A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: British women demand a share of the burden

With so many men away, the war offered a rare chance for gender equality in the workplace

The demonstration was a success in every way but the weather. Banners emblazoned with the slogan “British lion is awake, so is the lioness” were marched through the drizzle under the shadow of the Houses of Parliament, held aloft by women wearing red, white and blue, who had travelled from all over the UK to demand the right to work in munitions factories.

The demonstration came about, in part, because of the shell-shortage crisis which hit Britain in 1915. A failure to break through on the Western Front had been blamed on a lack of shells, which was reported in the press. The Government responded with a national munitions policy, appointing future prime minister David Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions.

Armament factories sprang up outside major cities, but with men at the front and the need for new recruits rising all the time, the question of who would staff the factories remained. This represented an opportunity for women.

At the outbreak of war, a British woman’s place was still, largely, in the home. Some women worked in the service or textile industries, but proposals to use them to staff munitions factories were widely derided, and proved unpopular with factory owners who considered women unreliable workers.

“It took a lot of propaganda to persuade factory owners to take women,” says historian Dr Deborah Thom. “They thought women would cost them money, because they’d have to put lavatories in the factories, and there were lots of arguments saying women wouldn’t stick around.” 

Then Lloyd George formed an unlikely alliance with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who had suspended their militant Votes for Women action at the start of the war and were instead pouring all of their energies into patriotic advocacy, drumming up support for the war.

In a WSPU pamphlet at the time, Christabel wrote: “Because of the dangers in which the country stands, and because of the terrible cost in suffering and in life that the war imposes, the militant women have, for the time, ceased from their warfare.

“They cannot however, forget, and the public must not forget, how closely related is the question of women’s vote with the war, and with the national safety.”

It was agreed a payment of £4,000 would be made by the Treasury to the WSPU. In return the WSPU’s leaders would galvanise women to persuade men to join up and at the same time advertise the need for female labour. And so, on 17 July 1915, women gathered in central London for the Women’s Right to Serve Demonstration, marching, despite the miserable weather, for the right to help out with the war work.

The demonstration, the first time the Government and the WSPU had joined forces, brought together women of all classes, and from all industries: women who revelled in demonstrating, and women who had never demonstrated before but were invigorated by patriotism and a sense of duty. The march drew thousands of onlookers, too. Some scoffed, but others sympathised and encouraged, and the resulting Women’s War Register saw thousands of women sign up to work in the factories.

The results were impressive. The number of women in the workforce rose from 3.214 million in July 1914 to 4.08 million in July 1916, and 4.94 million in November 1918. Unfortunately, however, many would be pushed out of their jobs when the munitions factories closed and the men came back from the front. The percentage of women who were “gainfully employed” in 1921 was 30.8 per cent, compared with 32.3 per cent in 1911, although representation in some industries, such as clerical jobs, did improve.

Tomorrow: An artist’s brush with death

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst/ Project Manager - Financial Services

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client in the Financial...

Year 6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 6 Teachers urgently needed for su...

English Secondary Teacher

£110 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cambridge: English Teacher needed for ...

Year 3/4 Teacher - Immediate Start

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Year 3/4 Teacher Needed in Flintshire ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits