Not Just Land Girls: The roles British women played in the Second World War

Women’s Land Army poster, IWM

For the first time, the Second World War brought the boundary between combatant and non-combatant roles in Britain as close as they had ever been. Previously a highly gendered notion, women were employed in all manner of jobs, both on the Home Front and abroad, fighting for their country just as the men did. In fact, just under half a million women served as part of the British forces, as well as over a million being employed on the Home Front.[1] Many have a stereotypical view that it was only really land work that women took on when the men went abroad, most likely because of prominent propaganda posters such as ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Join the Women’s Land Army’ captured in popular imagination, but this is far from the truth. While this blog does not deeply analyse the work that women undertook during the Second World War, it briefly explores the vast range of jobs that women were employed in and highlights the importance of their contribution to the war effort in Britain.

Initially, there were a very limited number of jobs that women were eligible for, but as the war progressed and there was a growing need to replace enlisted and conscripted men, women were employed in all manner of jobs. At the beginning of the war women were called up on a purely voluntary basis in non-war related jobs, but as the war progressed, this workforce was directed towards war work. However, it was not until the October of 1941 that the government announced that all women between eighteen and sixty should participate in some form of national service, and actively contribute towards the war effort.[2] In December 1941, the National Service (No 2) Act became law, and Britain became the first country to conscript women for wartime service.[3] The largest group of workers was women over the age of 35, whose children where at school, however everyone pitched in, in any way they could. 

The Women’s Land Army

The Women’s Land Army made a significant contribution to Britain’s food production during the Second World War. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain had imported much of its food, but it quickly became a necessity to grow more food at home. Therefore, an increased amount of land was needed, which also meant an increased amount of labour.  With most men conscripted into military service, this left the women on the Home Front to provide the new agricultural workforce. Previously set up in 1917, the Women’s Land Army, like so many of the female services, was disbanded at the end of the First World War. However, with the threat of war looming, it was reformed in June 1939.[4]

At its peak in 1944, more than 80,000 women were conscripted as part of the Land Army, undertaking a wide variety of jobs.[5] Working in all manners of conditions, their roles varied between dairy work, rat catchers and the timber corp, among many other tasks. The Women’s Land Army had a distinctive uniform to wear, as with many of the other services. Unlike other services, however, they were not paid by the government or the military, but rather by the farmers who employed them. Unfortunately, this meant that, for most women, they were paid far less than their male counterpart would have been, despite carrying out the same job. The Women’s Land Army was finally disbanded in 1950, having supported Britain’s home front in its time of need, and keeping food on the tables of the nation.

Military Services

In the spring of 1939, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) had been re-formed, having previously been disbanded in 1919.[6] It was far smaller than the service it had been by the end of the First World War, as only women who lived near naval ports, and were aged eighteen to fifty were considered.[7] Nicknamed the Wrens, their initial duties consisted of mainly clerical and domestic duties, but by 1941 these extended to a wider range of jobs including involvement in the planning of naval operations.[8] More than 100,000 women served in the WRNS during the war and while some had the opportunity to go overseas, the majority stayed fighting on the Home Front.[9]

Just four months after the WRNS was re-formed, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (W.A.A.F) was created. Having previously been formed at same time as the RAF, in 1918, it was disbanded two years later.[10] Along with new recruits, 2,000 women who were already working alongside the Air Force in the Auxiliary Territorial Service were transferred over to this new service.[11] By the time the war was in full force, the W.A.A.Fs were involved in a wide range of duties such as maintaining aircraft and serving on airfields.[12] When the Battle of Britain broke out in 1940, it was made clear that women could do just as much as men, with women flourishing in their new roles and opportunities.[13]

Younger women were encouraged to join the auxiliary forces.[14] However, in September 1939, only 17,000 women had enlisted with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (A.T.S) and it quickly became apparent that more needed to be done in order to be prepared for the imminent war. [15] Initially the only jobs available were in roles such as cooks, clerks and orderlies however, as with the other services, over the war years this job list expanded to over a hundred different roles, including serving as part of anti-aircraft batteries.[16] By the end of the war, more than 250,000 women had served in the A.T.S, making it the largest of the women’s services.

SOE Agents

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited around 60 women into their ranks across the war years. Deployed behind enemy lines in what can be considered the most dangerous wartime work, they helped to form a ‘secret army’, recruiting resistance fighters and preparing the war for the Allied invasion. Often parachuted into occupied nations in the dead of night, these SOE agents held roles from intelligence gathering to wireless operating. 

The ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ as they came to be known (on account of the SOE HQ being based at 64 Baker Street in London), were trained in all manner of jobs, such as sabotage, small arms, radio and telegraph communications, and unarmed combat. Unlike many other aspects of military service work, this was perhaps the only role in which women were trained to hold exactly the same skill set as the male SOE agents. All agents were required to be fluent in the language of the country in which they would be infiltrate, and above else, be willing to give up their life for the British war effort. 

Work as an SOE agent was a highly dangerous job. However, in some respects female SOE agents had it easier than their male counterparts, because female spies had the advantage of being able to move around without suspicion far easier. In this sense, it was perhaps the only role in the war in which gender stereotypes were crucial. Of the total 470 SOE agents deployed to France, thirty-nine were women, with another sixteen deployed to other areas occupied territory.[17] Of the fifty-four female SOE agents, sixteen were killed in action or captured by the Gestapo and later killed in concentration camps. 

Factory Girls

In June 1940, only half the unemployed in Britain had been drawn into wartime employment. This is because they were mainly women. However, it was quickly decided that women would need to be employed in factory work in order to keep the war economy moving. The first step was to withdraw men from munitions production to release them primarily for the armed forces, but also for other manufacture.[18] This meant that women could take over the unskilled, ‘easy’ jobs, often being paid a far lower rate wage than deserved. However, as the war progressed, and more and more women were employed in the place of men, women judged to be doing ‘men’s work’ did begin to receive a similar rate of pay.[19]

Within factory work, women were employed in a number of roles, despite this gendered view over pay. Women were trained as welders, taken on in foundary and electronics work, and employed in munitions factories, among many other things. By mid-1943, 32% of the total British population was engaged in war production services, with women comprising one third of this workforce.[20] Across the war years, an approximate 1.7 million women were employed in industrial work, with an additional 2 million at peak industrial mobilisation in 1943.[21]

The Women’s Home Defence

With contention running high on the proposal for women to join the Home Guard when it was formed in May 1940, the Women’s Home Defence was formed in the summer of 1940. An “explicitly combatant organisation” its objectives were to prepare women for an invasion, teaching things such as bombing, the use of tommy-guns and unarmed combat.[22] Defying the gender norms, the Women’s Home Defence offered women the same opportunities to serve their country in the same way as men. Technically an illegal organisation, many women joined up to feel they were doing their bit!

Those that did not join the Women’s Home Defence instead attended local Home Guard meetings, despite this also being illegal (female membership had been banned). Eventually, with the ever-increasing pressure on the government to admit women to defend their country, the membership ban was lifted, and women were admitted into the Home Guard from 1943 onwards. This did not necessarily make it easy to obtain membership, however. ‘Women Home Guard Auxiliaries’ had to be nominated by a recognised organisation (such as the Women’s Voluntary Service), be between 18 and 65, but preferably over 45, not wear any uniform other than a plastic badge and receive no weapons training.[23] Despite this, by 1944 there were 32,000 Women Home Guard Auxiliaries, once again blurring the boundary between male combatant and female non-combatant roles.

Conclusion

Women were a vital part of the war effort, and without them the outcome could have been very different. By 1943, women formed 38.8% of the total employed population compared with just 29.8% in 1931.[24] Across the war, approximately 5 million women were employed in the armed services, 80,000 were in the Women’s Land Army and a further 1.7 million worked in industry. Despite equal pay rarely being achieved, many were compelled for financial reasons to work, while others were swept up in the ‘people’s war’ spirit. After the war, the demand for women’s labour was no longer a premium, and as with the end of the Great War, the number of women workers dropped markedly. The notion that the returning soldiers should have women waiting for them at home returned, and women were somewhat forced back into their roles as wives and mothers, primarily running the home. Women’s patriotic duty transformed back into the normative role of ‘housewife’ and for many this reversal was likely a huge disappointment. 

However, this does not mean that their hard work and dedication to the war effort should be forgotten, or ‘swept under the carpet.’ Their contribution to the British war effort should not only be acknowledge, but praised, celebrating the hard work they put in to wartime work, but also the quick adaption women made from domestic home roles to masculine and dangerous jobs in workplace structures. As previously said, this blog only briefly highlights the vast range of jobs that were undertaken by British women during the Second World War, in a time which, however briefly, gender norms were questioned, and women were able to show themselves just as capable as men. 


[1] Carol Harris, Women at War: In Uniform (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2003), V

[2] Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937 – 1941 (UK: Allen Lane, Penguin Random House, 2016), 704

[3] Juliet Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945, (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2005), 504

[4] Unknown author, “What was the Women’s Land Army,” IWM, last accessed 8 March 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-womens-land-army

[5] Unknown author, “What was the Women’s Land Army,” IWM, last accessed 8 March 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-womens-land-army

[6] Unknown author, “Women’s Royal Naval Service personnel,” The National Archive, last accessed April 21, 2020,https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/womens-royal-naval-service-personnel/

[7] Harris, Women at War, 13

[8] Ibid, 88

[9] Ibid, 89-90

[10] Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945, 508

[11] Harris, Women at War, 15 & 63

[12] Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939 – 1945, 508

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Harris, Women at War, 11

[16] Unknown author, “The Vital Role of Women in the Second World War,” Imperial War Museum (IWM), last accessed 27 February 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-vital-role-of-women-in-the-second-world-war

[17] Kate Murphy Schaefer, “The Female Spies of SOE,” Historic UK, last accessed 11 March 2021, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/The-Female-Spies-Of-SOE/

[18] Stephen E. Little & Margaret Grieco, “Shadow factories, shallow skills? An analysis of work organisation in aircraft industry in the Second World War,” Labour History 52, no. 2 (2011): 201

[19] Ibid, 202

[20] Ibid, 201

[21] Ian Gazeley, “The levelling of pay in Britain during the Second World War,” European Review of Economic History 10 (2006): 176

[22] Penny Summerfield & Corinna Peniston-Bird, “Women in the firing line: the home guard and the defence of gender boundaries in Britain in the Second World War,” Women’s History Review 9, no. 2 (2000): 235

[23] Ibid, 238

[24] Penelope Summerfield, “Women, Work and Welfare: A Study of Child Care and Shopping in Britain in the Second World War,” Journal of Social History 17, no. 2 (1983): 249

[Image] Women’s Land Army poster, IWM, catalogue no: Art.IWM PST 6078 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/36790

[WLA Image 1] Battle of the Land: The work of the Women’s Land Army on the British Home Front, 1942, IWM, catalogue no D 8814 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205199381

[WLA Image 2] The work of the Women’s Land Army in the reclamation of fen land, Cambridgeshire, England, 1942, IWM, catalogue no: D 8456 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205199344

[WLA Image 3] Women’s Land Army training, probably at Cannington Farm, Somerset, England, c1940, IWM, catalogue no: D 187 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205197505

[Wren Image] The smallest Wren in the Service, 15 January 1943, Harwich, IWM, catalogue no: A 13976 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205147218

[W.A.A.F Image] Award for the best W.A.A.F Section of Bomber Command, IWM, catalogue no: CH 15776 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205454884

[A.T.S Image] The work of the Auxiliary Territorial Service at a mixed anti-aircraft battery, England, UK, 1942, IWM, catalogue no: D 8292 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205195887

[Factory Image 1] Women building landing craft, 7 April 1944, IWM, catalogue no: A 22745 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205154912

[Factory Image 2] Women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service visit a factory, UK, 1942, IWM, catalogue no: P 1092 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202761

[Factory Image 3] The Women behind the Women: Munitions work at a Royal Ordnance Factory in the North of England, c1942, IWM, catalogue no: D 13575 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205125599

[WHD Image 1] Civil Defence on the British Home Front, England, 1941, IWM, catalogue no: D 4988 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205125704

[WHD Image 2] Women on the Home Front 1939 – 1945, IWM, catalogue no: HU 36227 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205021942

[WHD Image 3] Women on the Home Front 1939 – 1945, IWM, catalogue no: D 10392 https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193225


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