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Title: Women munition workers during the First World War, with special reference to engineering
Author: Kozak, Marion
ISNI:       0000 0001 3602 3042
Awarding Body: University of Hull
Current Institution: University of Hull
Date of Award: 1976
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The purpose of this thesis is to show how the First World War altered the nature of women's employment and how a sudden mobilisation of some 1½ million women was made possible through a concerted and sustained Government effort and labour regulation. To all appearances, nothing in the history of women's work prior to 1914 would have suggested that such a transformation of their employment was possible within a short time span. Women's jobs had always been considered as belonging to certain definite trades and much energy of social reformers and defenders of women's rights was spent on a struggle to improve conditions in the traditional women's industries, including the sweated trades which came under the aegis of the Trades Boards Act of 1909. Nevertheless, the two decades prior to the outbreak of the war witnessed some significant changes in the organisation of the metal and engineering trades and the Census of 1911 was beginning to reflect these changes in the slowly growing number of women occupied in these trades and a much faster growth of the male workforce particularly in the infant motor and allied industrial sector. However, it required a war emergency to accelerate the process of change. War time reorganisation and technological investment injected into engineering and chemicals industries facilitated the massive absorption of female workhands into light and heavy engineering and other allied industries. Work processes were reorganised on the basis of greater mechanisation, further division and sub-division of labour and intensive training schemes were designed for unapprenticed women workers. State central planning enabled women to learn unaccustomed tasks which prior to the war would have been considered entirely beyond their capacity. As a result of intensive instruction, women came to perform semi-skilled and in some cases skilled work, to replace men in most labouring and process work and to operate automatic and semi-automatic machinery. Despite the fact that women exhibited a considerable aptitude for acquiring new skills, further refinements in the system of division of labour with its infinite number of gradations did not serve to enhance their industrial status in the long run. Whatever the short tern gains in higher earnings for the duration of the war period, the extension of the technical element served to degrade the human labour factor and to reinforce the deeply ingrained principle that women had a particular talent for dexterous but mindless machine minding. It is significant that whenever women achieved particularly good results in quantity or quality of output, their achievement was credited to the newly introduced machinery and not to their natural aptitude or skill. The fact that the use of old fashioned machinery continued to persist in many branches of engineering work, while modernisation was proceeding in others, was rarely remarked on. In this new setting and without the traditional go-slow and resistance techniques which male workers had perfected through the years to combat exploitation, women were particularly liable to exploitation. Their employment and the threat it posed for men workers was viewed with mistrust and fear by the traditional occupiers of the shop floor. At first, male workers resisted the introduction of women. Eventually, after hard bargaining and protracted negotiation as well as threatening compulsion, the Government succeeded in overcoming official labour resistance to the processes of dilution and smoothed the path of manufacturers in organising large scale production of munitions. It should be noted that this was but the first step in the war effort. The other new factor was the unprecedented intervention of Government in the process of production, in exercising control over this process, in financial, technical, and educational aid to the munitions industry. It was as a result of this concerted State intervention that absorption of women into munitions, many of whom came to the metal and engineering sector from the isolation of domestic service or the traditional women's trades like textiles and clothing, became feasible. The effect was the transformation of the labour market through job and geographical migration. Women were drawn into munitions work primarily for its comparatively high earnings -a new feature of war-time life which stood in sharp contrast to women's earnings in metals and light engineering in the pre-war period. There were other factors which made war-time munition work more popular than other, similar factory work though these factors are more difficult to document precisely. These were the enhanced prestige of the patriotic content of such work and the propitious social ambiance of new work communities many of which were better equipped than similar pre-wax factories. On the one hand the nationally inspired war effort occasioned, not untypically, a veritable barrage of publicity extolling the civilian effort, while on the other hand both Government and private goals were directed to maintaining the new labour force in conditions adequate to the gruelling daily tasks. Whatever may have been the motives behind the State effort in protecting women's health and welfare, and while the contributing factor of social control should not be discounted, the result was a significant improvement in women's health. Higher wage levels and uninterrupted earnings were obviously major factors in this improvement. It is my contention that improved conditions, better feeding and the newly enhanced status of women workers led to new expectations and a new awareness among women workers. Increased enrolment in trade unions was one of the results. New issues of women's economic and social status were inevitably raised by these new circumstances and one of the most striking was the campaign for the principle of equal pay. With the backing and indeed the insistence of the male unionists, women organisers like Mary Macarthur led a campaign for equal pay with the recognition that such a policy might in some cases lead inevitably to an exclusion of women from some employments. At the same time widespread and vocal demands were *ade by women unionists for widening the scope of women's work to include jobs which in the past had been considered the exclusive preserve of male workers. Whatever may have been the strength of newly organised women unionists they were at all times both sustained and dependent on their male counterparts. It was the strength of the male trade union movement which had successfully circumscribed the scope of Government-directed dilution by insisting on safeguards in regard to its duration and conditions. While the war lasted men workers remained vigilant about the possible exploitation by employers and the State of the inexperienced workforce - the women. Despite paper guarantees male unionists were suspicious of the promises made and continued their vigilance through rank and file militancy, quiet small-scale sabotage and organised demands over pay. Whatever the motivation of militant unionism during the period of the war, it served the women well while it lasted. However, at no point did the powerful male workers' movement formulate demands for the reabsorption of war-time emergency women workers into a scheme of postwar reconstruction. In fact, the contrast was remarkable; the men had agreed to dilution on being assured of reinstatement while women were enticed into war time work without being given any guarantee of tenure or alternative employment or compensation for loss of employment. In the post-war situation of work shortage, they were not recognised as having any of the rights accorded to male workers. In relation to the war-time munitions effort the classic definition of the unemployed as the 'reserve army of labour' could be reapplied to women in particular. The post-war absorption of a greater number of women than before into the ranks of engineering repetition work was a continuation of pre-war trends and bore little relation to the semi-skilled tasks which many women had been trained to perform. Such waste of potential and actual manpower is striking.
Supervisor: Saville, John Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Economic and social history