They also serve: British women and the Second World War

Juliette Pattinson
School of History, University of Kent, Canterbury, U.K.


This essay gives you an introductory view of the topic of war and social change on the British Home Front by using the changing position of women as a case study. It serves as a guide to the subject, and to the resources available here through the Taylor and Francis digitization of a large number of National Archive files. It is designed to introduce you to just some of the wonderful source material on offer in this collection, including film and radio transcripts, reports and magazines produced by women's organizations, and official documents, to encourage you to explore the archive for yourselves. Hopefully this essay will help to guide your study using this rich collection.


The Second World War demanded the mobilization of every resource, economic as well as human, and affected everyone, civilians as well as soldiers. The unprecedented devastation, the protracted nature of the conflict, and the (near) universalism of wartime experiences, such as aerial bombing, mobilization, rationing, and evacuation, engendered societal change in Britain, albeit one that was limited and temporary. Wartime commentators emphasized the levelling effect that war had on social differences, creating a shared experience and a strong sense of national cohesion, bridging the divide between the classes, uniting the country against a common enemy, and ushering in new social policies and a Labour landslide victory in 1945. This desire for a different kind of society after the war was articulated in the summer of 1940 by a Scottish preacher: "no more unemployment; no more poverty; no more under-feeding; and no more under-clothing."[1] This sentiment was also depicted in the short film Dawn Guard (1941), in which a member of the Home Guard asserts:

There must be no more chaps hanging around for work that don't come – no more slums neither – no more filthy, dirty back streets – no more half-starved kids with no room to play in … We can't go back to the old ways of living ... We've got to all pull together … We found out in this war as how we were all neighbours.[2]

This unity in common endeavor is also apparent in a report on morale in the summer of 1940. In Wales it was observed that "People say 'we are all together now with our boys,'" while in the north of England, "there is a distinct sense of comfort among wives and mothers that we are all sharing the danger together along with the men-folk."[3] This shift to the left and the sense of being "all in it together" have led to the British experience of the Second World War being regarded as a "People's War" (albeit the fragility of this imagined concept has been exposed by Rose 2003). Perhaps the most marked wartime change was the influx of women, especially older and married women, into areas of the labor market which had been largely male-dominated prior to the war, and the subsequent "dilution" of the established labor force. This, combined with the concomitant higher wages and greater social opportunities presented by work, has led to an animated debate among historians as to whether the war emancipated women (for an overview of the debates, see Summerfield 1988, 1993). Examining the experience of British women on the Home Front through this archive can help us interrogate the strength of the causal link between war and social change and consider whether women truly were liberated by their wartime participation.

British women during the war

In the first three months of the war, as 1.25 million men were called up to the armed services, thousands of women were made redundant. A number of the key industries employing women, including textiles, clothing, lace-making, hosiery, and the boot and shoe industries, contracted as production was reduced significantly. During the Phoney War period, the government made no provision to reallocate women, preferring instead to absorb unemployed and older men into the labor market to make up this shortage. The government's reluctance to deploy women was partly because of concerns about opposition from the unions which wanted to protect "jobs for the boys" and partly because of a presumption that women would make a similar limited contribution as in the First World War.

In late May 1940, as the British Expeditionary Force was being routed in France and as an attempted invasion of Britain appeared imminent, consideration was given to what ought to happen "if a major disaster occurs." One recommendation was that a statement be issued immediately to the army noting that soldiers ought not be deterred in opening fire on German parachutists if they "use[d] women as a screen," that "no stigma should be attached to shooting women in such circumstances," and that "any chivalrous element left in warfare should be exploded at once."[4] Clearly many women were under no illusion what would happen if the country was invaded. When a 60-year-old female ARP worker was informed that she would be shot if Britain fell as had happened in Holland, she stoically replied, "that's all right, as long as they don't bungle it."[5] Other women preferred to take things into their own hands: a report from Hertfordshire stated that "three women have decided to shoot themselves when the Germans come, with the rifles their husbands have got from the Local Defence Volunteers,"[6] while some Cornish women were reported to have enrolled in the LDV to coast watch.[7] When a British pilot bailed out of his aircraft following a dogfight during the Battle of Britain, an entire village "turned out armed with picks to deal with a supposed enemy – the women turned out too"[8] and a female voluntary worker reported modestly, "One German parashootist [sic] captured by me yesterday."[9] This mirrors the plot of the short film Miss Grant Goes to the Door (1940), in which two elderly sisters outwit a German spy posing as a British officer. This was part of the Ministry of Information's instructional campaign about what to do in the event of an invasion; the viewer is reminded that "The front line's in every home nowadays."[10] This short, like several others, was synonymous with the mood of 1940 that the country "could take it."[11]

The majority of the early Ministry of Information films aimed at women emphasized their responsibilities in the home. They Also Serve (1940), directed by Ruby Grierson, one of the few female filmmakers, celebrates the unassuming heroism of a housewife who ensures her daughter gets up and off to work on time having had breakfast, her husband is fed a meal on his return from working the night shift and given a massage before bedtime, and her working neighbor's washing is undertaken. The housewife's emotional and physical labor enables three individuals to perform their skilled war work. This film was produced prior to any form of female conscription and was concerned with showing women in their traditional role as wife and mother. Indeed, housewives had an important role to play as the transcripts of five years of the BBC radio series Kitchen Front make evident.[12] This collaboration between the Ministry of Food and the BBC resulted in five-minute weekday programs, broadcast at 8.15am from mid-June 1940 onwards, providing guidance on recipes, health, and housekeeping. In addition to preparing meals for war workers on limited rations, women in the home could join the Housewives' Service, formed in late 1938, and engage in civil defense thereby "making use of the little spare time that is left from her duties in the home to co-operate in the work of defending the civil population against the enemy and of [k]eeping up their morale."[13]

Calls for female mobilization were growing. A cross-party WomanPower Committee of MPs including Irene Ward, Edith Summerskill, and Nancy Astor was formed in May 1940 and criticized the government for failing to deploy women. Reports from June 1940, compiled a month after Churchill and a new coalition Government had taken office, asked "What contribution can women make to the vast reorganisation of industry planned by the Minister of Labour?"[14] It notes that there is "considerable evidence that some form of conscription for women would be welcomed" as there was a "general feeling for a more intensive use of Britain's woman power, as well as its man power."[15] But there was a class dimension at play: it was hoped that the Emergency Powers Act would mobilize young women "particularly of the leisured class," many of whom are "doing absolutely nothing but amusing themselves."[16] As the war developed into a protracted conflict, the state needed to mobilize all its manpower resources and thus required the involvement of women of all classes in all spheres of activity. A report by William Beveridge concluded that 1.5 million female workers would need to be drafted into the workforce in order to maintain production. Government training centers equipped women with requisite skills to undertake war-related roles and in April 1941 the Registration for Employment Order made women the subject of an official direction to undertake war work. With fewer than 100,000 women volunteering by the summer, it was recognized that compulsion was required and legislation was enacted to expand the supply of women. In December 1941, Britain began a measured and calculated policy of conscripting women to undertake war work, which during the course of the war would go further than any other country, including the Soviet Union. At Ernest Bevin's insistence, women were given a choice – they could opt for one of the auxiliary services or select industrial work, civil defense, or the Women's Land Army. The passing of the National Service (No. 2) Act in December 1941, compelled single women aged between twenty and thirty who were not engaged in essential work, as categorized by the continually revised Schedule of Reserved Occupations, to register at their local Labour Exchanges. Its rationale was to promote the absorption of women into essential wartime work in order to facilitate the release of men into the forces. The age range was later extended to draw in single women up to forty, married women without children became liable for conscription, and in 1944 the last group to be called up were married women with older children (for a discussion of mobilization, see Summerfield 1989).

Filmmakers played their part in trying to attract women into the war effort (see Gledhill and Swanson 1996). Two box office hits, The Gentle Sex and Millions Like Us, both from 1943, were produced to address poor recruitment and low morale in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) and industry. Five-minute films (called "shorts") were also produced which could be scripted, filmed, and distributed in a matter of weeks, putting across messages that the government deemed necessary. Balloon Site 568 (1942), a recruitment film for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) co-scripted by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, follows the recruitment and training of a former shop assistant, secretary, barmaid, and housemaid. "I wanted to do something much more worthwhile than being a housemaid," asserts Scotswoman Ruth McDonald. The recruiting officer asserts, "[W]e want girls like you to man the balloons and to release as many men as possible for other work."[17] The theme of freeing up men to undertake combatant duties was well established. Airwoman, a short from June 1941, noted that "whatever sort of work they undertake, these women are releasing men for other duties." The film shows women, whose "previous occupations were many and varied," preparing aircrews' rations while the men were being briefed for their missions. They are assured that this is "one of the most worthwhile jobs an airwoman can do – to look after these hungry men."[18] Other auxiliary services also utilized this common trope: WRNS, a short recruitment film made for the Women's Royal Naval Service, states "our work's essential to the Navy. Every week more women join the Wrens. They free men from offices to ships, from shore jobs to the sea."[19] This message of releasing men was also disseminated in the poster series "Join the Wrens and free a man for the fleet."

In addition to replacing men in non-combatant roles in the services so that men could fight, women also substituted for men in industrial work. As the film Total War in Britain (1945) makes evident, in "fill[ing] the gaps in industry ... the women of Britain did a man's job. They did a fighting man's job, with a fighting man's courage." Trades that previously required young men to undertake lengthy apprenticeships to gain the requisite competences were now broken up into smaller tasks. This process of fragmentation and deskilling, which often resulted in repetitive and monotonous work, meant that cheap female labor could be utilized, thereby releasing men to undertake more highly skilled labor or enlist in the forces. A report from a Bristol aircraft factory noted "there is practically no work which could not be carried out by women, after a fortnight's tuition, under an experienced overseer"[20] and the voiceover in the short film Night Shift (1942), which follows a group of female workers in a Royal Ordnance factory producing guns for tanks, asserts "Blondie's been on that six months now and she's as good as any man at her job." As Mass Observation noted in its People in Production report (1942), "the women are helping the men and temporarily taking over for the men to do something more important" (Mass Observation 1942, 106, 112; emphasis in original).

As a consequence of these efforts, an unprecedented level of female mobilization occurred during the war with over seven million British women engaging in wartime work by 1943, 470,000 of whom were in the auxiliary services. There were huge changes in the gender composition of the labor force and this was facilitated by the greater numbers of married and older women entering. Whereas only 16% of working women were married in 1931, by 1943, the figure was 43% and while 41% of female workers were under 25 in 1931, it had dropped to 27% in 1943 because of the influx of older women workers (Summerfield 1993, 68, 73). The areas of the labor market in which women were located shifted dramatically too; the numbers of women employed in engineering for example increased sixfold from under 100,000 to over 600,000 and opportunities in previously "stagnant" regions such as Wales increased considerably (Summerfield 1989, 29).

Given that the greatest barrier to women undertaking work outside the home was childcare, one of the ways the state could assist women to contribute to the war effort was through the provision of nurseries. A June 1940 report on Birmingham noted "the necessity for day nurseries near the works" which, if provided, "would release a large amount of labour," while in Manchester it was noted: "There is a definite demand for creches for factory workers. Young married women would go back to factories where they worked as girls, if they could park their children."[21] In October 1940, there were only 14 nurseries but with Bevin's support, 1,345 nurseries had been opened by July 1943 (Summerfield 1989, 74). This was still wholly inadequate, however. Another impediment to working was the need to shop for food. Long shifts, shortages, and rationing meant that women were absenting themselves from work in order to shop. And of course, unlike today's supermarkets, women had to visit each specialist shop in turn which took considerable time. Consequently, the Ministry of Food in collaboration with the Minister of Labour devised a policy to enable working wives time to shop (see Summerfield 1983).

While these policies may suggest a social revolution in attitudes towards women took place, lasting social change was illusory. Gender and class relations were not permanently altered by the war experience and postwar reversals expose these gains as temporary measures purely for the duration of the war. Ongoing industrial action, the poor organization of the evacuation scheme, the perception that upper- and middle-class women were evading conscription into factories and the services by undertaking voluntary work, and the concentration of bombs on industrial targets where the working classes lived indicated that class tensions were not reduced. Indeed, the opportunity to mix with people from different backgrounds was as likely to bolster class boundaries as to dismantle them. As Angus Calder asserts, "The effect of the war was not to sweep society on to a new course, but to hasten its progress along the old grooves" (Calder 1971, 17).

Indeed, within this archive we can gather evidence that makes us question the war's transformative effects. Sources point to a continuing gendered division of labor and ongoing gender tensions, exemplified by unequal pay, differentiated compensation, and harassment. A report on civil defense for example noted that "there are considerably fewer paid women wardens than men." And a separation of roles along gender lines persisted: "inside jobs" such as typing were "given to women" and social welfare tasks, such as staffing mobile canteens, rest centers, clothing depots, and rehousing bureaux, "is definitely recognised to be a woman's job," whereas roles "that call for strenuous physical effort" such as stretcher parties and rescue were "reserved for men." Women who served in the National Fire Service "have only helped to man the pumps and fight fires in very special emergencies."[22] Even women who joined the auxiliary services found themselves undertaking traditional women's work such as typing, cooking, and cleaning. And given that equal pay was not implemented until 1970, women were paid much less than men. Those engaged in Air Raid Precaution (ARP) such as firefighting, first aid, staffing control centers, and serving as wardens were paid £2.7.0 per week whereas men took home £3.10.0.[23] Women entering previously male occupations and work environments often experienced chauvinism, as the short film Land Girl attests to. Betty recalls, "they were prejudiced against me from the very start… In fact, they hated the very idea of having a Land Girl."[24] Although she wins over the farmer, the inclusion of dialogue relating to his initial skepticism in a recruitment film for the Women's Land Army is striking and indicates the prevalence of such sentiments. Other short recruitment films, including They Keep the Wheels Turning which follows a group of female garage mechanics, also acknowledge the discrimination experienced by young women. Uniformed women were also the butt of highly derogatory remarks: the Women's Land Army were said to work with their "backs to the land," the ATS was derided as the "Auxiliary Tarts Service" and members dismissed as "officers' groundsheets," the WAAF acronym apparently also stood for "Women All Fuck," and to the maxim "up with the lark" was added "to bed with a Wren."

Changes that occurred were necessary during the war but were swiftly reversed when the economic and social needs of the nation no longer required women in such large numbers in the labor force. Indeed, given mass demobilization, the closure of nurseries, and post-war pro-natalist discourses which emphasized that a woman's place was in the home, a conservative backlash against women's wartime roles can be detected. This has led Harold Smith to conclude that the war led to "the strengthening of traditional sex roles rather than the emergence of new ones" (Smith 1986, 225). Yet while structurally, there was little improvement that had any permanence, the war did have a lasting impact upon individuals. Penny Summerfield asserts: "As far as personal change was concerned, there is inescapable evidence in autobiographical testimony that numerous women felt that their lives had been transformed during the war, even if things went 'back to normal' afterwards" (Summerfield 1989, vii). The archive provides a wealth of sources to interrogate these notions.

[1] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, August 9, 1940.

[2] INF 6/442, Dawn Guard (1941).

[3] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, June 29, 1940.

[4] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, May 29, 1940.

[5] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, May 21, 1940.

[6] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, June 21, 1940.

[7] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, July 13, 1940.

[8] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, July 29, 1940.

[9] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, July 13, 1940.

[10] INF 6/429, Miss Grant Goes to the Door (1940).

[11] INF 6/328, London Can Take It! (1940).

[12] MAF 102/2, "Kitchen Front" broadcasts (1940); MAF 102/3, "Kitchen Front" broadcasts (1941); MAF 102/4, "Kitchen Front" broadcasts (1942); MAF 102/5, "Kitchen Front" broadcasts (1943); MAF 102/6, "Kitchen Front" broadcasts (1944); MAF 102/7, "Kitchen Front" broadcasts (1945).

[13] HO 199/401, "Women's Work in Civil Defence" (1942).

[14] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, June 8, 1940.

[15] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, June 15, 1940.

[16] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, June 15, 1940.

[17] INF 6/452, Balloon Site 568 (1942).

[18] INF 6/437, Airwoman (1941).

[19] INF 6/451, WRNS (1941).

[20] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, May 29, 1940.

[21] HO 199/452, WVS weekly confidential letters upon morale, June 15, 1940.

[22] HO 199/401, "Women's Work in Civil Defence" (1942). Emphasis in original.

[23] HO 199/401, "Women's Work in Civil Defence" (1942).

[24] INF 6/499, Land Girl (1941).


Calder, Angus. 1971. The People's War: 1939-1945. London: Panther.

Gledhill, Christine, and Gillian Swanson. 1996. Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mass Observation. 1942. People in Production: An Enquiry into British War Production. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Rose, Sonya. 2003. Which People's War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Harold L. 1986. War and Social Change: British Society in the Second World War. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Summerfield, Penny. 1983. "Women, Work and Welfare: A Study of Child Care and Shopping in Britain in the Second World War." Journal of Social History 17 (2): 249–269.

Summerfield, Penny. 1988. "Women, War and Social Change: Women in Britain in World War II." In Total War and Social Change, edited by Arthur Marwick. London: Macmillan, 95-118.

Summerfield, Penny. 1989. Women Workers in the Second World War: Production and Patriarchy in Conflict. London: Routledge.

Summerfield, Penny. 1993. "Approaches to Women and Social Change in the Second World War." In What Difference Did the War Make? edited by Brian Brivati and Harriet Jones. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 63-79.

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