In many ways, the story of women’s employment during WWI was repeated during WWII. Despite their success in wartime industries during WWI, similar stereotypes about women’s capacity and ability to engage in ‘men’s work’ were circulated by the employers and the government. Trade unions again expressed concerns about men’s pay being pushed down and sought assurances that women’s wartime work would only be temporary. However, the needs of the wartime economy won again. In December 1941, the government conscripted single women aged 20-30 as auxiliaries to the Armed Forces, Civil Defence, or war industries. Propaganda leaflets urged women to participate in the war effort.
Government figures show that women’s employment increased during the Second World War from about 5.1 million in 1939 (26%) to just over 7.25 million in 1943 (36% of all women of working age). Forty six percent of all women aged between 14 and 59, and 90% of all able-bodied single women between the ages of 18 and 40 were engaged in some form of work or National Service by September 1943 (H M Government, 1943, p. 3). The level of employment could have been higher as domestic servants were excluded from these figures. Many domestic servants would have been redeployed to national service, but no exact figures exist.
Inequality and discrimination;
During WWII women worked in factories producing munitions, building ships, aeroplanes, in the auxiliary services as air-raid wardens, fire officers and evacuation officers, as drivers of fire engines, trains and trams, as conductors and as nurses. During this period some trade unions serving traditionally male occupations like engineering began to admit women members.
The entry of women into occupations which were regarded as highly skilled and as male preserves, for example as drivers of fire engines, trains and trams and in the engineering, metal and shipbuilding industries, renewed debates about equal pay. The trade unions were once again concerned about the impact on men’s wages after the war when men would once again be working in these jobs. But the government’s priority was the recruitment of workers to service industries and the war effort. Some limited agreement on equal pay was reached that allowed equal pay for women where they performed the same job as men had ‘without assistance or supervision'. Most employers managed to circumvent the issue of equal pay, and women’s pay remained on average 53% of the pay of the men they replaced. Semi-skilled and unskilled jobs were designated as ‘women’s jobs’ and were exempt from equal pay negotiations.
Women workers resorted to aggitating on a local level to fight for equal pay, often without the support of their unions. Women workers at the Rolls-Royce plant at Hillington near Glasgow objected to being paid at a lower rate than unskilled men doing the same work. A court of Inquiry recommended a new grading system which was agreed by the Amalgamated Engineering Union. However, the women believed the new system would still leave 80% of them on the lowest rate and went on a one-week strike in October 1943, supported by most men in the plant. Eventually an agreement was reached on a set wage that was the same for men and women workers, depending on the kind of machines they worked on.
Another way in which women were discriminated against during WWII concerned the level of settlements offered to women by the Personal Injuries (Civilians) Scheme 1939. Women received 7 shillings less than the 21 shillings a week that men received. Women were actively deployed in civil defence schemes as overnight fire watchers in factories, ambulance drivers, air raid wardens, members of first aid parties and messengers. Such women were at risk from bombing but were entitled to lower compensation for injuries compared to men. Trade unions, campaigners and some women parliamentarians took up this issue and despite initial government opposition to this demand, equal rates were introduced in April 1943.
With the increased employment of women during WWII, the need to meet working mothers’ caring responsibilities had to be addressed. State funding was provided to establish about 1345 wartime nurseries, a huge increase from the 14 such nurseries which existed in 1940 (Summerfield 1984, p. 94). However, this was always considered a temporary measure for the period of the war and, despite the steady increase in women’s employment rates since the 1920s, a married woman’s place was still considered to be in the home