World War One Changes Women’s Roles in the Workforce

Women tending to the fields in the men's absence

World War One Changes Women’s Roles in the Workforce

This is the second of two parts on women in the workforce. Read part one.

Women entered the 20th century with a world of opportunities.

As the new century dawned, it was becoming increasingly common and acceptable for women to work.  Women continued to hold many of the same positions they had before – teacher, servant, mill worker, shop girl and seamstress – but new jobs also enticed women.

War Nurses

World War One era nurses
World War One era nurses were highly educated

Even before World War I erupted, nursing was an important job. It had gone from a support role to a full-fledged profession, and women serving as war nurses were highly educated. They were graduates of nursing schools in a time when the average person didn’t finish high school.

Nurses attended three-year programs that included studies in anatomy, physiology and communicable diseases.

Munition Workers

Women factory workers during World War One
Women factory workers during World War One

The nations at war needed to feed their killing machines. This led to many woman taking positions at ammunition factories.

In Britain, around 1 million women worked munitions jobs during the war.

Munitions work was dirty and dangerous. Not only was there the risk of explosion, but the women were exposed to hazardous chemicals.

“Routledge puts the number of deaths from poisoning and explosions at around 300, excluding those who died subsequently of illnesses caught at the factories,” The Guardian said.

The BBC places the figure at closer to 400.

Eighty percent of the shells and weapons used by the British army were made in factories that employed predominately women.

Replacement Workers

Women tending to the fields in the men's absence
Women tending to the fields in the men’s absence

As men went off to war and losses mounted, their former positions were left vacant.

Women filled these positions, which included:

  • Business clerks
  • Bank tellers
  • Postal workers
  • Firefighters
  • Civil service positions
  • Field hands
  • Police
  • Public transportation – conductors, ticket collectors, railroad guards

Wartime Women’s Workforce

Like their prewar predecessors, women earned less than men for the same work. Some women went on strike, demanding equal pay for equal work. They never received it.

After the war, women were expected to surrender their jobs to returning veterans and resume traditional women’s roles.

They had, however, proved women were capable of doing any job. Women also gained a sense of empowerment that led to something as small as women wearing trousers or as large as the Women’s Rights Movement.

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Updated: 15 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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