What Impact did the Second World War have on the lives of women in Britain

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When Hitler invaded Poland on the 3rd September in 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. Thousands of men from across Britain were sent of to the theatre of war in Europe. This left a vacuum in the workforce that needed to be filled and the best available resource was women.

The role of women in society had changed considerably in the inter-war years between 1918-1939. Women had now achieved a greater equality with men, for example in 1928 they were fully enfranchised, however, there were many areas where the role of women were still not fully accepted in particular, the workforce.

For women employed by the armed forces such as the ATS, the Civil Defence, The Land Army, The women’s auxiliary air force (WAAF) and organisations like the women’s voluntary service. Some forms of equality were improving such as pay, for example on the 26th January 1940 the government was urged to give women war workers the same pay and working conditions as men. The call came from a meeting held in London where many speakers complained of deteriorating conditions of work and pay that women were facing. They explained the cause of this to be employers trying to use the high level of unemployment among women to get skilled labour at unskilled wages.

The good thing about employment for women in the Second World War was that it was the first time women were able to be an official part of the armed services and dozens of trades were open to them. For example, the WAAF had 57 different specialists jobs that women could undertake such as transport, mechanics, repair, communications and code work etc. Whilst women in the RAF spotted planes and in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) they were able to fly transport planes.

Even though women were able to work in the armed forces it was very hard for a lot of women to gain respect from their fellow work colleagues as most were seen as a ‘duty bicycle’ rather than as a colleague. This then caused the problem of sexual harassment for most women, for example one woman, who refused to do sexual favours for her sergeant, had her put up on charge because of it.

Another problem was that their work colleagues refused to believe that women were capable of doing the jobs and the tasks set for them and so were given a hard time constantly because of this, for example, a sergeant once asked for a line up from the women and he said they could not be aligned properly because their breasts stuck out at different angles making it impossible for the sergeant to align them. This is just one of the excuses their colleagues made about the women being unfit for their jobs.

Even though the government new of the problems between the men and women in the workforce together in 1941 the government called up all single women between the ages of 20 and 30 and it was believed that a lot of them would soon be in anti-aircraft crews along with men.

By now the government had plans for 1,700,000 women to be involved in the war this included a lot of the to be involved in factory work. In March 1941 Ernest Bevin, the minister of labour made a call for women to come and join the workforce. His plans included urging 100,000 to step forward and volunteer for work. He aimed to get women to fill vital jobs in industry and the auxiliary services. Women were also urgently needed to take over a range of other jobs so that they could free the already present men for active service. To do this he gave them pay rises and pressured employers to give the women a good reception and he also tried to make their working conditions a lot more comfortable. For women, who had children they were given flexible working hours, and nurseries were set up to accommodate their needs.

In May 1943 two years after urging women into the workforce Ernest Bevin then made it compulsory for all women between the ages of 18-45 to carry out part-time war work. This was done as the earlier plans did not work out as well as they should have and this new plan was aimed at women with no domestic responsibilities ‘but so far have been slow to do their bit’. At present 600,000 women were undertake part-time work but thousands more were needed as the demand for men to be sent to the war grows.

It wasn’t long after this that women made up one third of the total workforce in chemical and metal industries in Britain and they also made up a large proportion of the ship-building and vehicle manufacture, by the middle of 1943 almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in necessary work to assist with war effort.

We must remember that whilst the women took up either full or part-time work during the war they still have the same duties at home as they would have had before the war. For example they still have the children to look after and the housework to do. Before the war broke out a lot of married women did not work unless they needed too. It was common for a single middle-class woman to take part in suitable employment such as clerical work, but for a middle-class married woman to work, it implied that her husband could not afford to keep her and was seen as shameful on her husband’s part. Therefore a lot of middle-class married women had not worked before and found It hard to cope with working and now having to do the housework because the servants she would have had before the war had now been called into the factories and so this meant a lot of women in this situation found it a struggle during the war times.

There was also another problem for the women at home and this was rationing. Food rationing came into practice in January 1940 and clothes rationing in June 1941 closely followed this. Britain had not seen food rationing since the First World War and again it was for the same reasons. Cargo ships carrying food to Britain were constantly being attacked by German U-boats throughout the war and the number of boats attacked was constantly on the increase. For example, between September to December 1939 almost 200,000 tons of shipping went down and in 1940 the average losses were around 400,000 tonnes a month and this increased to almost 600,000 tons in April 1941.

Food Rationing had the greatest impact on the population of Britain simply because the rationing and restrictions did not just involve food shortages and raw materials. But as more and more men were needed for the services, at the same time industrial output had to increase to meet wartime needs. Therefore, not only did women have to work for the first time, they had to work twice as hard as they usually would and eat half as much as they usually would.

Oliver Lyttleton, president of the board of trade, introduced clothes rationing in June 1941. This followed immediately by the rationing of furnishing fabrics and carpets. Clothes rationing was very different from food as nobody got the same amount, clothes were rationed using the points system used by Germany during the First World War. For example, instead of one person being able to buy a pair of shoes every six months, they were given a certain amount of points, which could be used, on any number of rationed items. The first clothes rationing books were issued on the 1st June 1942, these were intended to last until July 1943, although this was extended until the end of august. The clothes rationing rules were so complicated and confusing for most people that the government had to issue a booklet to try and help people understand the system.

During the war labour shortages meant that prices increased dramatically, especially for items that weren’t rationed. Because of this, a lot of clothes and fabric shops offered remaking services, for example by turning last season’s coat into a new two-piece suit, this meant making their clothes last longer and making the rations go further. Knitting also became a national female obsession. Various schemes such as the re-making services: Save and Sew, and Make do and Mend, encouraged people to make their clothes to last longer and leading designers to participate in the utility schemes which aimed to make the most excellent use of materials to manufacture practical clothing.

Almost two years after the clothes ration books were brought into practice, the board of trade conducted a survey and found that by introducing clothes rationing the country had so far saved over six hundred million pounds. It found that on average most households now only spent thirty pounds a year on clothing compared to it being over twice this amount before the war. The survey showed clothes rationing to have benefited the country in it’s contribution to the war as the lack of clothing being made meant that thousands of clothes workers could be freed up to go and work in the war factories.

The most women having to work full-time, look after the children, carry on with the housework without the help they received pre-war and also having to ration their clothes and food, this would be a struggle enough for most. However, we must remember the loss a lot of women suffered during the war. For example, receiving a telegram to explain that their husbands and sons had been killed in action, this would not only put a large emotional strain on their wives and children but also a financial one, particularly if the family aren’t to ‘well off’. A lot of women who lost loved ones could not fully describe the pain that they were feeling. Also women who took part in the war and fell in love also felt the same emotional stress, an example of this is a lady called Edith Heap, she worked as a plotter in an operations room at RAF Debden. In 1940 she met a pilot and they fell instantly in love. Edith was on duty in the operations room the day he was killed in action, this was just 3 weeks after their engagement.

Another emotional strain for the women was not only of hearing of their loved ones being killed in action but being seriously injured. Again, this would have left huge financial worries and strains on the family, particularly on the woman as she may now have be the main source of income, as war pensions did not pay very well, during and after the war.

There was also the problem of the women being injured themselves due to the Germans bombing Britain. For example, in just one weekend in August 1940, nearly 1000 people were killed in London. Again, just another emotional stress the women had to cope with during the war.

World war two ended on the 14th August 1945. After the war was over, worries and fears continued to roam amongst women as they waited to find out if their loved ones were coming home or if they would ever come home. In one lady’s war diary, she talks of how all the women in her town sat together after the war in their red cross centre everyday, waiting anxiously to find out whether their sons and husbands were to return home. After hearing of friends and families losing sons in the war she questioned, ‘Why should children be born at all if they are to be mown down in the early morning of their bright lives’ and after also seeing the faces of their mothers at the loss of their sons she exclaims, ‘May God pity woman- a poignant cry for us all’.

After the war had ended and the men came home, women were automatically expected to give up their work and return to their lives at home and their husbands to remain the breadwinners. For some of women this was the case, as several did want to leave work after the war was over. However, a lot of women had gained independence by working during the war and enjoyed working and wanted to continue in either full or part time work. For example, the engineering union survey showed that sixty six per cent of women wanted to remain in their jobs, and three-quarters of these had entered work during their war and with seventy nine per cent being married women who had not been in paid employment before the war with a lot of these tending to be older married women.

Also another survey undertaken by Geoffrey Thomas conducting the government’s social survey, which was conducted in 1943, found that a minimum of fifty five per cent and a maximum of 80 per cent of women wanted to remain in paid work after the war.

These results caused a variety of problems for the government because they believed that after the war women would return to their place in the home as wives and mothers. They were not expected to continue to work particularly older women and women with children who were presumed to be waiting restlessly to be released from the workforce. In order to help with this process of getting the women to leave work, the government pushed for the nurseries which had been opened during the war for women with children who were working to be closed as soon as possible explaining that post war they were now being unused.

Also the main employers for women during the war also protested to women continuing in war post war because they believed them to inefficient and unreliable and were only supposed to have worked on a temporary basis. As employers who presented the commission on Equal pay in 1945 was that there were was a continuing high rate of absenteeism during the war and this justified why women received such low pay. Employers believed that they should no longer be penalised by women workers who are inefficient and unreliable and many believed they should not have been at work at all, although this view was mainly orientated at married women with children as Harold Smith pointed out that ‘married women had ‘definite disadvantages’ as workers’ where as young single and older married women were seen in a more positive light and expected to carry on work in some industries.

Penny Summerfield believed the Second World War did not emancipate women, she believes although there were many changes a lot of it was a false consciousness as the change was only on a temporary basis and women really were wives and mothers and their place was in the home.

However, the war did bring about a lot of changes for women, for example again they had to take up work during the war like in the first world war but this time they were allowed to join the armed services and this meant leaving home for the first time for a lot of women which gave them great confidence and also independence.

Even though a lot of women lost their jobs post war and were expected to return to the home for young single women and some older married women they were able to continue in some occupations such as secretarial and routine factory jobs by 1945 it was considered normal and even enviable for women to be working in these roles. Also middle class women who pre-war had been expected to look at the home and their children were now being called back to work particularly the teaching profession and also lower class wives and mothers were now also expected to work because they had been able to cope with the double burden during the war so they was no reason why they couldn’t cope now. A lot of employers also made working hours more flexible so that women could continue to participate in the workforce meaning greater in equality between men and women in the workforce more so than pre war and during the war.

Even though a lot of women did return home after the war, many did continue to work as they was seen as major social change as many women had not worked before the war and were not expected too, but now with their new found freedoms and independence a lot wanted to continue as they enjoyed working.

All women gained freedom and independence during the women and the women’s movement found this to be their source of inspiration, even though many believe that this was taken away from women after this is not really true as a lot of women chose to return to their homes and be seen again as wives and mothers rather than as workers. So on the whole I believe that during the war women were given a new found freedom and many chose to give this up after the war and return to being dependent on their husbands showing that a lot of women maybe did not want new independence and freedom, also overall, the women did not emancipate women but did bring about a lot of positive social changes for them which may eventually lead to the emancipation of women.

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