Photographs of Women at Work during the First World War

August 03, 2021

Black and white photograph of a white, dark-haired woman agricultural worker in a long dress and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and with a white hat standing in a field and sharpening a scythe. She stands facing the right side of the image, but turns her head and smiles at the camera.

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.

Photograph of a thin and tall booklet with grey cover printed in black, "Women's War Work, issued by the War Office September 1916. London... Price One Shilling."

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!)

Close-up of a tall printed page titled "detailed list of processes in which women are successfully employed" with lists and sublists, for example "matches and firelighters: box and case making, chopping up fire lighters, tin lining..."

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:

Black and white photo of a woman in overalls with her shirt sleeves rolled up and a handkerchief on her head shovels coal into a large, industrial furnace.

Brewery workers, barley room:

Black and white photo of three white women in dark coveralls and with their hair pinned up, standing in a street and holding brooms, a handcart, and a shovel.

Women wagon washers:

Black and white photo depicting a line of seven white women in dark clothing with round, brimmed hats, holding brushes in their hands and with buckets on the floor.Many of them are smiling, laughing, and looking around, while one rubs her face with the bak of her hand..

Oiling and hanging up leather in drying sheds:

Black and white photograph of a tannery, a large room with low wooden beams and large vats. Seven white women are working at various tasks, including hanging up large pieces of leather from the beams to dry.

Putting the finishing touches to a motor cycle:

Black and white photograph of a young white woman in a dress and shirtwaist with her hair pulled back loosely sitting down and working on the chassis of a motorcycle with a wrench..
Conveying leather from dipping beds on barrows:
Black and white photograph of eight white women working in a tannery wearing leather aprons. One woman in the foreground faces forward with a cart in her hands and behind her back, which another woman is loading with pieces of leather. A number of women are visible in the background.
Women in newspaper offices– girls pulling proofs and correcting type:
Black and white photographs of two white women in dresses standing on either side of a small hand-press. One woman has both hands on the press and appears to be taking an impression, while the other stands in front of a case of type and selects pieces.