Last year marked two significant centenaries: the cessation of fighting in the First World War and the passing of legislation that expanded the electoral franchise to include women for the first time (at this point limited, however, to property-owning and degree-educated women over thirty). Historians have long connected these two events. The war, after the mass conscription of men to the front line, allowed women to enter the public sphere in unprecedented capacities, both in terms of work and leisure. As is documented by this vast collection of remarkable photographs, held by London’s Imperial War Museum, women’s lives were entirely transformed. The images show women performing a whole host of tasks: casting bricks, generating electricity, solutionising cork, building ships, painting railway stations, warming rubber, milking cows, signalling trains, smelting iron, blasting granite, making glucose, digging holes, and constructing houses, in addition to the work already prescribed to them such as childcare and domestic labour.
Looking through the thousands of photographs, perhaps surprising is how many show signs of joy: scenes of rural cooperation and industrial progress, of mutual support and collective endeavour. Indeed, if one were to stumble across the collection with no idea of context, they might appear to document some kind of feminist utopia (albeit one heavily bent on arms production). The trauma of the war, the loss of loved ones, the toil of work are often not visible there on the surface. No doubt this partly reflects a genuine positive spirit present amongst the workers, but one wonders also what role the medium might play here: the transforming presence of the camera (offering perhaps a welcome novelty from the daily grind, or triggering instincts to pose), and simply the limitations of the visual in conveying the lived reality of working life (as the German playwright Bertolt Brecht would later remark, the reality of a factory or workplace cannot be conveyed by a “merely photographic” reproduction). And this is not to mention the influence of any motives or biases of the photographers (George P. Lewis and Horace Nicholls among others) or their employers, the British government.
The conditions these women worked in were often dangerous and accidents were common. The TNT factories were particularly hazardous. In January 1917, an explosion at a plant in East London killed 73 people, and workers were nicknamed “canaries” due to the dangerous chemicals turning their skin yellow. The women were also paid less then their male counterparts: the munitions factories paid their female workers as little as half what they paid the men for doing similar jobs. In 1918, women working on London transport went on strike to demand equal pay, the first strike of its kind. Addressing the issue of unequal pay, in 1919 the Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry was published. It endorsed the principle of “equal pay for equal work”, but went on to state that, because of women’s “lesser strength and special health problems”, the output would likely not be equal. In the same year, some advances in equal rights were made, enshrined in law with the The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender. However, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act then forced most women workers to leave their wartime roles so as to make way for the returning men from the front.
Read more on the creation of this particular collection here at the Imperial War Museum website. Read more on the role of women in the war in this BBC iWonder piece and also elsewhere on the BBC here. For more on the topic, including the story behind the making of these photographs, also check out Women’s Factory Work in World War One (2014) by Gareth R. Griffiths.
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