During World War I, Britain, like the United States would have to do in World War II, had to employ large numbers of women into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. They also had to create new jobs as part of the war effort. As an example, women were hired in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. It was a job that many people resisted, mainly because it was seen as “men’s work.” When I think about the work these women were doing, I find myself much more concerned with the toxicity and danger of the materials they were working with, than whether or not the job should be done by a man. Of course, the materials would present the same danger to the men, but the men had always felt like the dangerous work should fall to them.
Nevertheless, with the introduction of conscription in 1916 everything changed. Conscription refers to the process of automatically calling up men and women for military service. During the First World War men (it only applied to men at this time) who were conscripted into the armed forces had no choice but to go and fight, even if they did not want to. Around 1916, with the need becoming serious, the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives. This led to women working in areas of work that were formerly reserved for men. Jobs such as, for example railway guards, ticket collectors, buses, tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters, as well as bank tellers and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories.
By 1917 the British munitions factories, which by this time, primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army. The women working there soon became known as “canaries” because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound trinitrotoluene that is used as an explosive agent in munitions) which caused their skin to turn yellow. The nickname might have been a cute joke, but the job the women did was far from funny. These women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures, that we know are needed now. During the years of World War I, around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT. I wonder too, how many died in the years that followed the war, from exposure to the same chemicals that had killed the original 400 women.
As if the dangerous working conditions weren’t enough, women were also paid significantly less than men in comparable positions. In 1918, women workers on London’s buses, trams, and subways organized a strike and managed to win equal pay for equal work. When the war ended, many women were fired to free up jobs for returning veterans. Some thanks that was. I’m sure many of the women were glad to go back to their prior jobs, or go home to take care of their families, but to be fired” was just wrong in every way. Nevertheless, in return for their hard work, these women were fired so that the returning men could have a job again.