Kate Adie, former BBC Chief News Correspondent discusses how the societal role of women changed during WW1.

Women in WW1 were photographed as never before. Glamorous images on posters to persuade women to join the war effort. Working class girls doing a ‘man’s job’ in heavy industry. Uniformed women astonishing the public by forming volunteer fire brigades and police patrols.  And ‘munitionettes’ – hefting huge shells and packing them with TNT – and wearing trousers.

The war saw women take up every kind of work hitherto seen as the preserve of men. They delivered the post, cleaned trains, became ‘conductorettes’ on omnibuses and trams.  They tarred roads, worked as navvies and wielded axes as ‘lumberjills.’ They were in the national spotlight every week, whereas before the war, only society grandes dames and actresses received such publicity.

Nurses looked romantic in their demure skirts and floating veils – but the reality of the war saw them pictured increasingly among the appallingly injured men.  And nearer the front lines – where females were never expected to be, volunteer ambulance drivers drove unwieldy vehicles under fire, the members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry toughing it out in stylish fur coats..... 

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Later in the war, uniformed women’s branches of the services were formed to provide cooks, cleaners and clerks, freeing servicemen to go to the front to fight.  The public was alarmed at the sight of official military-style uniforms on females, having already had difficulty accepting Land Army girls in smocks and gaiters, and the munitions workers celebrating their tunics and trousers – by getting married in them.

Heroines graced the many magazines and newspapers: Edith Cavell, the nurse shot by the Germans for aiding British and French soldiers to escape.  Flora Sandes, the only British woman to serve on the front line during the war – accepted into the Serbian Army and usually captioned ‘the lovely sergeant.’  Queen Mary toured countless hospitals and recuperation centres – and went to France to see the battlefield of the Somme, where tens of thousands had died, and the artillery continued to thunder in the distance.
Much of the photography was officially commissioned: the British Government needed womanpower to maintain production, especially of shells and bullets. Nevertheless, it chronicled the new roles which women took on with enthusiasm, proving that they were equal to tasks always done by men.

It also recorded the new image – more practical clothing, shorter skirts, fewer ‘wasp waists’ (corsets needed metal that was wanted in the factories....) and of course, trousers. 

At the war’s end, the men reclaimed their jobs – firmly backed by the Government. However, the images remained – a lasting testimony - women proving what they could do.  And shorter skirts, bobbed hair and trousers came to stay.

Visit Kate's profile page.

Kate's book, 'Fighting on the Home Front: the legacy of women in World War I' published by Hodder & Stoughton is available now.

See more WW1 imagery from the archives here.

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