This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the media is dedicating much time and attention to it. However, one aspect which so far has not received sufficient consideration is the role played by women during those dramatic and bloody years.
Women began working in industry in large numbers after the outbreak of war. The fact is, however, that women have always worked, whether in paid jobs, or in the home, and often in both. In Victorian and pre-war England working class women had no choice but to work in order to help support their families. They worked mainly as domestic servants for the rich, but also in the factories. They needed to earn money, but had to look after their children as well, so they were an easy target for the factory owners. It was often not difficult for women to get work, but they had to put up with the worst conditions and the lowest pay, usually about two-thirds of a man’s, or even less.
As Malcolm Chandler points out, “In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War nearly 5.9 million women were working in Britain, out of a total female population of 23.7 million. The most common job was domestic service. About 1.5 million women worked as domestic servants. About 900,000 women also worked in textiles and another 500,000 in the ‘sweated trades’.” (Malcolm Chandler, The Home Front 1914-18)
He also highlights the wage differentials that existed between the sexes in 1906 in the following table:
Cotton workers £1.47 93p
Shoemakers £1.43 65p
Bakers £1.45 63p
Printers £1.84 61p
Domestic service employed about one person in every eight and was one of the few jobs that employed women in large numbers. “They lived in the attics of houses and worked very long hours as cleaners, cooks or chambermaids. The pay was often very low, sometimes only 5 or 10 pounds per year and they often only got one half day off a week, or even a month. Servants who ‘lived out’ (in their own homes) were better paid.”
Chandler explains that, “Domestic service attracted so many young women because the school leaving age was 12 and many went straight into service. Pay was very low because there were so many girls looking for work. It was also a job, which did not require a high level of education. Most of the work was manual.”
He provides a description of domestic service which was written by a woman worker in 1906:
“When I was about fourteen years of age I went to service for about eighteen months and I did not like it at all because you was on from morning to night and you never did know when you was done and you never did get your meals in peace for you are up and down all the time, you only get half a day a week and you never get very large wages in service. You never know when you are going to get a good place.” (ibid.)
Of all industries the factories producing textiles were the main employers of women, as it had been since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Here there is a woman describing her job in a textile factory just before the War:
“Being in a mill was like being in a prison, and it had the further disadvantage that one was being slowly melted away. In my first two years my weight remained the same, although I grew a couple of inches. Most of us developed speed, but we lacked weight and strength – the work made us human whippets. One day was like another. It was throb, throb, throb.” (Ibid.)
Almost a million women were also employed in small workshops in shoe stitching, shirt making, chain making, etc. These were the notorious “sweated industries” where the working hours were long and wages very low. Factories organised work along the lines of gender, with men in supervisory roles and skilled work. The worst examples of the sweated industries were clothing and dressmaking, where workers often worked in the houses of their employers. Many other women worked at home and were paid piece rates, making jewellery, toys, addressed envelopes, etc. Women began to find work in offices. The invention of the typewriter and the telephone played an important part in this.
War changes all
The outbreak of war changed everything. Family life was severely disrupted. Women had to struggle to maintain the family and the household after the departure of their menfolk. With the men fighting in the muck and blood of the trenches, for the first time women were forced to do the jobs of men. The government launched a propaganda campaign to attract women into the workforce. The First World War mobilized women in unprecedented numbers on whichever side they were on. Some women even joined the armed forces mainly in support roles such as nurses and auxiliaries. Most of these women came from the middle class.
By the end of 1915 there were 73 national munitions factories in addition to the privately owned industries converted to war work. The national factories were producing about 200,000 shells. A year later, the total output was nearly seven million. This rapid rise in production was mainly due to the mass entry of women into the munitions industry.
The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during the war. 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. By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army.
“Patriotism” of the employers
The prior condition for women’s emancipation in general is that they should be taken out of the narrow confines of the home and family. The employment of women in collective productive work is therefore a positive development. However, under capitalism the work of women, as the work of the proletariat in general, is characterised by the most brutal exploitation and oppression. Given the subordination of women in bourgeois society, women workers are particularly vulnerable to the greed of the employers and their thirst for surplus value.
The official propaganda claimed that the entire nation was united in making sacrifices for the war. But there are sacrifices and sacrifices! King George patriotically offered to give up drinking alcohol for the duration of the war, although nobody was there to check up on this. As far as the capitalists were concerned the war meant a new way to increase their profits. The entry of women into the workforce gave them the perfect opportunity to increase exploitation and boost profits.
However, although they did the same work as men, women did not receive the same wages. We have already seen the kind of things women were condemned to put up with: long hours, low pay and appalling and dangerous conditions. They provided a huge reservoir of cheap exploited labour for the employers. Women’s pay increased during the war, but women in industry still remained second class citizens.
It was not the same for all women, however. In war time as in peace time class distinctions were the decisive factor. It was rare for middle and upper class women to work and when they did it was mainly in lighter occupations. The expectations about them consisted in getting married, then look after their children and to look after the home, or rather supervise their servants who did all the work.
The Woolwich Royal Arsenal
Already a large gun and ammunitions manufacturing site before 1914, the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich expanded into a multitude of factories servicing the war effort. The huge site had its own internal railway system and, at its peak, employed 80,000 workers. Although women had been virtually excluded before the war, now they made up 73% of the workforce. The conditions in this factory illustrate what life was like throughout the whole of munitions industry. In other parts of the country a million women entered this industry which, without exception, was an extremely dangerous place to work.
Women were denied access to the most highly-skilled jobs in the gun factory and gun carriage departments. Output went up when the women started work and just on one job at Woolwich (fuse inspection which involved 16 small hand movements), the rate was reduced from 40 seconds to 15 seconds for 30 fuses.
Employment at the Arsenal was regarded as well paid, but female workers did not receive the same wages and benefits as their male counterparts. During the war, legislation was passed to ensure that female workers could be easily dismissed when the conflict finished. Random searches, which were resented, were made to ensure they were not stealing equipment. The work was overcrowded and it was often either too hot or too cold, deafeningly noisy and full of noxious fumes and other dangers.
Hours of work were long, with the legal maximum for women being 65 hours. Pay was at first on a par with that of the men, but was later reduced to take account of their inexperience. Most women were paid piece-work rates – estimates of how many were paid this way range from 60 to 90%. To make matters worse, the munitions factories became a target for bombing attacks by German Zeppelins. In many ways, these women suffered as much as the men at the front.
The life of a woman worker
Despite all these sacrifices, the upper class retained a contemptuous attitude towards their “social inferiors”, which is shown by the following comments of one of the workers:
“Sometimes when we come upon our little train it will be all packed with different people. There will be all the officers sitting there, some of them used to look at us like if we were insects and others used to mutters ‘Well, they are doing their bit’. We said, ‘Well, we don’t mind dying for our country’.” (Quoted by www.bbc.co.uk/ww1)
Class division in Britain remained alive and well – including in the workplace. We are told that the employers preferred experienced professionals as supervisors rather than “ladies”. Young ladies from the upper classes, eager to “do their bit” would sometimes grace the factories with their presence. Being either too delicate or too autocratic in temperament, they were often found to be unsuitable for work as supervisors. They mainly worked in the canteens. Some of these ladies even brought their maids to do the work for them. Yes, even in wartime there are women and there are women!
Working class girls were treated differently. On arrival at the factory, they were interviewed and given a medical examination. Their hair was checked for lice, while other checks were made on their heart and nerves (for danger work), their eyes, for fire inspection and gauging (blue eyes were thought to be best) and their veins, for production line work. They began working in the section producing small arms, but later they took over much of the heavier work, such as heavy arms, trucking, crane-driving and danger work.
It was believed that women could perform repetitive and monotonous jobs better than men. The only job where women outnumbered the men was in dangerous work that involved handling explosives. Police were stationed in the workplace to keep order. Workers were subjected to body searches on entering and leaving the factory. There were originally no separate toilets for women and the workers were obliged to go to the toilets in hourly shifts. Factory workers faced the dangers of unstable explosives, possible air raids as well as the health risks from handling noxious substances known to cause a range of medical disorders from skin complaints to bone disintegration.
Being constantly in close contact with toxic chemicals some of the common diseases and illness which occurred were drowsiness, headaches, eczema, loss of appetite, cyanosis, shortness of breath, vomiting, anaemia, palpitation, bile stained urine, constipation, rapid weak pules, pains in the limbs and jaundice and mercury poisoning.
As if this were not bad enough, although the women were at high risk of getting these diseases and illnesses, when they went home at night to their children with the chemicals on their clothes they were unknowingly also putting their families at risk of suffering from the same illnesses; this being especially the case for those women who were either pregnant or breastfeeding their babies.
Danger work referred to working with explosives such as TNT and shellite. It included the production of shells, cartridges and fuses. The fumes caused 15 or 18 casualties a night. Workers at the end of their shift left the factory blind and speechless. One female worker remembered: “The first time you go around you think ‘what an interesting place!’ then the evil smell becomes more noticeable, particles of acid land on your face and make you nearly mad, feeling like pins and needles!” (Quoted by www.bbc.co.uk/ww1)
These women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures. TNT was particularly hazardous and turned their hair and skin bright yellow. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during WWI and many more had their health seriously undermined for life. The potentially fatal condition known as “yellow jaundice” was common at the Arsenal. TNT poisoning at first resembles the symptoms of the common cold: headaches, nasal congestions, and coughs, but over a period more alarming symptoms emerge.
The first workers became ill in August 1915 and the first two deaths occurred in March 1916. Around two workers a week died. The girls were given extra milk to combat the effects and, eventually, protective clothing, which was not always worn, as it interfered with production. Although it paid extra, it was not a popular job and was considered unskilled or semi-skilled, despite requiring agility and speed.
Caroline Webb recalls: “It was all bright ginger, all our front head, and all our faces were bright yellow. They used to call us canaries. This doctor was looking at us girls one day and said: ‘Half of you girls will never have babies and the other half is too sick. God help you!’” (Quoted by www.bbc.co.uk/ww1)
The low pay and bad conditions led to periodic protests, including protests about food. On 20 November, 1916 anger erupted over the conditions in the canteen. When the foremen tried to get the women back to work, they were pelted with bread pellets and rice puddings. Women complained about differential rations and advanced the slogan “No food, no work”. The protests about food could have brought the Arsenal to a standstill and the Ministry responded by setting up its own Food Section.
“With women arriving in hundreds, pressure on housing began to mount. Most girls were forced into hostels, no matter what their feelings on the matter. They were often run on military lines by supervisors or matrons, many of whom ‘treated the residents as undesirable intrusions on cleanliness and good order.’ There was said to be excessive concern over moral welfare and not enough care for their physical comfort.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-lancashire/plain/A2354834)
Landlords took advantage of this situation to raise rents to such an extent that there was a campaign set up: “War on War Rents”. The Government was forced to deal with exploitative landlords by the Rent and Mortgage Restriction Act of 1915.
The 1915 Glasgow rent strike
In Glasgow the influx of shipbuilders coming into the city caused a great scarcity of housing. The conditions of tenement buildings in Glasgow were already appalling with chronic overcrowding and many families sharing a single toilet. With the absence of men drafted into the army, the landlords imposed steep rent increases of up to 25%, which pushed families already struggling into an abyss of poverty.
The women were seen as an easy target. Anyone refusing to pay would be forcibly evicted by bailiffs. But they miscalculated badly. The rent increase was met by a massive backlash against the landlords and a rent strike. The leader of this mass movement was Mary Barbour, a working class woman from Glasgow’s poor Govan district.
Mary Barbour is a good example of the natural talent for organisation of working class people once they enter into struggle. She set up tenants committees and co-ordinated resistance to the bailiffs. She led an “army” composed mainly of women, but with the active support of the men in the Glasgow shipyards to forcibly prevent the bailiffs from entering the tenements. The whole thing was organised like a military operation. Women acted as sentries to warn that the Sheriff's officers were coming to evict families who had fallen into rent arrears. They would be summoned with a bell or Mary’s football rattle.
The demonstrations had an extremely militant character. Small children carried placards saying: “While my father is a prisoner in Germany, the landlord is attacking our home” and “My father is fighting in France, we are fighting the Huns at home.” Other placards carried slogans like: “No surrender. God help the sheriff officer who enters here.” The bailiffs were jeered at and pelted with flour and rotten fruit and vegetables. By November 1915, some twenty thousand tenants were on rent strike in Glasgow alone. The rent strike spread from Glasgow to other cities throughout Britain.
The authorities tried to crush the movement using the courts. Eighteen Glasgow tenants were taken to court for non-payment of rent. The intention was clearly to set an example with harsh prison sentences, but it backfired. On November 17, 1915, thousands of women marched shoulder to shoulder with engineering and shipyard workers to the Glasgow Sheriff’s Court and the City Chambers. The Sheriff was terrified and contacted the central government, warning that Glasgow was on the point of revolution.
An immediate response came from the Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George: “Stop the trial immediately. We are passing a law to limit rent increases.” Lloyd George instructed the Glasgow Sheriff Court to release the tenants promising that he would take action. Ten days later, Parliament passed the Rent Restrictions Act, setting rents for the remainder of the war at pre-war levels. The women and working class of Glasgow had won a spectacular victory.
Betrayal of the suffragettes
Before the outbreak of war women had been fighting for their rights, and the suffragette movement was an example of this. However, as all things in capitalist society, this movement also had within it its class differences, which were to become very evident during the war itself.
The betrayal of the Social Democracy in 1914, when the various Labour and Socialist parties voted in favour of war, was responsible for all the horrors and bloodshed of the First World War. Without the support of the labour leaders in Britain, France and Germany, it would have been impossible for the imperialists to carry on the war. In Britain the Labour and Trade Union leaders collaborated with the Tories and Liberals. But a minority of left-wing activists, such as John MacLean in Scotland and James Connolly in Ireland, opposed the war.
Left-wing and progressive women were also against the war and militarism. In 1911, the Women’s Labour League branch in Woolwich sent a motion to their conference condemning “the enormous yearly increase in the cost of national armaments”. Although in this case they were not condemning the war itself, but those who profited from it.
Emmeline Pankhurst, the woman who best embodies the suffragette movement, with the help of her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, in 1903 had formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Her main objective, however, was not to gain universal suffrage, i.e. the vote for all women and men over a certain age, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” This meant maintaining the same class differences for women as existed for men at that time. The 1884 Representation of the People Act had established that any male occupying land or property with an annual rateable value of £10 could vote. In fact only 24 adults out of every 100 could vote. Thus, instead of demanding the basic democratic right to vote for all, the movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst limited itself to fighting for the rights of the wealthier layers, not all women as a whole.
This tendency was aptly analysed and commented on by the Communist International:
“The most radical feminist demand – the extension of the suffrage to women in the framework of bourgeois parliamentarianism – does not solve the question of real equality for women, especially those of the propertyless classes. The experience of working women in all those capitalist countries in which, over recent years, the bourgeoisie has introduced formal equality of the sexes makes this clear. The vote does not destroy the prime cause of women’s enslavement in the family and society. Some bourgeois states have substituted civil marriage for indissoluble marriage. But as long as the proletarian woman remains economically dependent upon the capitalist boss and her husband, the breadwinner, and in the absence of comprehensive measures to protect motherhood and childhood and provide socialised child-care and education, this cannot equalise the position of women in marriage or solve the problem of relationships between the sexes.” (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p. 215.)
Before 1914, in spite of these limitations, the mainly middle class suffragettes led by the Pankhurst family waged a militant campaign for votes for women. However, this militancy did not survive the outbreak of war. Emmeline Pankhurst soon dropped her radical opposition to the Establishment and reached a secret deal with the Government to get women to support the war. In 1915 she is quoted by the BBC as saying, “If the country is to be saved women must be allowed to serve.” (www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ptop/plain/A2354834)
As a result, they called off their protest activities, which had ranged from breaking the windows of government buildings and shops, to committing acts of civil disobedience, chaining themselves to railings of public buildings, hunger strikes while serving prison sentences, a failed attempt to blow up the house in construction of Lloyd George himself, and setting fire to letter boxes, houses of members of the government who opposed women having the right to vote, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands, golf clubhouses, schools and even churches among others.
In August 1914 the British Government conceded an amnesty for all those who had been imprisoned for suffrage activities. Mrs Pankhurst was invited for friendly discussions with Lloyd George who engaged her services to mobilise women for the war effort. Soon after her secret deal with Lloyd George, Pankhurst received a £2,000 grant from the government to finance a pro-war demonstration of more than 20,000 women in London.
The WSPU demonstration carried banners with slogans such as “We Demand the Right to Serve”, “For Men Must Fight and Women Must Work” and “Let None Be Kaiser’s Cat’s Paws”. The demonstrators were completely unaware that the march had been financed by Government money, a fact that Pankhurst kept very quiet. To justify her betrayal, Emmeline Pankhurst argued that the military triumph of a “male nation” such as Germany would be “a disastrous blow to the women’s movement” and that the “German peril” outweighed the need for women’s suffrage. “When the time comes we shall renew that fight,” she said, “but for the present we must all do our best to fight a common foe.”
In October 1915 the WSPU newspaper The Suffragette changed its name to Britannia, with the slogan: “For King, for Country, for Freedom”. She was intolerant of dissent within the WSPU. In the course of a meeting the same month, when veteran member Mary Leigh dared to ask a question, Pankhurst barked: “That woman is a pro-German and should leave the hall... I denounce you as a pro-German and wish to forget that such a person ever existed.”
Having ditched their earlier socialist views, Emmeline and her daughter Christabel now advocated policies such as the abolition of the trade unions. In 1917 they both formed The Women’s Party. Its programme included, among other things, the following: “A fight to the finish with Germany; more vigorous war measures to include drastic food rationing; a clean sweep of all officials of enemy blood or connections from Government departments, and stringent peace terms to include the dismemberment of the Hapsburg Empire.”
This enthusiastic warmonger urged women to follow the example of their French sisters, who – while the men fought – “are able to keep the country going, to get in the harvest, to carry on the industries.” Emmeline urged men to volunteer for the front lines and, along with Christabel, became a leading figure in the White Feather Movement, which aimed to humiliate and shame men who did not volunteer for military service.
Emmeline even visited North America in order to raise money and urge the US government to support Britain and its allies. At the time of the Russian Revolution, she became a rabid enemy of Bolshevism, which she considered a grave threat to Russian democracy. In June 1917 she was sent on a mission to Russia organised and financed by Lloyd George (now Prime Minister) to encourage Russia to stay in the war. Addressing a crowd she said: “I came to Petrograd with a prayer from the English nation to the Russian nation, that you may continue the war on which depends the face of civilisation and freedom.”
This caused a split in the British suffragette movement along class lines, with the right wing bourgeois leaders represented by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s WSPU actively collaborating with the Government and backing the imperialist war, and the left wing represented by Sylvia Pankhurst continuing the struggle. She later joined the Communist Party, while her mother became a Conservative. In a letter Emmeline told Sylvia: “I am ashamed to know where you and Adela stand.” Sylvia Pankhurst was appalled by her mother’s decision to join the Conservative Party. Such was the degree of personal bitterness between them that Emmeline refused to see either her daughter or grandson on the grounds of being an illegitimate baby.
A new Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918. It gave the vote to men over 21, and to women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. About 8.4 million women gained the vote. What did this mean in practice? It meant that middle class and upper class women got the vote, while the overwhelming majority of working class women remained disenfranchised. Only women who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities could vote. This was perfectly in accordance with the views and intentions of bourgeois suffragettes of the Emmeline Pankhurst type.
In November 1918, the Eligibility of Women Act was passed, allowing women to be elected into Parliament. Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the first to benefit from this legislation. She was selected as a Conservative Party candidate for Stepney (London) in 1927.
After the war
After the First World War the numbers of women workers, particularly in industry and trade, declined to practically pre-war levels. Women were the first to be sacked in order to give back the jobs to the returning soldiers from the front. This female employment had been regarded as temporary. This put women in a position of deep disadvantage: they now faced a return to being domestic servants or to be pushed into other underpaid employment. In addition, many married women had become war widows and were wholly responsible for the upkeep of their families. To make matters worse, during the 1920s and 30s the British economy was plunged into a deep recession leading to very high levels of unemployment.
The sacking of women was carried out on a class basis. The better-off women often kept their jobs, while women from poor families were dismissed out of hand. Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, congratulated the munitions firms for acting with “commendable promptitude in immediately dismissing several thousands of their women workers”, words which “recoiled on my head and caused a great deal of unfavourable comment”. In order to avoid further “unfavourable comment”, Mr. Churchill advised a slight delay in further layoffs.
But women did not accept wage discrimination passively. Even before the end of the War, many refused to accept lower pay. The women workers on London buses and trams went on strike in 1918, demanding 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 Britain. It was initiated and led by women and was ultimately successful.
At this time, Lloyd George was increasingly worried by the effects of the Russian Revolution among British workers. Following these strikes, a Committee was set up by the War Cabinet in 1917 to examine the question of women’s wages. It released its final report after the war ended (Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, Cmd 135, 1919).
This report endorsed the principle of equal pay for equal work. But as is always the case with parliamentary reports and Commissions of Investigation, this was not worth the paper it was printed on. The unions received guarantees that where women were doing the same work as skilled men they would be paid the same rate. 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. Moreover, those who drafted the legislation fully expected that due to their “lesser strength and special health problems”, women’s output would not be equal to that of men. Equal pay remained a fiction.
The struggle for equal pay would continue for decades and it was only in 1970 that the Equal Pay Act was passed, which prohibited any discrimination between men and women in terms of pay and conditions. That was achieved by the struggles of working class women, which eventually became the struggle of the whole labour movement, of both men and women.
However, to this day the bosses find many ways of getting round such legislation, for example by keeping wages lower in workplaces where the workforce is predominantly female, and therefore the question of inequality is not immediately posed, because “everyone” is getting the same wages.
Official figures analysed by the TUC back in November highlight this fact. The average hourly rate of pay for men in Britain today is £26.54 and yet for women it £18.32. This disparity is even wider in part-time jobs. Thus we see how today, despite all the advances of the last hundred years, the goal of the emancipation of women has not been attained.
What we also have to remember is that this is the situation in Britain, an advanced industrialised country, where although there is still much to fight for, working women have made advances since the days of the First World War. In many other parts of the world, women still work in atrocious conditions and are very often not much more than slaves, where they can literally be bought and sold! The struggle for the true emancipation of women continues and will continue until the entire basis of this unjust, exploitative and oppressive society is entirely transformed.
As the Third Congress of the Communist International pointed out:
“The real equality of women, as opposed to formal and superficial equality, will be achieved only under Communism, when women and all the other members of the labouring class will become co-owners of the means of production and distribution and will take part in administering them, and women will share on an equal footing with all the members of the labour society the duty to work; in other words, it will be achieved by overthrowing the capitalist system of production and exploitation which is based on the exploitation of human labour, and by organising a Communist economy. (Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, pp. 214-5.)
Ultimately the true and final emancipation of women will be achieved through the emancipation of the working class as a whole, where class oppression will be removed and with it all the other forms of oppression that accompany it.
London, March 7, 2014