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Historical Perspectives

Women Workers in the Second World War

Sue Bruley, University of Portsmouth

During World War 2, Britain was engaged in 'total war', which involved unprecedented demands on its population. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the home front where the role of women was vital in all areas of life. By 1943, over 7.25 million women were employed, a rise of over two million from the prewar figure. In addition, many thousands of women all around the country were involved in voluntary work for the Women's Voluntary Service, running rest centres and mobile canteens for bomb victims and countless other valuable tasks. By 1945 nearly half a million women were in the women's armed services (principally the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRENS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Although women worked in exciting (and often dangerous) work such as code breakers or with special operations in occupied France, the majority of service women were engaged in mundane clerking, cleaning or cooking as befitted the official role of service women to release enlisted men for combat duty. The nation's food supply was kept going by the addition of over 80,000 women on our farms from the Women's Land Army. Nurses were also vital for the war effort, both at home helping victims of the bombing and overseas where those imprisoned by the Japanese in the Far East were enduring terrible suffering.

By far the greatest addition of new women workers was in industry, where there were over 1.5 million women working. The workforce in engineering increased from 7% of the prewar workforce to 40% by 1944, representing three quarters of a million women. Contrary to the popular image of the young, 'happy-go-lucky' munition worker, the largest group of new workers was actually women over 35 whose children were at school and who were constantly torn between the demands of work and home. Many women in industry were actually already experienced in factory work. The new consumer industries of the 1930s in the Midlands and Southern England had become increasingly reliant on female labour, which employers favoured for being cheap, docile and deferential.

The large rise in the numbers of women in paid employment during the war was not achieved by voluntary means alone. The wartime Coalition Government went further than any other state in the world in enforcing the mobilization of women, principally for munitions work. From March 1941, all women aged 19 to 40 had to register at Labour Exchanges for work. By 1943, the upper age limit had crept up to 50. Beyond this military conscription was introduced in December 1941 for women aged 20 to twenty four. In theory women could choose between the women's services, civil defence or munitions. In practice both the WRENS and the WAAF were extremely hard to get into and women already working in factories tended to stay there. Women with children under fourteen (or even just a husband working from home) could claim exemption from war work. In reality many women with dependant children whose husbands were enlisted were forced to work for financial reasons, as separation allowances paid to service families were inadequate.
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Women Workers in the Second World War by Professor Sue Bruley