French Women As Munitions Makers

A Story of Patriotism

[The New York Times/Current History, May 1916]

A British commission sent to France by Lord Murray and Mr. Lloyd George to study the methods of manufacturing war munitions in that country has recently made a noteworthy report, which throws a white light upon the self-sacrificing patriotism with which the women of France are wearing out their lives in that work. "The country needs me" is the keynote of the factories as it is of the trenches, and the bulk of the work in these factories is now done by women of all classes.

One section of the British report contains a table showing the present and former occupations of France's munition makers. In one factory the forty-one women now engaged in boring are composed of fifteen housewives, one corsetière, twenty factory girls, four mechanics, and one florist. Fuses are being made in the same factory by 848 women, of whom 470 were formerly makers of breeches, seamstresses and milliners, 125 clerks, 125 housewives, and 75 factory girls, while 53 had no profession previous to their present arduous labors.

Women who were formerly dressmakers, children's nurses, weavers, tulle makers, cashiers, hairdressers, and typists also are among the thousands upon thousands of those who are now turning out the food for the weapons of France.

The average pay per day is: For laborers, 6.01 francs (a little more than $1.20); for machine men, 10.42 francs (a little more than $2); for skilled workers, 12.23 francs (about $2.50); for females a minimum of 3.53 francs (a little more than 60 cents); mean wage, 5.95 (about $1.20).

The purpose of the commission was to study the underlying causes of the greatly increased output of munitions in France. Their main answer to the "why" of this remarkable increase is summed up in their tribute to the patriotism of the women. Technically, however, they cite three main causes—increasing intensity of production, erection of new factories and extension of existing plants; adaptation of other kinds of factories to the manufacture of munitions.

"As the war proceeded," says the mission's report in explaining these factors, "the French Nation has settled down with a determination and feeling of set purpose to the fulfillment of the task allotted to it. There is no question that the nation is at war and the dominant sentiment, not only of the men but also of the women, is to carry the war to a successful termination. Everything else is subordinated to this determination.

"Women, of whom many thousands are employed in munitions factories, work with a good-will which is most impressive; this spirit is also evident in the case of male workers."

There is no jealousy on the part of the Frenchmen, no ill-will over woman's encroachment on what once was man's own realm. On the contrary, the investigators found that the men have welcomed the assistance of the fair sex and are aiding them in every way possible. The report points out the significance of this fact, inasmuch as the introduction of women in the munitions work was aimed not only at increasing the output but also at freeing the men for military service.

Whether through well-calculated intention or not, the British mission's report conveys between the lines some striking contrasts between the never-tiring willingness on the part of all France to lighten the heavy burden of the country, no matter what the cost, and the apathetic attitude of certain classes in Great Britain in the face of the nation's call, especially during the earlier phases of war. The commission says:

"Although prior to the war the usual labor troubles were experienced, no strike has taken place since the commencement of hostilities.

"No applications for general advances in wages have been made by the work people since the commencement of the war."

To those who last Fall, before the Damocles sword of the military service bill was hung out over the heads of the masses of unwilling, witnessed the troubles and riots in the coal mines of South Wales, these statements, made under the names of a commission of highly respected and responsible British investigators, sound like rebukes whose keynote seems to be "Look at France."

French capitalists have not lagged behind the working classes in the demonstration of real, practical patriotism. "It is remarkable," says the report, "that the erection and equipment of new factories resorted to in great measure are due to private enterprise. No factories have been subsidized by the Government, nor have loans of any kind been made to the owners."

There are in the Paris district alone 1,800 small producers for machine operations. The vast majority of these are now working day and night for the Government, under sub-contract, the main contractor making no profit out of the work sub-contracted. Many small shops are manned by various members of a family and work day and night shifts.

Thus the British visitors found the day shift superintended by the father and daughter and the night shift by the mother and son. The meagre proportions and the poor equipment of this, as of thousands of other shops, the report says, were overcome "no doubt by the spirit which dominated every one employed in it."

In another case, a very small shop, the work had been superintended by the wife of the owner, who was serving in the army. The woman worked herself to death, and the husband was ordered back from the army to continue the work she had been doing.

As to the standard number of hours, it can hardly be said that there is such a thing in France today. There is a break of about two hours at noon, which enables the women to look after the meals and comfort their children at home. In most cases the shifts change over every fortnight, and on the change the work people get twenty-four hours off. No difference is made on Saturdays, the same hours being worked as on other week days. In some cases no work is done on Sundays after noon. In most cases women work the same hours as men, allowance being made, however, for the time spent on tramway journeys, to avoid congestion.

While thus far women have worked mostly only at day time, they will, to a large extent, soon be engaged on night shifts as well. The report continues:

"The opinion in the French factories is that the output of females on small work equals and in some cases exceeds that of men, and in the case of heavier work, within certain limits, women are of practically the same value as men.

"It has to be kept in mind that physical considerations limit the range of work which may be done by women. It was noticed, however, that part of the work done by women involved greater strain than might be thought reasonable in this country."

Of the "general conclusions" cited by the commission, the following stands out as bearing out every word of the report:

"It appears to the mission that the increase of production in France is due to one cause, and one only, and that is the patriotic enthusiasm which exists there."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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