During World War One, over 6 million men enlisted to fight. They left their jobs and families at home. As a result, women had to fulfil some of the more ‘masculine’ jobs.
Traditionally, women worked jobs that were considered ‘feminine’, such as cleaning, teaching and tailoring. They also received wages 54% lower on average, than a man. In most countries, women were not even allowed to work in factories, because it was considered ‘unladylike’ for them to work in that kind of environment. That is if they did work at all. Most women just stayed at home to look after the children, keep the house nice and clean, cook the meals, and do everything else around the house. This is whilst the men would go out and work all day to provide money to feed their wife and children and pay any bills.
This all changed at the start of the Great War in 1914. With men leaving their jobs behind, the women were the ones that had to take their place. In Great Britain alone, the number of women in industry rose from around 3 300 000 in July 1914 to 4 900 000 in July 1918. In addition to this, about 500 000 women left their jobs in domestic service, for other employment. In some cases, a woman would just do the exact same job a man would, however, during this time period, women were still considered weaker, and less capable than men. Consequently, some jobs were split up into smaller, easier, components that the employers thought they could handle.
Some of the men’s jobs that were taken over by women during WW1 were: railway guards, ticket collectors, bus and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters, and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart-horses on farms, and worked in civil service and factories. Women also made the majority of weapons, ammunition, explosives, and other war supplies. Many women worked in dangerous conditions, and their employers allowed them to. Extra precautions may have been taken if the majority of their employees were male.
Many women manufactured trinitrotoluene explosives, more commonly known as TNT. This made their places of work a military target for their enemies; bombings and enemy gunfire was common. Every day, these women were risking their life by working with these highly explosive chemicals. The chemical TNT was made into the explosive at Royal Ordnance Filling factories (ROFs). Amy Dale, who is researching munitions factories for her PhD, said at ROFs ‘they would take the casing, fill it with powder, and put down a detonator on top and that had to be tapped down. If they tapped too hard, it would detonate’. This could cause loss of limbs, burns, blindness, or even death.
Women who manufactured TNT were often referred to as ‘canary girls’. The TNT caused the women to contract jaundice. This is a condition which causes the skin to turn a lurid shade of bright yellow. Nancy Evans, who worked in one of these factories in her youth, quoted that ‘We were yellow, it penetrated your skin. Your hair also turned blonde’. It was sometimes only temporary, however, it could be fatal. This condition wasn’t just skin deep. Any babies that were born to ‘canary girls’ would have the same horrible yellow skin that their mothers have.
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