Women's War Work in Three Nations

By Caroline Runtz Rees

[The New York Times/Current History, January 1919]

The first intimation that the British authorities set a practical value upon the services of women came in March, 1915, when the Board of Trade issued an appeal to them to volunteer for war service, opened a register for them, and frankly stated that women's work was needed. Women showed their readiness; in the course of the first week 20,000 registered, but employers were not yet ready to call upon them, and the registration was followed by disappointment.

The war register was very slowly drawn upon, but meanwhile women were being drafted into service by less official channels. They began acting as commissionaires, messenger boys, lift women, as doers, in fact, of all the miscellaneous work that meets the public eye. They pushed milk carts and cleaned ships in the docks; they took the places everywhere of men in domestic service; they replaced them in secondary boys' schools and in the banks; but even such occupations, easily attracting casual attention, were not really indicative of any vital change in the national life. Yet eighteen months later the War Office, officially compiling a book on "Woman's War Work" to show what categories of men might be released for military service by the substitution of women, listed under the head of Munition Work Successfully Undertaken by Women" 20 trades, 205 processes, some of these with 18 subdivisions. Under "Manufactured Articles or Parts" 300 articles were named, with such broad headings as "Scientific Instruments." For the more exact work named in this publication women were trained in more than 60 technical schools and colleges; had, in fact, already in 1917 been so trained to the number of 32,000.


Whether scientifically or empirically trained, all Englishwomen could ultimately find some kind of war work to do. And their country looked to them not for efficiency merely, but for heroism. Danger was ever present in the munition factories, no less because of the nature of the material used than because the factory was one of the first objectives of the air raiders. A vivid account of the behavior of the girl operators in a factory at Woolwich Arsenal is given by one of the "principal overlookers" in a book called "Munition Lassies." The night shift was gathered for dinner in the canteen when the lights switched out suddenly; yet, the first confusion over, no one attempted to move. The workers rested quietly and 2,000 of them sang through the long night, while others, wearied out, fell calmly asleep through the cannonading, "which could be heard all around us and in the midst of us." After such a night the overlooker found "all operations in hand." One girl spoke the mind of the factory: "We must work our very hardest to make an end of those Zepps."

The conditions of the work in munition factories were unusually good. Wages were high and, from the first, the Government followed the principle of equal pay for equal work, at least so far as piecework was concerned. Good housing, good canteens, good superintendence were provided; the crowded tenements and poor food supplies of the early days of the war were things of the past. Special tribunals dealt with wages, and justice was in the main the result of their findings. Government or private employer also provided welfare workers, whose activities undoubtedly added to the comfort and well-being of the workers, even though regarded in some quarters the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women's Organizations, for example as "open to very serious objections." So established, so important, was the Englishwoman's share in her country's effort to supply the field forces with ammunition.

Hardly less vital to the success of the Allies' arms was woman's part in the production of food. It was largely in her hands; indeed, the increase in the number of women in agriculture between 1911 and July, 1916, was estimated by the Board of Trade at 66,000, and under the "List of Occupations in Which Women Are Successfully Employed in Agriculture" the War Office brochure counted, apart from miscellaneous work, thirty-seven "particulars of occupation." These women were so successful that it could be officially stated that, before America came into the war, England, alone of the Allies, had in the course of it materially increased her food supply.

The War Office compilation already referred to gives a list of sixty-six other trades in which women are "maintaining the industries and export trade of the United Kingdom," and this list is followed by seventy-two photographs of women at work, twenty-two of them starred as illustrating "heavy physical work," such as is performed by coal workers, shipyard workers, stokers, etc. These photographs portray employments so various as grooming horses, harrowing, making airplanes and motor cycles, setting type, electric spot welding, baking, handling and hanging leather. Skill and strength are obviously there, without detriment to feminine seductiveness, if one may judge by the two Pierrots in white caps, blouses, and leggings, barrowing in a flour mill, or the stoker in trousers and close cap, her shovel, full of coal, swinging to the furnace mouth, a towel over her shoulders and its end between her teeth. Dedicated as it is to a purely practical purpose, the War Office publication is yet, in the introductory note offered by the Adjutant General, a tribute to the "effective contribution of women to the empire in its hour of need."


Frenchwomen not only, like Englishwomen, showed readiness and ability to serve, but these from the first easily found the right paths to service. Mrs. Atherton quotes a moving tale of farmers' wives and daughters who did not allow the break of a single day to interrupt the procession of great trucks of produce from the outlying gardens and orchards to the markets of Paris, and this was but an earnest of the help Frenchwomen were to render in agriculture—instant, steady, and ennobled by the tonic incentive of its imperative "necessity to their country. In work on the land they apparently outstripped their English sisters.

In munition work they almost equaled them. In the early Summer of 1915 there were some 14,000 Frenchwomen engaged in Government munition factories, for the most part in subsidiary processes. Private factories occupied some 30,000. In 1916 Government and Government-controlled factories gave work to no less than 109,000, and in the same period the processes on which women were working doubled in number. In other trades also, not immediately connected with national defense, there was, according to the Government reports, a similar striking increase. For example, in chemical industries the number of processes undertaken by women rose in ten months from six to twenty-two; in food production, from eleven to twenty; in metal work, from thirteen to seventy-eight; in textiles, from thirteen to thirty.

When the war had been going on for two years the Government opened the way for Frenchwomen to serve the army in an official capacity. In May, 1916, the Under Secretary of State for the Commissariat Department, recommending their extensive employment in the military sphere, took pains to brush aside objections to the employment of women even in the most confidential capacities.

"It is perfectly possible," he writes, "to find women of irreproachable morality quite as trustworthy as any military secretary." In July, 1916, the Secretary for War indorsed and emphasized his colleague's recommendation, ordering that no soldier should be used for what women could do in any part of the army except in the active ranks; finally, at the year's end, the War Ministry, formulating rules for women in military camps, depots, and services, listed their occupations from that of chief employees of bureaus to that of cooks and washerwomen.

The conditions of service were good; women's wages, maximum and minimum, were settled by the commandant of the district and yearly revised, and 10 per cent, was allowed for overtime by day, 40 per cent, by night. The question of paying women frankly for their work, without condescension or discrimination, needed consideration in France as elsewhere. The Under Secretary of State for Munitions, anticipating the fears of those who simply think that, with equal pay, the wages of women are too strangely out of the ordinary, the fear, moreover, that the manufacturer's dread of high wages might check output, decided (Feb. 28, 1916), that, in estimating women's wages, the expense of the modifications necessitated by their employment must be taken into account, as also the actual quality and quantity of their work. "If this is not enough," he was quaintly ready with the suggestion that soldiers' family allowances should be lessened for workers, so as to reduce the amount in those feminine pockets, yet aye, there's the rub not sufficiently to "remove the incentive to new and increasing effort." Equal pay for equal work became, however, the general rule for the Government employment.

As to tie success of Frenchwomen at their new undertakings, official opinion is convinced. According to one report the women in factories have shown a "satisfactory aptitude, at times even remarkable and superior to that of men." In sawmills, except for the heaviest work, employers assure the Government that women are as good as men, and from Dijon comes the striking testimony that employers do not think as well of the Greeks, Moroccans, Kabyles, and Chinese in the workshops as of women. In whatever form they receive the acknowledgment of their usefulness, Frenchwomen may justly feel that their work has in truth attained "that status which it needs and deserves," which it was the specified object of a Government committee to procure for it.


In spite of much talk, the same could not, at the end of the war, be said of the status of our own countrywomen. Of unpaid women workers the Red Cross, the Food Administration, the Liberty Loan Committee utilized a veritable army, yet a large margin would still have remained unco-ordinated had not a Government committee, the Council of National Defense, attempted to give official status, at least to the volunteer efforts of women, by the formation of its Woman's Committee. Definitely formed for war purposes, the creation of this body was prompted, according to the Secretary of War, "by an appreciation of the very "valuable service that the women of the country can and are anxious to render in the national defense and the desire to establish some common medium through which the council might be brought into closest touch with them and into the fullest utilization of their services. It was, however, to be purely advisory and, although a notable record of work stands to its account, it so remained to the end.

The committee's country-wide organization, carried down to village and city wards, has nevertheless proved a telling contribution to national efficiency. The organized women of every town and village, eager helpers in the Liberty Loan, War Savings, Food Conservation, Red Cross, and lesser "campaigns," have also, at a request from Washington, carried out much other work, from forming branches of the Traveler's Aid Society or recruiting nurses and stenographers, to urging the passage of desirable bills through Congress, or investigating the observance of enacted laws.


he Woman's Committee, moreover, inaugurated in October, 1917, a national voluntary registration of women. In some instances, notably Illinois, it had a triumphant success; in others the results were less encouraging. The usefulness of the task lay chiefly in uncovering a great source of volunteer work. In the City of New Haven, for example, the committee was able, in the course of seventeen weeks, to supply to various patriotic and municipal associations 4,746 hours of volunteer service. On the other hand, the registration also revealed a certain reserve of paid labor. In the same city, where out of 18,000 registrations the 2,000 for paid labor brought about the engagement of only seventy-nine operatives, the educative effect of the registration was later felt by the manufacturers when they recruited among their own townswomen in order to avoid importation from without. Even at the close of the war, however, when women were flowing into factories in response to the demands of an ever-increasing volume of work, they seemed to be taking the places of men in comparatively small measure. In the opinion of one woman director of the United States Employment Service, women were not, even then, really needed to take up men's work in factories; and this view is supported or was six months earlier by so competent an authority as Pauline Goldmark. One munition factory in Connecticut in 1918 increased for a time by 50 per cent, its weekly hire of women; women, however, supplementing, not supplanting, men. In a town where the Federal Employment Service had announced that three or four hundred jobs were waiting for women to fill them, another factory had, at the beginning of 1918, over fifteen hundred women employed, where in 1914 they had less than nine hundred. In another, on the other hand, war orders actually diminished the number of women and augmented the number of men needed for the increasingly heavy war work.


Although the increase of women operatives in a given factory seems, as a rule, not to have indicated that they took the place of men, there were signs of coming change in this regard. F. E. Weakly, for instance, writing in System, gave an interesting account of a factory engaged, the reader may gather, in munitions work, which was frankly planning to give men's places to women. On the entrance of the United States into the war the employer at once associated with him in employment work two women who, judging every task by the reach and body position required, the weight to be lifted and the fatigue involved, discovered several kinds of work new to women that could be done by them. The opening of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps enticing away from this factory "promising young executives hand-picked to take over departments in years to come," women were put in training to take even their alluring posts. Other manufacturing companies testified to the same effect, one even reporting ten university graduates in charge of the bonus and costs department.

So far as undertaken, the experiment of substituting women for men appears to have met with success. Various employers testify that women learn quickly, are more attentive to their work than men, do it accurately, and keep at it steadily. Excelling the men in perseverance, they are neater and prompter and observe factory regulations better; but, on the other hand, their record of absence is 20 per cent, greater. One firm even maintains that "after a short intensive instruction " women can accomplish tasks previously only given to apprentices of two or three years' standing. One otherwise enthusiastic employer was compelled, indeed, to admit that few women can appreciate the difference between a sharp and dull cutting tool or have any conception of the importance of dimensions or any judgment as to mechanical strength or requirements. But the latter shortcoming is really a blessing in disguise, for "they will not use that judgment which is frequently so disastrous on the part of men employees," nor "do things" with machinery on their own initiative in the masculine manner. The chorus of praise seems to be almost unanimous, pointed, in one instance, by the statement of an employer that, through the efforts of women, his output of rifles rose from 300 to 5,000 a day. As an antidote, the sex may digest the testimony of a factory manager who, admitting the "greater efficiency" of women, feels it more than offset by the difficulty of managing them.

Praise is, moreover, generally tempered with surprise. A manufacturer of small tools was astonished to find that women, whom he employed in an emergency, turned out more work and better work than men. His astonishment is typical and sheds an instructive light upon the common estimate of women's intelligence and persistence.

The railroads still lead in the employment of women instead of men. In all forms of unskilled labor they are here liberally employed, and they have proved equally or even more successful in untrained work. Railroading is even beginning to offer women something in the nature of a career. One woman, an employee of the Western Union, has risen to be Tri-City Passenger Agent of the Burlington Railway in Iowa; another, a teacher and university graduate, holds a responsible position in the offices of the General Superintendent of Motor Power, and there are other such examples here and there.

To meet women on equal wage terms is much to ask of men even yet, even of American men. But until that simple solution of the problem is arrived at, as it has been in England, we must not expect our women to equal European women in effective contribution to the country's resources, whether in war or in peace industries.

Examples of Women's War Work

Women composed nearly 70 per cent of the workers who shocked grain in the harvest fields around Fargo, N. D., in the Autumn of 1918. This war service was brought about through the local office of the United States Employment Service, Department of Labor.

Owing to the scarcity of agricultural labor in the community, the various farm-labor reserves, enlisted in Fargo by the Employment Service, were called out to shock large quantities of grain. Two thousand volunteers were employed throughout the season. At the close of the harvest the Fargo employment office, the Fargo Commercial Club, and the Fargo Rotary Club arranged a parade to commemorate the success of the season's work. Business was suspended in Fargo on the day that the procession, composed of the various groups that had performed faithful service in the harvest fields, marched through the streets. A tally by the Marshals of the parade revealed the fact that almost 70 per cent of the emergency farm workers were women. The "shock troops," men and women, were dressed in their ordinary working clothes.

An experimental Woman's Agricultural Camp was established in the Summer of 1917 at Bedford, N. Y. This group of women, mostly inexperienced but all of sound health, of years varying from 16 to 45 and drawn from numerous professions the colleges, trades, (mostly sewing,) and the teaching profession contributing the largest number were convinced that owners of existing farms should be helped before new land was put under cultivation. They therefore established themselves in a central camp and, going by automobile to the farms which needed them, worked there in squads of six or eight, proving their own argument that all kinds of agricultural work could be done by women. From the farmer's point of view and that of the worker's health there is ample testimony that the experiment was a success. The camp was not, however, self-sustaining, although the wage which was considered normal in peace time was asked for the women's work.

According to information received from the Department of Labor, practically all the work incident to the issue of $6,000,000,000 worth of bonds for the Fourth Liberty Loan, with the exception of the two press divisions, was the work of women. James L. Wilmeth, Director of the United States Bureau of Printing and Engraving, reported that all the counting and examining of the bonds and much assistance in printing requiring accuracy and skill devolved upon the 2,000 women employees.

The large scope of women's war work in England is illustrated by an achievement "somewhere on the northeast coast," where a tract of waste land that lay below high-water level was rapidly converted into a shipyard of eight berths, largely by feminine labor. The work began in March, 1918, and the first ship was launched in November.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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