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Women and war

Women and war

The collections of the Modern Records Centre - in particular the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association - include unique documents which provide an insight into the involvement and changing perception of women during the First World War. Some of the highlights from the hundred documents digitised to commemorate the First World War centenary are described below.


'How girls can help in time of war', 23 November 1914

There will be many sad days this winter. Our homes must be as cheery and as beautiful as possible...

Produced in the early months of the war, this leaflet from the Young Women's Christian Association suggests ways in which girls and young women can aid the war effort. Suggested activities include sending home-made peppermint creams and mittens to servicemen, decorating the home with cheery flowers and pictures bought from the publisher of the Daily Mail, making a scrapbook (particularly recommended for invalids), and telling old people about the progress of the war ("if you can borrow the invalid’s war album..., all the better").

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/64/7]


'Patriotism of women: Lord Kitchener's appeal', [1914]

At the bottom of your heart you may know that you are the danger. Fight yourself, then, for your country’s sake, and help the men who go forth to fight our country’s battles

In this appeal, published by the League of Honour, the Secretary of State for War calls for women to show their patriotism by not leading soldiers astray with alcoholic drink, as this is "helping and encouraging him to betray his manhood and squander his precious strength". It includes the medically dubious statement that "if it is their fate to be wounded — this is the solemn truth — those who have lived clean lives, and who do not drink, have ten times more chance than the others of pulling through."

Another League of Honour appeal - 'To the women and girls of England' by Louise Hume Creighton - is also available online, and requests women to be "brave and patient and pure" rather than "giddy and unseemly in their conduct towards the soldiers".

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document references: MSS.243/64/41 and MSS.243/64/49]


An appeal to women workers who are taking men's places during this period of national crisis, undated

Women's task in this great crisis is a heavy one. They must suffer sorrow for the loss of brave men in battle; they must care for the children and preserve their own strength, so that the children to be born shall be strong and able citizens fit for the work of repairing the ravages of war; they must bear a large share of the burdens of industry and commerce; they must close up the ranks of the male workers where they have been broken; and to these tasks they must bring the determination to preserve for the future what the free combination of the workers has gained in the past

This appeal was issued by the War Emergency Workers' National Committee and signed by prominent women in the labour and trade union movement. It calls upon women to fight for "equal conditions and equal wages" and not work under "sweated conditions" as "while men are fighting abroad, you must uphold the flag at home".

[From the 'Miscellaneous collection'; document reference: MSS.21/525]


YWCA war time work

'Y.W.C.A. war time work', [1915]

A new power of resistance to fatigue has shown itself in industrial women 'in a way comparable with the spirit of their men at the front'... I think it is mainly due to the ideal for which the women are now working

As more and more men were absorbed into the armed forces, women took their places in industry. This leaflet provides statistical data on the number of women in employment and appeals for funding for "social work" amongst the women workers - including the provision of accommodation, recreation rooms, temperance canteens and training courses in suitably womanly skills such as cooking, first aid and dressmaking.

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/14/22/9]


Annual report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for the year 1915

To myself, a managing foreman in a great shell factory said with emphasis, “There is more in this than people think, women have been too much kept back”

The annual report comments on the introduction of female labour into occupations previously restricted to men, and includes a special supplement which examines the 'effect of the second year of war on industrial employment of women and girls'. As well as looking at the introduction of new welfare measures in the workplace, the supplementary report also comments on the attitudes of employers to their women workers.

[From the archives of the National Union of Teachers; document reference: MSS.179/1/13/6]


Letter on proposals to introduce women workers, 22 June 1916

They are all throug the shopes in the yard when they can get them in...

The 'dilution' of the workforce by women workers during the First World War was resisted by some trade unionists, particularly when the new 'unskilled' employees were willing to work for lower wages or were employed in jobs usually limited to experienced workers. This letter of complaint (with non-standard spelling) was written by Thomas Kitchen, secretary of the Barrow branch of the Federation of Sailmakers of Great Britain and Ireland, to the union's head office. He asks for advice on how to stop "this cheap labour" being employed at Vickers shipyard.

[From the archives of the Federation of Sailmakers of Great Britain and Ireland; document reference: MSS.87/3/11/18]


'The position of women after the war', 1916

It is not to be tolerated that Parliament should deal with such questions as conscription, protection, the care of maternity, improved marriage laws, temperance, etc., without the special contribution which women's experience can make and the guarantee that their interests will be considered

This report was presented to the Joint Committee on Labour Problems after the War, a body made up of trade union and Labour Party representatives. Subjects covered by the report include the effect of war on women in industry, the conditions to be in place on declaration of peace and a proposed reconstruction policy, including factory legislation, trade union organisation, housing, maternity care and political enfranchisement.

[From the 'Miscellaneous series' of records, document reference: MSS.21/1546]


Circular regarding "the effect of the present world crisis upon the womanhood and girlhood of the nations", 1 February 1917

It is becoming increasingly clear that the forces making for social and economic change in the position of women have received an immense impetus from the war, and that women and girls in many nations have reached at a bound an economic opportunity and a social freedom for which they are scarcely prepared

This circular was issued by the World's Young Women's Christian Association in an attempt to prompt debate about how the organisation should cope with "the need of girlhood in this generation when the old foundations of life seem crumbling" and appear relevant to the new generation at a time when "the old conventions and restraints are thrust aside, and the new sense of independence and freedom expresses itself in very many on the one hand in a disavowal of religion, and on the other in a reckless search for pleasure and excitement." The suggestion that the YWCA should move in a more "worldly" direction caused divisions within the movement.

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/14/23/3]


'May we have huts too?', undated

May we have huts too?

I have just returned from France, and I can say, without hesitation, there is no more urgent need at the moment than the provision of some club for these splendid women during their off duty time. The Y.W.C.A. Huts are not a luxury, they are an absolute necessity

During the First World War, the Young Women's Christian Association launched their "National Appeal for £183,000 to provide clubs, huts and hostels for the army of 1,421,000 girl and women war workers". The clubs were intended to provide a "happy wholesome environment... with rest, recreational, and educational facilities, and social friendship, where girls may associate with their men friends under proper supervision". The leaflet includes comment on the effects of the war on women, including the suggestion that "girls are passing through a great transitionary period, and woman is either being made or marred by these new conditions".

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/14/22/4]


'The YWCA in France', [1919]

Before the Armistice many of them came straight down from the line, in a very nerve-strained and homesick condition, and the little informal gatherings and the wholesome friendship which they found in the Hut, has, in the opinion of the Chaplain, been the real salvation of many of them

After the end of the war, the Young Women's Christian Association compiled a report on their provision of services to women serving in France, including members of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps / Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps, nurses, ambulance drivers, office staff and cooks. The report focuses particularly on the role of the 'huts' - small social clubs which were intended to be cheery home-from-homes that could provide respite from the stress of active service, together with moral guidance. The report, quoting from letters sent by Club leaders and attendees, describes the types of services provided for the women, including dances (with invited "men friends"), concerts, French classes, religious services, and the sale of refreshments and clothing.

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/14/19]


'Hold the light steady', [1918?]

Others, most unwillingly, will be obliged to give up posts of responsibility, or work they love to become of no account at home. Some it may be will have to forfeit a precious sense of independence... and how it will rankle!

The title for this leaflet, issued by the Young Women's Christian Association, was taken from the announcement of the armistice to the US Congress by President Woodrow Wilson on 11 November 1918. The leaflet comments on the difficult adjustments to be made by both men and women to a post-war life (perhaps in comparison "dull, and boring, and disappointing") and appeals for them to follow the Christian ideals of the YWCA.

[From the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/14/22/6]