918






July, 1920






Women in World War I: Societal Impacts

World War I's impact on women's roles in society was immense. Women were conscripted to fill empty jobs left behind by the male servicemen, and as such, they were both idealized as symbols of the home front under attack and viewed with suspicion as their temporary freedom made them "open to moral decay."

Even if the jobs they held during the war were taken away from the women after demobilization, during the years between 1914 and 1918, women learned skills and independence, and, in most Allied countries, gained the vote within a few years of the war's end. The role of women in the First World War has become the focus of many devoted historians in the past few decades, especially as it relates to their social progress in the years that followed.

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Further reading

Brian L. Blakeley, ‘The Society for the Oversea Settlement of British Women and the Problems of Empire Settlement, 1917-1936,’ Albion, 21 (1988), pp. 421-44.
Gerard DeGroot, Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War (Harlow, Longman, 1996).
Dane Kennedy, ‘Empire Migration in Post-War Reconstruction: The Role of the Oversea Settlement Committee, 1919-1922,’ Albion, 20 (1988): 403-419.
Katherine Holden, The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914-60 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007).
Arthur McIvor, A History of Work in Britain, 1880-1950 (Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2001).
Virginia Nicholson, Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War (London, Penguin, 2008).
Elizabeth Roberts, Women’s Work: 1840-1940 (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1988).
Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 1700 to the Present (London and New York, Routledge, 1998).
Jay Winter, The Great War and the British People (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

The Munitionettes and the work of women in the First World War

The Munitionettes, or Canary Girls as they were known, were part of the female work force that took up war-time employment in the production of munitions during the First World War as both the demand for munitions at the war front increased and the male work force was depleted.

Nitric acid retorts and receivers in operation (12 July 1918), National Records of Scotland, GD1/1011/61

After the outbreak of the war the shortage of munitions became increasingly acute. While attempts were made to increase production by encouraging overtime among the existing male workforce and through the recruitment of older men, factories were still unable to meet the Government’s desperate need for munitions. Although the Government recognised that it would need to encourage and utilise the remaining female workforce at home there was great reluctance to introduce women into this type of work, with trade unions concerned about how this would affect the working rights of the men upon their return from war, the hostility of existing male workers to women encroaching on their job opportunities and the general uncertainty as to whether or not women would be capable of such work.

Women workers testing condenser tubes at John Brown & Co's yard at Clydebank. Hostility to women 'dilutees' is evidence in the chalked message, 'When the boys come [back] we are not going to keep you any longer girls', Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, UCS1/118/Gen/393/10

This attitude and concern was shared not only by those in the Munitions trade, but more broadly by the workers and employers in trades regarded as ‘men’s-work’. Despite these reservations, reports were conducted early on as to the suitability of women to meet the demands of such work. As early as 1915 the Ministry of Munitions Supply Committee made recommendations on the employment and remuneration of women on munitions work. This helped contribute to agreed suitable conditions by which a woman could be employed, and the War Office published several guides as to the employment of women.

In the National Records of Scotland one such publication is Women’s War Work (archive reference: HH31/27/2) issued by the War Office in September 1916 which explains the need for women in employment and provides a detailed list of processes ‘In which women are successfully employed’. To complement this the War Office also included several photographs of women situated in trade occupations, presumably as visual proof of the women’s abilities.

National Records of Scotland, Top to Bottom: HH31/27/49, HH31/27/3 and HH31/27/3

All of this work helped to contribute to the implementation of a system of ‘dilution’. This was an agreement made between management and trade unions that assisted in replacing skilled workers with unskilled or semi-skilled workers including older men, women and the disabled. The unions accepted this proposal on three main conditions firstly that laws would be put in place to stop people making profits out of the war that the measures would only last for the duration of the war and thirdly that women would get paid the same wages as the men. This measure was put in place to maintain the rate at which male workers were paid, rather than out of solidarity with the suffragette movement or recognition of equal pay, as demonstrated by the evidence submitted by the National Union of Clerks in 1916:

“EQUAL PAY. There can be no possible doubt that to safeguard the interests of men enlisting that the same rate of pay must be paid to the women undertaking their duties. But it may be found that work previously done by two men is now divided amongst three women. In this case the aggregate salaries must not be less than the total amount paid to the two men. This ensures that the Employer get financial inducement to replace the male clerk by a lower paid female". (14th December 1916, HH31/27/17)

Despite the initial reluctance of employers and the trade unions to employ women, once these agreements were in place the Government set about advertising and encouraging both employers and women to join industrial life.

The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 7 March 1916

“The appeal just issued by the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade and the Home Office or more women to take the places of men in industrial occupations, enforces once again the immense value which women have been to the trade of the country during the present war. With the intuitive gift of genius, Mrs Pankhurst, at the very outset of the war recognised that a new era in the importance of women in this country was about to dawn and without hesitation she took her stand on the side of King and country”. (Press cuttings, HH31/27/57)

The Times, 6 March 1916

“Meanwhile the Home Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade have addressed an appeal to all employers in the manufacturing industries calling attention to the urgent necessity of concerted action to make good the loss of labour caused by withdrawal of men for the Forces…The situation demands prompt and vigorous action. Men are rapidly being withdrawn…The one source of supply is the great body of women at present unoccupied or engaged only in work not of an ­­­­essential character.” (Women for Men’s Work: Ministers’ Appeal to Employers, HH31/27/3)

This process of ‘dilution’ became an extremely effective way of dealing with the nation’s shortage of manpower.

While the promise of equal pay to women was never fully realised and many employers found ways to underpay their female staff, the contribution of these women stopped industrial and commercial life from grinding to a halt and acted as ‘good press’ for the country’s war effort. The war also offered a previously impossible opportunity of greater freedom and travel from home for women and raised the voice of the suffrage movement in gaining the right to vote, even if the first realisation of this right in the Representation of the People Act 1918 limited the ability to vote to women aged over 30.

Unfortunately despite these opportunities, the raised profile of women’s suffrage and the implied possibility of continued entrance into the workforce.

The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 7 March 1916

"One may deplore the entrance of women into the industrial market on physical grounds, but as the state has now recognised the woman worker as an essential part of our industrial machine, the end of the war will not see the end of the woman mechanic… The after war problems will by no means concern men only”. (Press cuttings, HH31/27/57)

In reality the employment of women in men’s roles was a temporary wartime measure and by 1924 the Ministry of Labour reported that the ‘reversal of the process of substitution which was so striking a feature of wartime industry is now practically complete’ ('The Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War' by Trevor Royle, p209).

Many of the records relating to the Government’s research into Women’s Work and the subsequent responses from local authorities, trade unions and public bodies are now available in the National Records of Scotland. In particular the First World War Files (NRS, HH31) contain a wealth of information relating to the First World War including munitions, recruiting and substitutionary labour, food production and more. To look through these records please take a look at our online catalogue.

The Labour Movement in Politics ↑

In June 1914, few people, if any, would have predicted that the Labour Party would form a government within ten years. The First World War transformed the Labour Party and its prospects. By 1917 leading political figures were talking of when, not whether, Labour would take office after the war. Before the war, the Labour Party had been in effect an auxiliary party to the Liberal Party. The war created deep fissures in the Liberal Party, which were not repaired in 1918-1926.

Trade unionists who served as members of parliament (MPs) were at the heart of the wartime Labour Party after Ramsay MacDonald and other ILP intellectuals resigned from the leadership at the outbreak of the war. Arthur Henderson entered the first coalition government as president of the board of education, with two others in lesser posts. He acted, as he had done from early in the war, as the key trade union facilitator of the government’s manpower and industrial relations policies. He later became paymaster-general, a post that gave him more time for labour matters. Under Lloyd George, from December 1916 to August 1917, he served in the small war cabinet. After his resignation over his desire for British representation at a socialist conference in Stockholm, he was replaced with another leading trade unionist MP, George Barnes (1892-1953). Labour’s appeal broadened to such issues as housing, food prices and supplies, decent treatment of soldiers’ dependants as well as a democratic peace settlement. Both nationally and locally the Labour Party, the trade unions and the co-operative movement stood for fairer shares in the war and after it. The Co-operative Party, founded in 1917, won its first seat in 1918.

Employment of Women in Britain during the First World War - History

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Women's rights

Women's suffrage movement

Conversely, the achievements of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most radical branch of the women's movement during the early years of the 20th century, have often been overstated - not least by the WSPU's founders and chief supporters, the Pankhursts. Much attention has been focused on the militant campaigns of the WSPU between 1910 and 1914, which included attacks on property and politicians, as well as hunger strikes during imprisonment.

Women and the First World War

The First World War strongly influenced the development of women's rights in 20th-century Britain. It opened up new employment opportunities for many women, who replaced the millions of men sent to fight on the Western Front and elsewhere. Jobs in munitions factories, transport and other key areas that had been dominated by men now became increasingly feminised, and under the Representation of the People Act (1918) the franchise was for the first time extended to women.

1930s and 1940s

The interwar period was marked by an increase in the amount of 'women's legislation' passed by Parliament. It also saw Britain's first female MPs. A huge number of organisations now represented women's interests. These included the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (the new name given to the NUWSS in 1919), women's trade unions and the Women's Institute.

The postwar world

In political terms, the war helped to revive the women's movement. In particular, the growing consensus in favour of social and welfare reform - as proposed by the Beveridge Report (1942) and the Education Bill (1944) - allowed organisations such as the Equal Pay Campaign Committee to remind the public of ongoing inequalities in the treatment of men and women.

1960s and after

As the experiences of women in Britain during the first half of the 20th century illustrated, there was no inevitable or easy path to the establishment of improved women's rights. This point was re-emphasised by the fact that after the Second World War the feminist movement went into a decline, before emerging once more in the 'new feminism' of the 1960s. Despite the substantial achievements of the women's movement in the 20th century, few people would deny that equality of the sexes is still some way from being accomplished in 21st-century Britain.

Munitions manufacture

By 1917, munitions factories primarily employing women produced 80% of weapons and shells used by the British army.

By the time the armistice arrived, there were 950,000 women working in British munitions factories and a further 700,000 employed in similar work in Germany.

Women were known as ‘canaries’ in the factories as they had to handle the TNT used as the explosive agent in munitions, which caused their skin to turn yellow.

There was little protective equipment or safety gear available, and there were also several large factory explosions during the war. Around 400 women died in munitions production during the war.

It is difficult to find an accurate estimate of the exact numbers of women employed in industry due to the different legal statuses of women who were married and those who were not married.

Female munition workers crying at the funeral of a colleague killed by an accident at work in Swansea in August 1917. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

Women’s employments rates clearly did explode during the war, increasing from 23.6% of the working age population in 1914, to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918.

Domestic workers were excluded from these figures, rendering an exact estimate difficult. Married women became much more frequently employed, and constituted over 40% of the female workforce by 1918.


The &lsquoNew Woman&rsquo

Contemporary commentators recognised that the war had complicated traditional conceptions of gender in the public and private spheres. The Editor of Women of the Empire suggested that women&rsquos contribution to the war effort would &lsquomean a totally new world when peace once again holds sway the world over. It means an entire regeneration, not only of womanhood, but of manhood also, for you may be quite assured that the new woman will not rest satisfied with the old man.&rsquo Such pronouncements cast the war as a &lsquowatershed&rsquo moment in the history of women&rsquos liberation. Of course, the reality was different, and new tensions soon emerged.

The extension of the suffrage and the growing voice of women&rsquos rights campaigners underscored a perception that &lsquowomen prosper[ed] as men suffer[ed]&rsquo, another example of how war produced gendered dichotomies. As the historian Gail Braybon noted, propaganda tended to reinforce such divisions: &lsquo[Just] as mobilisation was polarised by gender, the men marching away, the women staying behind, so too victory and defeat. In victory, the men were to march home and the women were to cheer. In defeat, the men were killed and the women were raped&rsquo (Braybon, 2003: 88, 121-2). The reality, as Braybon suggests, was more complex: relatively few women either experienced or embraced the notion of sexual, social and political liberation promised in the interwar years, epitomised by the Weimar Republic&rsquos &lsquonew woman&rsquo, but equally the status of women had fundamentally changed and would undergo further upheavals during the second major conflict of the 20th century.

Further reading

Gail Braybon, &lsquoWinners and Losers: Women&rsquos Symbolic Role in the War Story&rsquo, in Gail Braybon (ed.), Evidence, history and the Great War: historians and the impact of 1914-18 (Oxford: Berghahn, 2003), 86-112

Nicolette Gullace, The blood of our sons: men, women, and the renegotiation of British citizenship during the Great War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002)

Ruth Harris, &lsquoThe &ldquoChild of the Barbarian&rdquo: Rape, Race and Nationalism in France in the First World War&rsquo, Past & Present 141 (1993), pp. 170-206

  • Written by Jo Fox
  • Jo Fox (FRSA, FRHistS) is Professor of Modern History at Durham University. She is a specialist on the history of propaganda and war. Her publications include Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany: World War II Cinema (Berg, 2007) and (with David Welch) Justifying War: Politics, Propaganda and the Modern Age (Palgrave, 2013). She is a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and the Director of Communications for the Royal Historical Society. Jo Fox is currently researching the history of rumour in the First and Second World Wars.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.


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