Second World War impact on the status of women in Britain. What impact did the Second World War have on the status of women in Britain?
The second world war started in 1939 and changed everything for women. But it was a case of two steps forwards, one step back. With few exceptions, women stayed on the home front.
In 1941, Ernest Bevin proposed conscription for women between 18 and 50 who had no children under 14. They were required to do work of national importance – such as joining the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, the Land Army or nursing services. Otherwise, there was crucial factory or transport work.
To start with, conscription was controversial but, on the whole, everyone accepted it with goodwill. However, there were surprises along the way. For instance, women in uniform were thought to be sexually “easy” because they were wearing trousers and out on the streets doing work traditionally done by men.
The experience of my mother, Olivier Bell, was absolutely typical, and her story was brave and moving. Now 101 years old, she started off as an air-raid warden, walking around Islington, north London, wearing a tin hat and telling people to get into their shelters. Later, she got a job on the picture desk of the Ministry of Information. All this time she was in love with a married man in the RAF. In 1943, he was killed on a training flight and the bottom dropped out of her world. I don’t think she ever got over it; but, she said, “one just had to survive”.
Britain’s wartime women gained a new sense of power. There were women who could talk down aircrews, break codes, track battleships, drive 10-tonne trucks and save lives. No concession was made, however, for the fact that women had to go on running the home. After a 10-hour day in a factory making aircraft wings, a woman would still have to shop, clean, feed her family on rations and “make do and mend”. After the war, the home was where they were expected to return.
In 1945, a group of rightwing women formed the British Housewives’ League to protest against rationing; at their peak they had 100,000 members.