Wednesday, 31 May 2017

"no women taking on a man’s work will be receiving a man’s wage" ............stories from the Great War

“Women will most certainly have to take the place of men.  

There is already a shortage of men workers in Manchester  but so far as I am aware no women taking on a man’s work will be receiving a man’s wage.“*

Now it is easy to fall into that view of the Great War which portrays women as coming out of the shadows and somehow being liberated by the conflict.

It is an attractive idea and of course has some substance.

Women were employed in a whole range of occupations some of which were totally new to them but in the process faced opposition from male colleagues.

In 1915 the secretary of the National Agricultural Labourers’ & Rural Worker’s Union wrote “I am to point out that we shall oppose to the uttermost the employment of women in Agriculture and if the policy outlined is pursued our 300 Branches scattered throughout the country will undoubtedly have something to say on the matter, and I am quite certain trouble lies ahead.  

We oppose the employment of women in the Agricultural Industry on moral and economic grounds.”** 

And a few months later the union wrote of one woman employed on a farm in Shropshire who “worked for days in succession driving a pair of horses attached to harrows or other agricultural implements , to cultivate the land.  This woman receives one shilling a day in wages without any other allowance s for the service s which she renders to the farmer.”***

Of course it might be easy to dismiss such evidence as a one off, but as Annot Robinson pointed in March 1915, “no women taking on a man’s work will be receiving a man’s wage” and going on to reveal that “the Women’s Emergency Corps have undertaken an enquiry  to find in what trades women could replace men .  

It has not found a single instance where women’s wages have been increased to meet the rise in the cost of living.

In the majority of cases a percentage has been taken off their wages and the amount employers are offering for clerks for instance is generally about 5 shillings a week less than the current  rates before the war.”

Nor had things improved a year later when she reported that few employer’s in the Manchester munition factories were following the government’s recommendations of a flat rate for women of at least a £ a week.

So that much advanced idea that women gained from the war has to be judged more carefully as does that equally hawked view that a grateful nation rewarded the contribution made by women by finally granting them the vote for in reality the extension of the franchise was limited.

Now for some this will not be a revelation but for others I think it will, and so I shall be revisiting working conditions in the Great War, drawing on the correspondence of the War Emergency Workers National Committee and looking more closely at Annot Robinson who was a remarkable women.****

Pictures; the Tube Factory, the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, 1918,  from the collection of Mark Flynn Women Munitions workers Belsize works, Openshaw, 1918 m08093, and  Women working in a munitions factory, date unknown, m08096   courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council, 

*Mrs Annot Robinson, Daily Citizen, March 20 1915

**letter to the War Emergency Workers National Committee, February 27 1915, archives People’s History Museum

*** letter to the War Emergency Workers National Committee, April 26 1915

****War Emergency Workers National Committee,

Letters to the War Emergency Workers National Committee, courtesy of the Labour History Archives & Study Centre,  at the People’s History Museum, Manchester,

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