From Wives and Daughters to Citizens Talk

From Wives and Daughters to Citizens

Reflections of the talk  by John Buckell

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Advertisement, Northampton Independent, 7th July 1917. Northamptonshire Records Office. Courtesy of Northamptonshire Newspapers.

A predominantly female audience listened to this talk on the work women did in  World War One, the opening up of opportunities for women, and the subsequent enlargement of their rights.

The talk covered work on the land, in boot and shoe factories and munitions factories, as well as other occupations, including teaching, nursing, in the army, police and postal service and on the trams. These were just a small fraction of the jobs that women took on. Other related topics addressed were trade unions, and food and fuel shortages at home which led to rationing in 1918. Finally, there was a brief look at women’s involvement in public life before, during and after the war, including the Northampton suffragists and suffragettes. It concluded with the introduction of parliamentary votes for women in 1918, on narrower terms than those for men, with a property qualification and higher age threshold. Nevertheless, the immediate post-war period saw a number of firsts for local women – as councillors, magistrates and mayors. In 1923, Northampton’s first female Member of Parliament, Margaret Bondfield, was elected, and political candidates were already addressing women’s concerns.

A number of interesting questions were raised, both in open forum and privately after the formal meeting. I present them below with possible answers.

  1. Was any childcare available for mothers who went out to work?
  2. Very little. The government prioritised munitions work, and provided funds for day care centres for munitions factories. There were about 100 in the country. I am not aware of one in Northampton. However, a charity day care centre, run by the Queen Victoria nurses, and attached to their maternity home, was in existence before and during the war, but it seems it mainly catered for poor mothers who had to go out to work. Most working mothers would have to depend for childcare on family members, friends or neighbours.
  3. Q. Was there any increase in industrial accidents as a result of inexperienced women coming into the workforce?
  4. I don’t know the answer to this. There were certainly occasional explosions at munitions factories, in which women workers died, sometimes in large numbers, but I’m not aware of any in Northampton. Most information about wartime accidents on the Internet relates to these explosions. However, with long hours, relatively short training periods (four weeks of evening classes for munitions workers, for example), and piece work, it would be surprising if accidents didn’t increase in both industry and farming. There was much less awareness of health and safety in that period, and it seems highly likely that many accidents went unrecorded. All of which simply increases admiration for workers on the home front, male and female.
  5. Why was the government so slow to introduce rationing?
  6. For the first three years of the war the government tried to control prices by a series of food orders. However, both the trade union movement (locally and nationally) and the Northampton Food Control Committee consistently called for compulsory rationing. No doubt rationing was seen as an unprecedented, and particularly autocratic measure, inconsistent with British liberal values, but an equally autocratic measure, conscription, was introduced when the government felt it was necessary. By early 1918 there was a severe meat shortage, and German unrestricted submarine warfare was having an effect. In World War Two, the government introduced both conscription and rationing from the start.

Other points of interest emerged in discussion. These included:

The important role women played on committees, for example the War Agricultural Committee, etc.

The large number of prominent women in public life who remained unmarried. Was this because they valued the independence they had achieved and did not wish to risk losing it? In the case of suffrage campaigners, particularly, the married ones all had sympathetic and supportive husbands.

How little women’s role in the war is written or talked about, compared with that of men, and the difficulty of finding records of the contributions of individual women.

I am grateful to everyone who attended my talk, and for the interesting questions raised and comments given.

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