WomensWork100: Discover World War 1’s Link Between Suffrage and Service

WomensWork100 explores the breadth of women’s roles during World War I through IWM’s The Women’s Work Collection, which began shortly after the establishment of the Imperial War Museum itself in 1917, collects artefacts, artwork, photographs and accounts that show the full-range of women’s service during the war.

Sarah Paterson, an expert on IWM’s Women’s Work Collection, explains the links between Suffrage and service, domestic and workplace politics, and the overlooked story of the Women’s Emergency Corps, established on 8 August 1914.

The arrival of women into the workforce en masse during World War I is often shown side-by-side with the Suffragette movement, but how did the two things influence each other? 

The Suffrage movement consisted of Suffragists and Suffragettes (more militant), many of which either supported the war effort, or at least were working to provide relief to the suffering caused by war.

However, large numbers either took a pacifist stance, or refused to have anything to do with a capitalist war that was oppressing the working classes. Middle class and upper class women were used to running their own homes and also to sitting on committees, usually involved with philanthropy – campaigning for Suffrage had honed these skills, which could in turn be used for war work.

This can be seen really well with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, the all-women medical units that served abroad in places as diverse as France, Serbia and Russia – the women serving at the front were supported by campaigning and fund-raising at home that paid for them. The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were formed by the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) – ie Suffragists – but accepted women who were not active Suffragists, and did not overly advertise their affiliation as they wanted to fundraise as broadly as possible.

Women had always worked in factories. The range of work became wider as they replaced men, and a wider social range of women would have worked together, though by and large, working class women would have worked on the factory floor while more middle class women would have been in supervisory roles. There was a growth in Trade Union membership among women during the First World War, and there was a feeling that the whole of society needed to work together to win the war. Women were doing their bit, and it was hoped that this would be factored into post-war arrangements. Because of the new opportunities open to women, their horizons were widened, which would have had an effect on their future lives and thoughts about society.

In many accounts of women’s experiences during World War I, the subject often overcomes a series of knockbacks before they’re able to contribute. What sort of fight was necessary for organisations like the Women’s Emergency Corps to gain recognition?

They were an extremely important organisation with a very well thought through plan of what would be needed, and the work they did was very influential, but I don’t think they are a ‘name’ that people are aware of now in the same way as more centralised, later organisations such as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps or the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. It was led by feisty women of the upper/middle class who would just have ignored setbacks, and they just got on with doing the multiple jobs they set out to do, as well as possible.

As the war progresses and greater need for assistance is recognised, there is more willingness to accept help wherever it is offered (and a greater centralisation of effort).

Was the relationship between the Women’s Emergency Corps and the WSPU viewed with suspicion initially?

The WSPU, like many other organisations, was not totally united and had differences of opinion. The Women’s Emergency Corps saw themselves as doing the right thing in the circumstances and looking to protect women who may be adversely affected by war, and demonstrating the value of women.

For example, there was a fear that many women would be put out of work by the war, and so they set up toy making concerns for women, as these were predominantly made in Germany and would no longer be imported.

What can the stories of the Woman’s Work Collection tell us about the challenges women faced at home? Were families supportive of their decision and was it framed as patriotic duty or personal choice?

Women were entirely free to make their own decisions about what they did during the war – personal circumstances permitting. Many women needed to work to support themselves and their families – the separation allowance that wives of soldiers on active service was paid was not generous, and the plight of war widows could be extremely difficult.

Concepts of patriotism, duty and service would have been important motivators during the First World War, in a way that is not readily understandable today. Some women were also motivated by the death of service of loved ones, and war work was a way of ‘doing their bit’ and being able to fight back.

There were different attitudes towards different types of work – for example nursing was always regarded as traditional women’s work, whereas working in a munitions factory or serving overseas could be more challenging for family members to accept.

Women were not conscripted and therefore had a freedom that men didn’t have. It is interesting to see that some Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps service records have details of family members asking for the WAAC to be released because she is needed to look after family members/wanted at home.

The WWC also shows us the difficulty of women having to work as well as look after their families. Crèches and National Kitchens provide facilities for childcare and eating, in order to mobilise the war effort to greatest effect. Women also have to deal with shortages and rationing in their own kitchens, and this is well documented.

What became of many of the women once their services were no longer needed in the workplace?

When the men came back from the Services, they needed to return to their jobs. Many women were happy to go back to their old lives, while some had had their horizons expanded and sought to do other things with their lives.

For example, many VADs undertook nurse training. Some wrote up accounts of their experiences, and some served again in 1939. Many women had previously worked in service – and did not want to return to this, sparking a larger demand than supply in this field.

We also need to remember those women who still needed to work, as this was how they earned their living, who were unable to or who had their health severely undermined by the rigours of their service. This is especially the case for nurses, and some did find themselves in very difficult and precarious situations.

The story of Isabella Clark and the TNT poisoning is an incredibly poignant one, did the perception of safety and risk change at all when women’s voices surfaced the dangers of munitions work or heavy industry?

The WWC charts how the perception of health and safety developed in industrial work. As the war progressed more efforts were put into making workplaces as safe as possible.

Welfare officers were appointed, recommended protective clothing was developed and conscious efforts were made to ensure that the workforce was as fit and happy as possible as this made a more efficient factory.

Whether what was written down on paper actually happened on site, and how widespread this was is debateable, and conditions continued to be difficult but there was certainly an awareness and a wish to improve the tough working environment.

It seems incredibly forward thinking that the Women’s Work SubCommittee was formed to preserve these stories. How did it come about?

IWM was established to be a memorial and place of record of every type of activity in the First World War. As this was the first Total War all members of society were affected, and the massive role that women played also needed to be recorded.

When the Museum was founded they set up different committees to look at different areas, such as Army, Medical, Munitions, etc., and the Women’s Work Sub-Committee was set up to cover the female role in the war.

What’s the story of the Women’s Work Section within IWM? How was this material traditionally displayed and where can it be seen now?

The Women’s Work Sub-Committee set about collecting objects, photographs, uniforms, badges, artwork, etc. as well as information about the role women had played in the war. There were temporary exhibitions about women’s work, and when IWM was set up at the Crystal Palace, then later at South Kensington, before moving to its permanent home in Lambeth in 1936 there was a gallery devoted to women’s work.

This would usually have been the smallest gallery in the museum, but at least it was there. The WWSC also commissioned three-dimensional models depicting specific types of women’s work – eg packing parcels for Prisoners of War or Dr Elsie Inglis operating on wounded soldiers in a makeshift hospital in Serbia – believing that these would bring scenarios to life in a colourful and vivid way – in much the same way as digital media is used today.

The items collected by the WWSC have been dispersed to the relevant departments, and can be searched for on IWM’s catalogue at www.iwm.org.uk/collections. The paper based documents came to the Library where they have been digitised, and can be viewed free of charge in Explore History or by appointment in the Research Room at IWM London.

Find out more about WomansWork100 and the IWM Woman’s Work Collection on the official centenary website, and on IWM.org.uk. For more insights into the forgotten fronts of World War I, subscribe to History of War from as little as £10.50.