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Women and War Work By Helen Fraser Characters: 15357

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

She is like the merchant's ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

* * *

"She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

* * *

"Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come."

-PROV., Chap. 31.

The first result of the outbreak of war for women was to throw thousands of them out of work.

Nobody knew-not even the ablest financial and commercial men-just what a great European war was going to mean, and luxury trades ceased to get orders; women journalists, women writers, women lecturers, and women workers of every type were thrown out of work and unemployment was very great.

A National Relief Fund was started for general distress and the Queen dealt in the ablest manner with the women's problem. She issued this appeal: "In the firm belief that prevention of distress is better than its relief, and employment is better than charity, I have inaugurated the 'Queen's Work for Women Fund,' Its object is to provide employment for as many as possible of the women of this country who have been thrown out of work by the war. I appeal to the women of Great Britain to help their less fortunate sisters through the fund.


This appeal was instantly responded to and large sums were subscribed. A very representative Committee of Women was established, with Miss Mary MacArthur, the well known Trade Union leader, as Hon. Secretary and the Queen was in daily touch with its work.

In the dislocation of industry which had caused the committee's formation, it was found that there was great slackness in one trade or a part of it and great pressure in other parts of it or other trades. The problem was to use the unemployed firms and workers for the new national needs.

The committee considered it part of their work to endeavor to increase the number of firms getting Government contracts, and they created a special Contracts Department, under the direction of Mr. J.J. Mallon, of the Anti-sweating League. They, as a result, advised in regard to the placing of contracts and they undertook to get articles for the Government, or ordered by other sources, manufactured by firms adversely affected by the war or in their own workrooms. They worked with the firms accustomed to making men's clothing and now unemployed, and found that they could easily take military contracts if certain technical difficulties were removed. They interviewed the War Office authorities, modifications were suggested and approved and the full employment in the tailoring trade which followed gave a greatly improved supply of army clothing. Contracts were secured from the war office for khaki cloth, blankets, and various kinds of hosiery, and these were carried out by manufacturers who otherwise would have had to close down.

The Queen gave orders for her own gifts to the troops, and considerable work was done through trade workshops, care being taken to see that this work was only done where ordinary trade was fully employed. Two contracts from the War Office, typical of others, were for 20,000 shirts and for 2,000,000 pairs of army socks. Over 130 firms received contracts through the committee.

New openings for trades were tested and the possibility of the transference of work formerly done in Germany.

In its Relief Work the committee had its greatest problems. It was clear that if rates paid were high, women would come in from badly paid trades, and it was clear that if they sold the work, it would injure trade-so in the end it was decided to pay a low wage, 11/6 a week-and to give away, through the right agencies, the garments and things made in the workrooms.

The inefficiency of many workers was very clear and training schemes resulted-for typing, shorthand, in leather work, chair seat willowing, in cookery, dressmaking and dress-cutting, home nursing, etc.

Professional women were helped through various funds and workrooms were established by other organizations, several being started in London by the N.U.W.S.S.



As the months went on women began to be absorbed more and more into industry. Men were going into the army ceaselessly, our war needs were growing greater and our women found work opening out more and more. The Women's Service Bureau had been opened within a week of the outbreak of war and had done valuable work in placing women, before the Board of Trade issued its first official appeal to women, additional to those already in industry, to volunteer for War Service. It was sent out by Mr. Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, and read as follows:

The President of the Board of Trade wishes to call attention to the fact that in the present emergency, if the full fighting power of the nation is to be put forth on the field of battle, the full working power of the nation must be made available to carry on its essential trades at home. Already, in certain important occupations there are not enough men and women to do the work. This shortage will certainly spread to other occupations as more and more men join the fighting forces.

In order to meet both the present and the future needs of national industry during the war, the Government wish to obtain particulars of the women available, with or without previous training, for paid employment. Accordingly, they invite all women who are prepared, if needed, to take paid employment of any kind-industrial, agricultural, clerical, etc.-to enter themselves upon the Register of Women for War Service which is being prepared by the Board of Trade Labour Exchanges.

Any woman living in a town where there is a Labour Exchange can register by going there in person. If she is not near a Labour Exchange she can get a form of registration from the local agency of the Unemployment Fund. Forms will also be sent out through a number of women's societies.

The object of registration is to find out what reserve force of women's labour, trained or untrained, can be made available if required. As from time to time actual openings for employment present themselves, notice will be given through the Labor Exchanges, with full details as to the nature of work, conditions, and pay, and, so far as special training is necessary, arrangements will, if possible, be made for the purpose.

Any woman who by working helps to release a man or to equip a man for fighting does national war service. Every woman should register who is able and willing to take employment.

The forms were sent out in large numbers through the women's societies of the country, and it was stated on them that women were wanted at once for farm-work, dairy work, brush-making, leather stitching, clothing, machinery and machining for armaments.

By next day the registrations were 4,000, mostly middle-class women, and in the first week 20,000 registered and an average of 5,000 a week after, but the mass of women who registered waited with no real lead or use of them for a long time. The Government seemed to suffer from a delusion a great many people have, that if you have enough machinery and masses of names something is being done, but you do not solve any problem by registers. You solve it by getting the workers and the work together.

The Government had not approached employers at first, but had left it to them entirely to take the initiative in this great replacement. This they had to a considerable extent done, using the Labour Exchanges and the other agencies and women were more and more quickly, steadily, ceaselessly replacing men.

The appeals

for women for munition work were most swiftly responded to and educated women volunteered in thousands, as did working girls and women.

The question of assisting employment by fitting more women for commercial and industrial occupations was considered by the Government, and in October, 1915, the Clerical and Commercial Occupations Committee was appointed by the Home Office-a similar committee being set up for Scotland. It arranged with the London County Council and with local authorities that their Education Committees should initiate emergency courses all over the country for training in general clerical work, bookkeeping and office routine. The courses lasted from three to ten weeks, and the age of the students varied from eighteen to thirty-five.

Many free courses were inaugurated by business firms in large London stores, notably Harrods and Whiteleys, where their courses included all office and business training. Six week courses of free training for the grocery trade, for the boot trade, lens making, waiting, hairdressing, etc., were also given.

Our woman labor has been found to be quite mobile and girls have moved in thousands from one part of the country to another, and the munition girl travelling home on holiday on her special permit is a familiar figure.

The registration, placing and moving of our workers is all done by our Labour Exchanges, now renamed Employment Exchanges and transferred from the Board of Trade to the Ministry of Labour.

When the National Service Department was set up, a Women's Branch was established with Mrs. H.J. Tennant, and Miss Violet Markham as Co-directors, and they made various appeals, registered women for the land, munitions, W.A.A.C. and for wood cutting and pitprop making. A great demonstration of "Women's Service" was held in the Albert Hall in January 17, 1917, at which Mrs. Tennant and Miss Markham, Lord Derby, Minister of War; Mr. Prothero, President of the Board of Agriculture, and Mr. John Hodge, Minister of Labour, spoke and at which the Queen was present. It was an appeal to women for more work and a registration of their determination to go on doing all that was needed. The men's message was one to equals-they asked great things. A message from Queen Mary was read for the first time at any public meeting and it was the only occasion on which she has attended one.

The number of women now in our industry directly replacing men, according to our latest returns, is over one and a quarter millions. This does not include domestic service, where our maids grow less and less numerous and Sir Auckland Geddes, Director of National Service, tells us he is considering cutting down servants in any establishment to not more than three, and it does not include very small shops and firms.

The processes in industry in which women work are numbered in hundreds. The War Office in 1916 issued an official memorandum for the use of Military Representatives and Tribunals setting forth the processes in which women worked and the trades and occupations, and giving photographs of women doing unaccustomed and heavy work, to guide the Tribunals in deciding exemptions of men called up for Military Service.

In professional work today women are everywhere. There are 198,000 women in Government Departments, 83,000 of these new since the war. They are doing typing, shorthand, and secretarial work, organizing and executive work. They are in the Censor's office in large numbers and doing important work at the Census of Production. There are 146,000 on Local Government work. The woman teacher has invaded that stronghold of man in England, the Boys' High and Grammar Schools, and is doing good work there. They are replacing men chemists in works, doing research, working at dental mechanics, are tracing plans. They are driving motor cars in large numbers. Our Prime Minister has a woman chauffeur. They are driving delivery vans and bringing us our goods, our bread and our milk. They carry a great part of our mail and trudge through villages and cities with it. They drive our mail vans, and I know two daughters of a peer who drive mail vans in London. I know other women who never did any work in their lives who for three years have worked in factories, taking the same work, the same holidays, the same pay as the other girls. Women are gardeners, elevator attendants, commissionaires and conductors on our buses and trams, and in provincial towns drive many of the electric trams.



In the railways they are booking clerks, carriage and engine cleaners and greasers, and carriage repairers, cooks and waiters in dining cars, platform, parcel and goods porters, telegraphists and ticket collectors and inspectors, and labourers and wagon sheet repairers. They work in quarries, are coal workers, clean ships, are park-keepers and cinema operators. They are commercial travellers in large numbers. They are in banks to a great extent and are now taking banking examinations.

There was a very strong feeling as the replacement by women went on that there must be no lowering of wage standards which would not only be grossly unfair to women but imperil the returning soldier's chance of getting his post back.

Mrs. Fawcett, on behalf of the Women's Interests Committee of the N.U.W.S.S., called a conference on the question of War Service and wages in 1915, and Mr. Runciman stated at the conference:

As regards the wages and conditions on which women should be employed, as a general principle the Exchanges did not, and could not, take direct responsibility as to the wages and conditions, beyond giving in each case such information as was in their possession. In regard, however, to Government contractors, it had been laid down that the piece rates for women should be the same as for men, and further special instructions had been given to the Exchanges to inform inexperienced applicants of the current wages in each case, so that they should be fully apprised as to the wage which it was reasonable for them to ask. A general safeguard against permanent lowering of wages by the admission of women to take the place of men on service would be made by asking employers, so far as possible, to keep the men's places open for them on their return.

Wages in most cases are at the same rate as men, and as women are organized in Britain in large numbers, the Trades Unions and Women's Committees are always alive and ready to act on the question of payment and conditions. Our workers, men and women, are very well paid and despite high prices, were never more comfortable, and never saved more. The call for women to replace men still goes on in Britain. Miners are going to be combed out again. The Trade Unions have been again approached by the Premier and Sir Auckland Geddes on this question of man power. The Battalions must be filled up-in France we need 2,000,000 men all the time and of these 1,670,000 are from our own Islands.

It is calculated there are in Britain today-Ireland is not tapped in woman power any more than in man power-less than a million women who could do more important work for the war than they are now doing. Most of these are already doing work of one kind or another, but could probably do more.

Our homes, our industries, munitions, the land, hospitals, Government service and the Waac's are absorbing us in our millions. Britain could not have raised her Army and Navy and could not now keep her men in the field without the mobilization of her women and their ceaseless, tireless work behind her men, and as substitutes for them, in the working life of the community.

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