Women and the First World War

On 4th August, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. The Women's Freedom League disagreed and continued with its campaign for the vote.

Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel Pankhurst, played an important role as speakers at meetings to recruit young men into the army. Others like Sylvia Pankhurst were opposed to the war and refused to carry out this role. Some members of the WSPU disagreed with the decision to call off militant activities. For example, Kitty Marion was so angry she went to the USA to help American women in their fight for the vote.

A woman conductor on a London bus.
A woman conductor on a London bus.

As men left jobs to fight overseas, they were replaced by women. Octavia Wilberforce and Louisa Martindale from Brighton worked as doctors treating wounded British soldiers. Margery Corbett Ashby was married with a young child and so was restricted in the role she could play in the war effort. However, she was active in Danehill where she ran a school for local children. Clementina Black and Hilda Martindale continued their work trying to protect women workers in London.

Women filled many jobs brought into existence by wartime needs. As a result the number of women employed increased from 3,224,600 in July, 1914 to 4,814,600 in January 1918. Nearly 200,000 women were employed in government departments. Half a million became clerical workers in private offices. Women worked as conductors on trams and buses. A quarter of a million worked on the land. The greatest increase of women workers was in engineering. Over 700,000 of these women worked in the highly dangerous munitions industry. Industries that had previously excluded women now welcomed them. There was a particular demand for women to do heavy work such as unloading coal, stoking furnaces and building ships.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In her book Unshackled, Christabel Pankhurst explained how she responded to the news in 1914 that Britain and Germany were at war.

War was the only course for our country to take. This was national militancy. As Suffragettes we could not be pacifists at any price. Mother and I declared support of our country. We declared an armistice with the Government and suspended militancy for the duration of the war. We offered our service to the country and called upon all members to do likewise… As Mother said, 'What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!'… Mother seemed for the time to dismiss her ill-health in her ardour for the national cause. She spoke to Servicemen on the war front and to Servicewomen on the home front. She called for wartime military conscription for men, believing that this was democratic and equitable, and that it would enable a more ordered and effective use of the nation's man power.

(2) Sylvia Pankhurst disagreed with the way the WSPU supported the government during the First World War.

When I read in the newspapers that Mrs. Pankhurst and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign, I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nation… We set up a League of Rights for Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relatives to strive for better pensions and allowances. We also campaigned for pay equal to that of men. Votes for Women were never permitted to fall into the background. We worked continuously for peace, in face of the bitterest opposition from old enemies, and sometimes unhappily from old friends.

(3) Millicent Fawcett made a speech to NUWSS at the beginning of the war.

Women your country needs you… let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claim to it be recognised or not.

(4) Selina Cooper was a member of the Clitheroe Suffrage Society when war was declared in 1914. Selina Cooper, a pacifist, disagreed with the NUWSS leadership on the war, and the Clitheroe Suffrage Society sent a letter to the local newspaper explaining their position.

The impression is given that this and other countries are at war with one another. They are not. Their governments, composed of men and responsible only to the men of each country, and backed by the majority of men who have caught the war and glory fever, have declared war on one another. The women of all these countries have not been consulted as to whether they would have war or not. If men deliberately shut out women, the peace-loving sex, from their rightful share in ruling their countries, then all the appeals and sentiments and prayers will be of no avail in preventing hostilities.

(5) Annie Kenney agreed to support the WSPU policy on the First World War. She explained her views in memories of a militant.

Orders came from Christabel Pankhurst in Paris: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war.

(6) Isabella Ford disagreed with the Nation Union of Women's Suffrage Societies policy of support for the government during the First World War. Isabella Ford believed that women's groups should use all their efforts to obtain a negotiated peace. On 12 March 1915, an article on the subject appeared in the Leeds Weekly Citizen.

Women have more to lose in the horrible business than some men have; for they often lose more than life itself when their men are killed; since they lose all that makes life worth living for, all that makes for happiness… the destruction of the human race too is felt more bitterly and more deeply by those who through suffering and anguish have brought the human race into the world.

(7) Women's Freedom League refused the call off its campaign for women's suffrage. Charlotte Despard, the leader of the Women's Freedom League was a pacifist who refused to become involved in the war effort. In 1916 she made a speech explaining her views.

The great discovery of the war is that the Government can force upon the capitalistic world the superlative claims of the common cause… The Board of Education has concluded that one in six childhood was so physically and mentally defective as to be unable to derive reasonable benefit from the education, which the State provides… My message to the government is 'take over the milk as you have taken over the munitions'.

(8) Punch Magazine (June 1916)

It is quite impossible to keep pace with all the new incarnations of women in war-time - 'bus-conductress, ticket-collector, lift-girl, club waitress, post-woman, bank clerk, motor-driver, farm-labourer, guide, munition maker. There is nothing new in the function of ministering angel: the myriad nurses in hospital here or abroad are only carrying out, though in greater numbers than ever before, what has always been woman's mission. But whenever he sees one of these new citizens, or hears fresh stories of their address and ability, Mr. Punch is proud and delighted. Perhaps in the past, even in the present, he may have been, or even still is, a little given to chaff Englishwomen for some of their foibles, and even their aspirations. But he never doubted now splendid they were at heart; he never for a moment supposed they would be anything but ready and keen when the hour of need struck.

(9) Margaret Bondfield was opposed to the British involvement in the First World War. In March 1917 she faced a hostile crowd at a meeting arranged by Selina Cooper in Nelson.

I know there is not one member of this howling crows that would willingly send their men-folk to an unnecessary death, but that is what you are doing by your attitude… Russia has shown us the way out, and has asked the people of this country to take our stand on the side of democracy and peace… The people who are asking us to save our children today because there is a war on are the people who have doomed us to live under conditions which cause our babies to die.

(10) Hannah Mitchell was one of the suffragettes who disagreed with Emmeline Pankhurst's support of the British government during the First World War. Mitchell explained her views in her book The Hard Way Up.

Some of the women were disappointed with Mrs. Pankhurst's support of the war. Personally, I felt the times were so grave that all human beings must decide for themselves where their duty lay. My own views had crystallised into definite opposition, and I spent my scanty leisure in supporting the anti-war organizations, the ILP, No Conscription Fellowship and the Women's International League.

My son had withstood all the recruiting appeals to the first months, although, like other generous young hearts, I think he was tempted to volunteer… As the time drew near for his call-up I felt I couldn't bear to live if I knew he had killed another woman's son, but it was for him to decide, and I saw he was slowly making up his mind… I was present when he appeared before a Conscientious Objector's Tribunal. He had prepared a written statement setting forth his objections, and his willingness to serve in any capacity, which did not violate his conscience… Although he said little of his experiences during his two and a half years' service, I knew he had suffered in spirit, and felt the tragedy of war very keenly… He was not the happy, carefree lad of pre-war years.

(11) Margaret Bondfield, A Life's Work (1948)

In March 1915 the Board of Trade issued a proclamation asking every woman, who was able and willing to take employment, to register at the Labour Exchange. This ill-considered action threatened to flood the labour market with volunteers willing to take employment on any terms, regardless of the consequences to the normal wage-earner. The Workers' War Emergency Committee held a conference presided over by Mary Macarthur at which a number of resolutions were adopted.

We pointed out that in the interests of the higher patriotism no emergency action should be allowed unnecessary to depress the standard of living of the workers, or the standard of working conditions. We therefore asked: (1) That all women registering for war service should join the appropriate Trade Union; and that this be a condition for their employment for war service. (2) That men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.

(12) Evelyn Sharp, Unfinished Adventure (1933)

When militants and non-militants alike hastened to offer war service to the Government, no doubt many of them felt, if they thought about it at all, that this was the best way of helping their own cause. Certainly, by their four years' war work, they did prove the fallacy of the anti-suffragist' favourite argument, that women had no right to a voice in questions of peace and war because they took no part in it.

Personally, holding as I do the enfranchisement of women involved greater issues than could be involved in any war, even supposing that the objects of the Great War were those alleged, I cannot help regretting that any justification was given for the popular error which still sometimes ascribes the victory of the suffrage cause, in 1918, to women's war service. This assumption is true only in so far as gratitude to women offered an excuse to the anti-suffragists in the Cabinet and elsewhere to climb down with some dignity from a position that had become untenable before the war. I sometimes think that the art of politics consists in the provision of ladders to enable politicians to climb down from untenable positions.