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

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