Warrington’s Working Women in WW1

Today we have another blog entry from our volunteer Carol Mayo looking at the history of women in Warrington:

The August blog is different from the previous format as I usually discuss a particular woman in Warrington’s history. This month I will look at women’s occupations during the war era. I am unable to cover every aspect as the subject is so large but I intend to give an overview of their pre –war circumstances, opportunities during WW1 and the post war response to working women.

Prior to WW1 women were active in the local economy but as in the national economy their role was largely dependent upon their class. The first occupation that springs to mind is the domestic servant. If we cast an eye over the local advertisements for domestic servants it becomes clear that this formed a largest part of employment market which was typified by poor pay.

In Warrington the 19th century industrial development resulted in the presence of ironworks, aluminium production, file industry, wire production, tanneries, pin factories, textiles and the chemical industry at Bank Quay. In contrast to men’s employment women were employed in lower numbers, paid less and in lower status jobs. From necessity women from working class backgrounds did work but their wages and employment opportunities continued to be restricted.

Outside of industrial production women worked as teachers, governesses and nurses. These professions were considered to be “women’s work” as they were fulfilling their nurturing role. If they were to marry then they left the profession as there was a clash of interests. How could they work as they were now a wife and a future mother? Change was happening in the national economy, for example there were a small number of women doctors prior to WW1 and the number of female office workers did increase but the duties were limited to minor office duties. With the advent of WW1 changes inevitably followed.

From previous blogs we have seen how the outbreak of war impacted upon Warrington – Dr Mary Anderson Noble was appointed Warrington’s first woman doctor in January 1917. Indeed the Guardian reports of “a dearth of doctors” in April 1918 and discusses the possibility of recruiting female doctors.  In January 1917 Mabel Capper a notable Suffragette is “given the chance” as Warrington’s first woman journalist on the Examiner.

With so many men in the armed forces the gaps in the economy needed to be filled. Single and married women had the opportunity to do “men’s work” as circumstances demanded it. These changes are reflected in the news articles and letters which are scattered throughout the local newspapers the Guardian and the Examiner. There are reports of the Citizen’s Guild of Help and Mothers and Babies requesting the need for day nurseries and the churches discussed “the glory of motherhood and the sanctity of family life”. Clearly with such large numbers of women working in the munition factories, aircraft workers, Land Army, window cleaners, road sweepers, bus drivers, conductors and the nursing duties of V.A.D. (Volunteer Aid Detachment) and Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Corps they were seen to be active in so many roles.

There are letters and reports of concerned Warringtonians. One reader suggests that women window cleaners should be treated with respect rather than as a laughing stock with insulting remarks. (Examiner 24/02/1917) In another article “Not Work For Lady – Tribunal Problems” (Examiner 24/02/1917) the Collins Green Colliery judged a wages clerk post was not the class of work for women. Whilst in Bewsey it was reported they were devoid of hairdressers so a solution to this “plight” was a lady barber. From these three instances it can be seen that women worked in many sectors and opinions were split on this matter.

With the end of the war in 1918 women’s employment was discussed in terms of them making room for the returning men. A major concern was the decline in the number of domestic servants. With better paid employment opportunities available domestic service was not an attractive option and so there was a post war reluctance to take up a domestic service role.

After the war the struggle for equality went on. The passage of the Representation of the People’s Act 1918 resulted in propertied women over 30 attaining the vote. For the majority of women who worked towards the war effort they could not vote until the passage of the Representation of the Peoples Act in 1928. It was only then that women were able to vote on the same terms as men at the age of 21. Women continued to fight for their rights throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.