Photographs of Women at Work during the First World War
Today the women workers of the Second World War – represented by Rosie the Riveter and the 'We Can Do It' poster – loom large in the popular consciousness. But fewer people are aware of the huge role that women played in the labor force during the First World War, working in a wide variety of previously male-dominated industries. We recently acquired a remarkable record of their importance on the home front in Britain: Women's War Work, a publication of the War Office that contains seventy-two evocative and rarely-seen photos of female labourers.
Very quickly after the outbreak of war it became clear that the enlistment of British working men would create shortages of munitions, equipment, and food, and that large numbers of women would need to move into jobs they had previously been restricted from performing.
Despite the reluctance of some officials, factory managers, and trade unions, “reports were conducted early on as to the suitability of women to meet the demands of such work. As early as 1915 the Ministry of Munitions Supply Committee made recommendations on the employment and remuneration of women on munitions work. This helped contribute to agreed suitable conditions by which a woman could be employed, and the War Office published several guides as to the employment of women” ("The Munitionettes and the Work of Women in the First World War”, National Records of Scotland).
Women’s War Work was one of these publications, appearing in 1916 and providing a detailed list of roles in which women had been “successfully employed in the temporary replacement of men”, not only in munitions manufacturing, but also in agriculture, portering and haulage, commercial cleaning, clerical work, and the production of everyday goods such as chemicals and fertiliser, soap, candles, ceramics and metalwork, clothing and textiles, food and drink, and paper goods, (including printing and book binding!)
The lists are accompanied by the contact details of officials who can assist in the recruitment of women workers, and, of course, the remarkable photos, which seem to have been included "as visual proof of the women’s abilities" ("The Munitionettes").
My favourite is the one at the top of this post, of the agricultural worker sharpening a scythe. But there are so many excellent shots. They often depict the workers in action, sometimes looking assertively or even cheekily toward the camera while performing a task. Some are beautifully composed, taking advantage of light and shadow in industrial spaces. Also of interest are the various wardrobe choices, which were tailored to the task at hand and frequently violated contemporary norms about women's wear.
Most of the photos are credited to various news agencies, including the Alfieri Picture Service, Topical Press Agency, and Central Press, so the individual photographers are unknown. But I do wonder if any of these were taken by women, and perhaps someday that question will be answered with archival research.
A woman stoker working at the furnaces of a large factory in south London:
Brewery workers, barley room:
Women wagon washers:
Oiling and hanging up leather in drying sheds:
Putting the finishing touches to a motor cycle:
- For more details, or to purchase our of copy of Women's War Work, please visit its page in our shop.
- You may also be interested in our other rare books on women's history and women in science and technology.
- Two excellent books on women at work during the First World War are Patricia Fara's A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War and Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines by Henrietta Heald.