From Wives and Daughters to Citizens By John Buckell
During World War One my maternal grandmother and her sister, my great aunt, worked in a munitions factory at Braintree in Essex. Knowing both of them while I was growing up prompted my initial interest in women’s role in that war, but as is so often the case, they had died before I became sufficiently interested to ask them about it.
As I discovered when researching my books on Little Wratting, Suffolk, (my grandmother’s village), and Weston Favell, women’s experiences are far less well documented than those of men. For men who served in the forces there are medal rolls, and sometimes service records. Entries in the absent voters’ lists give their military units, which can then be researched in battalion war diaries or on numerous websites. For women there is the 1911 census, but electoral records only list women who were at least 30 years old in 1918, while newspaper reports tend to be confined to upper class women, usually identified by their husbands’ names or in relation to their fathers. For the researcher it is therefore very difficult to provide anything like a satisfactory gender balance.
Yet women played a significant part in the First World War; significant enough to modify existing attitudes to their capabilities. In Northampton, as elsewhere, women supported the war effort by replacing men who had gone to the front. They worked in factories and on the land, served on committees and drove vehicles. Even some of those in traditional roles, such as nursing, broke new ground by serving in hospitals in France and other theatres of war. Women were also active in the anti-war movement. Such female peace activists often came from a background in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, even though the main suffrage organisations supported the war. In Northampton, an active branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom held meetings addressed by speakers of national renown, such as Charlotte Despard and Margaret Ashton. A minority of women also continued to play an active part in politics, in all the main parties in the town, as they had before the war. At its end women were given the vote, though not yet on the same terms as men.
The expansion of women’s role was not without difficulties. How were women to be trained, and how should women land workers be housed on farms? The introduction of women into occupations formerly seen as male, “substitute labour” as it was called, inevitably created tensions. As they were generally paid less than men for the same work, there was understandable concern by trade unions about the undermining of wage levels, and the fear that men returning at the end of hostilities might find their jobs taken by women.
Of course, many women remained at home, running households and feeding families at a time of shortages and rising prices. Their story also deserves to be told.
This research into Northampton women’s experiences in World War One is an attempt, as far as is possible, to redress the gender balance in accounts of the war, explore more fully the role of local women, and examine some of the difficulties, strategies and consequences of women’s role in that conflict. If women were largely seen as wives and daughters in 1914, to what extent had they become citizens by 1918?
Women munitions workers at Smith, Major and Stevens Ltd., Abbey Works, Northampton. From Memories of the War, a scrapbook compiled by the company in January 1919. Northamptonshire Record Office (uncatalogued).