World War I: 1914-1918
During WWI (1914-1918), large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. Though there was initial resistance to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, the introduction of conscription in 1916 made the need for women workers urgent. Around this time, the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.
This led to women working in areas of work that were formerly reserved for men, for example as railway guards and ticket collectors, buses and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. However, they received lower wages for doing the same work, and thus began some of the earliest demands for equal pay.
By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army (Airth-Kindree, 1987). Known as ‘canaries’ because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound trinitrotoluene that is used as an explosive agent in munitions) which caused their skin to turn yellow, these women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during WWI.
Women, wages and rights
Women’s employment rates increased during WWI, from 23.6% of the working age population in 1914 to between 37.7% and 46.7% in 1918 (Braybon 1989, p.49). It is difficult to get exact estimates because domestic workers were excluded from these figures and many women moved from domestic service into the jobs created due to the war effort. The employment of married women increased sharply – accounting for nearly 40% of all women workers by 1918 (Braybon, 1989: p. 49).
But because women were paid less than men, there was a worry that employers would continue to employ women in these jobs even when the men returned from the war. This did not happen; either the women were sacked to make way for the returning soldiers or women remained working alongside men but at lower wage rates. But even before the end of the war, many women refused to accept lower pay for what in most cases was the same work as had been done previously by men. The women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in 1918 to demand the same increase in pay (war bonus) as men. The strike spread to other towns in the South East and to the London Underground. This was the first equal pay strike in the UK which was initiated, led and ultimately won by women.
Following these strikes, a Committee was set up by the War Cabinet in 1917 to examine the question of women’s wages and released its final report after the war ended (Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, Cmd 135, 1919, p.2).
This report endorsed the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’. But their expectation was that due to their ‘lesser strength and special health problems’, women’s ‘output’ would not be equal to that of men. Despite evidence that women had taken on what were considered men’s jobs and performed them effectively during the war, this did not shift popular (and government) perception that women would be less productive than men. The unions received guarantees that where women had fully replaced skilled men they would be paid the same as the men – ie would receive equal pay. But it was made clear that these changes were for the duration of the war only and would be reversed when the war ended and the soldiers came back.