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resource created by derbyshire record office, curriculum links.
- KS2 History: Study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066
- KS3 History: Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day
- Knowledge of the various forms of women's war work in WW2
- Understanding of the impact and significance of women's war work
- Skills to analyse propaganda and compare multiple sources
World War Two had a big impact upon the lives of ordinary British women. Thousands were called upon to fill their jobs and do important war work, join the women's armed services or help with volunteer work that contributed to the war effort. This resource uses archive materials from the East Midlands to investigate the experiences of women living during World War Two.
Other potential areas for additional study or independent research on women’s WW2 work, include:
- Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)
- Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)
- The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY)
- Munitions workers
- Nursing – (eg. Voluntary Aid Detachment, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service)
- Special Operations Executive (SOE) – spies
- The Women’s Auxiliary Service - voluntary policewomen
- The Women’s Land Army
- The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS)
- The Women’s Timber Corps
- The Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS)
(See the other pages of this resource for more discussion and activity ideas.)
- Research a woman who was in the WW2 services: If you can, try to find out more about a member of your family or a woman whose story you come across during research, who did some kind of war work in the Second World War (perhaps someone who received a medal) . - What sort of work did she do? - What did her work involve? - Was she conscripted or did she choose to do it? - How did she feel about it? Did she enjoy it? - How many other women did this sort of work? - Did any of them receive medals for their work? - Do women still do this type of work today?
- Creative writing: Which job available to women during the Second World War would you have chosen? Imagine you are a woman doing that job. Write a letter to a family member, describing what you have been doing and how you feel about it.
- Design a recruitment poster: Look at the recruitment posters in the image gallery and on the Leeds University Wiki site (see the link at the bottom of the page) . Design your own poster encouraging women to choose a wartime role. - Try to present the job in a positive light. - Think about the things women may have enjoyed about their wartime jobs. - What sort of reasons might they have had for choosing a particular job?
Taking Over 'Men's' Work
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Search form, world war ii: 1939-1945.
- The impact on women's work
- Inequality and discrimination
The impact of WWII on women's work
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.
Create an infographic using the following figures:
- 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%) - as a percentage of all women of working age.
- Forty six percent of all women aged between 14 and 59 and 90% of all single women between the ages of 18 and 40 were engaged in some form of work or National Service by September 1943.
What is an infographic ?
- An infographic (information graphics) is a way to visually represent data.
- Infographics present information quickly and clearly by using images and graphics, ket words and figures.
- Your infographic should help the reader understand the information provided, without the need for lots of text and explanation.
- Make sure your infographic is engaging, bright, informative and simple.
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.
Create a short performance, which depicts the 'life of a young woman entering the world of work' for the first time during WWII.
Your performance should be no longer than 3 minutes long.
You can create a monologue (meaning you perform the piece on your own) or you can perform with others (smaller groups are better).
In your performance you must use:
- Facts and Figures
- Information taken from the text ‘Women under fire’ as the basis for your script
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
What role did the government play in getting women into the workplace during WWII?
You must read the text from this section and discuss the role, both positive and negative, that the government played, the specific actions they took, and the impact this had on women in work during WWII.
After undertaking the activities within this section students will be able to:
- Explain the impact World War II had on women in work.
- Describe the inequalities that continued during WWII in relation to women's wages in comparison to men's wages.
- Evaluate how these inequalities and impacts led to the growth of women workers' movements.
The May 1944 issue of the 'Red Tape' magazine of the Civil Service Clerical association reports a debate about the abolition of the 'marriage bar' in the civil service. The 'marriage bar' ended in many public services through the 1940s and 1950s, but cont
Ministry of Health poster issued in 1943 depicting work with evacuees, which was mainly done by women, as part of the war work
The women delegates at the 1943 Fire Brigades Union conference where the union agreed to capaign for a charter for equal pay and to end the sacking of pregnant women.
Poster issued by the Ministry of Labour and National Service in 1944 following the invasion of Soviet Union by Nazi Germany.
The Amalgamated Engineering Union began to admit women in 1943 following the influx of women into the industry during the second world war.
Poster showing women ambulance workers in Stoke Newington, London.
Poster showing number of women employed in the Home Front or defense services during the second World War
A former court dressmaker, now with the Women's Land Army, at the controls of a diesel caterpillar excavator, on a farm in Hertfordshire during the WWII.
Grace was 16-and-a-half years old when she volunteered for the Women's Land Army. The first place where she was stationed was in a hostel four miles outside Aberystwyth in Wales. “There were around 30 girls, we all got on quite well together. …Most people used to think that because we were in the country and working on farms we were having a really good time. This was not so, although I am not saying it was all bad. We enjoyed the village dances, and made quite a few friends. Some of the farmers thought we were there just to do all the dirty jobs that no-one else would do. I remember going to one place with another girl. The Lady of the Manor took us to a field about one-and-a-half acres. It was covered with weeds and thistles almost as tall as ourselves. We were told to clear it. We had no gloves to wear so you can imagine what our hands were like at the end of the day. Even our faces were scratched. She used to sit in her car at the far end of the field to watch us. If it rained and we went to shelter under a tree she would come round and make us go back. …One day we decided we had had enough. The lady came to the hostel and asked us to go back, and we were supplied with a pair of gloves each, and cups of tea. It took a long time for the farmers to realise we were quite capable of doing a man's job when we had to. I hope this has explained why so many of us think we were not treated fairly. For many years on Remembrance Sunday, we have not been asked to be represented. The question is, why not? Do we not deserve to be recognised with pride and honour? Why were we forgotten so easily after we were no longer needed?” Grace Wallace, ‘WW2, People's War'. 'WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar Other sources:
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Life during World War II
British people who weren’t fighting in World War II still had a very different life to the one they had before the war. For one thing, there wasn’t as much food around so every little bit had to be saved and used – even if it didn’t taste very nice! And clothes that were too small or had tears in them just had to be fixed and made bigger because there weren’t many new things around to buy. Everyone had to help each other get the things they needed to keep warm and healthy.
Many people – especially children – who lived in cities were evacuated to the country to keep safe from air attacks such as the Blitz .
Bombs dropped by German planes could flatten brick houses in seconds. Can you imagine going to school one morning, and coming back to find your house was gone? Or when packing your rucksack, popping in a gas mask to protect yourself in case of a gas attack?
Farms in the country became busy communities of people who moved in to help use every bit of the land to grow food. They might have moved there because they didn’t have a home anymore, or because they just wanted to help out as much as they could.
Top 10 facts
- During World War II , Britain was called ‘ the Home Front ’ – the war affected people not just fighting in armies on the front lines, but back in their own towns and neighbourhoods.
- All the different plans and ways to help get Britain through World War II was called ‘ the war effort ’. Helping the war effort meant anything from planting vegetables to making fighter planes.
- Because Britain was at war, it wasn’t easy to get food and other supplies anymore. In 1940, a system called rationing was set up which made sure that everyone had a fair amount of food, clothes and things like soap and petrol based on what was actually available. Rationing didn’t end until 1954.
- Land Girls were women from all over Britain who worked on farms, helping to grow and produce food for the rest of the country.
- Not all men went to fight overseas – some couldn’t go and instead joined the Home Guard , which was made up of volunteers ready to defend Britain from a surprise enemy invasion. The Home Guard was created in 1940.
- From September 1940 to May 1941, Britain was bombed heavily by enemy planes. That time is called ‘ The Blitz ’.
- During the Blitz, it was very dangerous to live in cities because that’s where most of the bombs were dropped. So, many children were sent off to live in the country where it was safer. These children were known as ‘ evacuees ’.
- People could protect themselves from enemy attacks by having a gas mask that would allow them to breathe clean air no matter how dirty or poisonous the air around them was after a bombing.
- Loud sirens would let people know that a bomb might go off soon, and that they should run to the nearest air-raid shelter. Bomb shelters were small, strong structures, sometimes put underground, that protected people inside from being hurt during explosions.
- When Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that the war was over on VE Day , people all over Britain celebrated by holding street parties.
- 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland
- 3 September 1939 The UK and France declared War on Germany
- 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain, taking over from Neville Chamberlain
- 14 May 1940 The Home Guard was created (The Local Defence Volunteers)
- 26 May-4 June 1940 The evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk, France June 1940 – German troops occupied the Channel Islands
- 10 June 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France, and allies with Germany
- 10 July-31 October 1940 The Battle of Britain
- 7 September 1940 The Blitz begins in London
- 8 September 1941-27 January 1944 The Siege of Leningrad
- 7 December 1941 The Japanese attacked an American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
- 8 December 194 The United States declared war on Japan, and joined with the Allies
- 6 June 1944 D-Day, when troops from Britain and the US landed in France to fight against the Germans
- 16 December 1944-25 January 1945 The Battle of the Bulge
- 8 May 1945 VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), when Germany surrendered
- 15 August 1945 VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day), when Japan surrendered
- 2 September 1945 Japan formally surrendered, and officially ended World War II
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Did you know?
- The Land Girls were part of the Women’s Land Army , which started in World War I but is best known for their work during World War II . One job that the Land Girls had was to kill rats, who were responsible for eating 2 million tonnes of food every year!
- The Home Guard was first called the Local Defence Volunteers .
- ‘ Blitz ’ is the German word for ‘lightning’.
- When an attack is made by planes (so, instead of troops in tanks or ships), it is called an air-raid. During the Blitz, Britain was attacked by air-raids.
- Air-raid shelters were usually about as big as a garden shed. In fact, some are used as garden sheds today!
- Sweets and treats were hard to get during the war. Children would eat carrots on sticks instead of ice lollies! The only sweets that weren’t rationed during the war were cough sweets.
- Rationing continued until 1954 – nine years after World War II ended!
Pictures of life during World War II
Have a look through the images in the gallery and see if you can spot the following:
- The uniform that Land Girls wore
- A poster asking men to join the Army
- A group of Home Guard members
- An underground air-raid shelter
- A ration book
When most of the men in Britain went off to fight in the war, women stepped in to do some of the jobs left vacant. One of these groups was the Land Girls , who worked on farms to grow food, look after livestock and keep the buildings and grounds in good shape.
Not all the men could go overseas, though. Some were just too old or too young, and others had jobs that were thought to be too important for them to leave – these were called ‘reserved occupations’, and included farmers, coal miners and ship builders. Men who stayed in Britain could join the Home Guard, whose main job was to defend the land if there were a sudden attack by the enemy, holding them off until soldiers could get there. There never was an attack like this, but what members of the Home Guard did do was watch over important resources like factories that might have been key targets of an attack, and places like dark fields where enemy troops might parachute into thinking that nobody would see them land. The Home Guard also captured enemy pilots whose planes had crash-landed. The Home Guard was formed in 1940 and disbanded in 1945, and over 1 million men were part of it for most of this time.
Lots of things that people used to be able to pick up in shops around the corner weren’t available during the war. For instance, a factory that used to produce clothes would have been reassigned to produce items for the troops instead. Also, foods like bananas that would have come in on ships from other countries were unavailable because it was dangerous for ships to bring food to Britain. Convoys of ships were used to bring essential food items from other countries but many of these ships were destroyed by the Germans before they could get to Britain.
A system called rationing was set up in 1940 that restricted how much food, clothes and other supplies people could have in a week or month. Each person – both children and adults – had a ration book with coupons in it that they’d hand over to their local shopkeeper, who would give them items their coupons allowed them to have. This system meant everyone got something to eat, and something to wear, even if it wasn’t very much.
The first foods that were rationed were bacon, sugar, tea, butter and meat. This list grew and grew as the war went on, and people got used to making each little bit stretch as far as possible. For example, today you could go out and buy as a dozen eggs and as much milk as you like. But back in war time, people were allowed just one egg per week and three pints of milk per month! People could grow and eat as many vegetables as they wanted, so gardens of all sizes popped up wherever there was space for one – even in parks. Rationing carried on after the war was over because supplies were still low, but gradually items came off the rationing list so things were never as restricted as they was during the war. Rationing ended for good in 1954.
The Blitz lasted from September 1940 to May 1941. During this time, Britain was bombed very heavily in a number of air-raids. Major cities (like London), factories and seaside towns were all targeted because bombing them would cause the most damage – such as destroying rows of houses, production of weapons, or ports where ships carrying supplies would come to.
Loud air-raid sirens would warn people that enemy planes were on the way, and they would need to run to the nearest shelter – no matter if it were the middle of the day or night. Some people had Anderson shelters buried in their back garden, or Morrison shelters in their home. These were strong structures that were built to protect people inside from bomb explosions. In London, Tube (underground) stations were used as air-raid shelters too. Many people also owned gas masks that they could wear to breathe clean air after an explosion.
Because living in cities was so dangerous, mums and dads decided to send their children to the country. These children were called evacuees . This was a really hard decision because nobody wanted to say goodbye to their families, but it was the best way to make sure children stayed safe – nobody knew when the war would finally be over. Many children travelled by train to farms, to homes in the country or to large, stately homes that had lots of room. Some British children even went overseas to countries like Canada . They would write letters about their new adventures to their parents.
Just for fun...
- Try to ‘ make do and mend ’! What would you add to or take away from the clothes for this paper doll?
- Complete some Home Front activities and learn all about life in Britain 1939-1945
- Understand more about rationing with games and flashcards
- Imagine you’re an evacuee. What would you write about your experience in a letter to friends and family?
- Make a list of what you’d take into an air-raid shelter
- Find out about life in the Cabinet War Rooms
- Cook some war-time recipes! Do you fancy Cheesy pudding pie ? Or baked jam and carrot sponge pudding? Or sardines wrapped in potato ?
- Become a spy and gather information about life in Scotland during WWII
- Listen to and watch WWII audio-visual clips from a huge archive including key speeches, eye-witness reports and some of the most evocative sounds of the War on the BBC Schools Radio site
- Remember VE Day, 7 May 1945 , with English Heritage VE activities for children : learn to dance the Lindy Hop, popular in the 1940s, download a VE Day Spotify music playlist, make ginger beer and carrot scones
- Download a VE Day kids' activity pack , with puzzles and recipes, from Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI)
See for yourself
- Visit the Imperial War Museum in London to see what life was like for a family living in Britain during World War II
- At the Churchill War Rooms in London you can see Churchill’s statesmanlike wooden armchair – still visible in its wellworn armrests are the marks clawed by Churchill’s fingernails
- Learn more about the Land Girls at Gresswell Farm and Workhouse
- Visit Chislehurst Caves in Kent, one of the largest deep air-raid shelters in the country which protected over 15,000 people at the height of the Blitz
- Look at WWII posters and propaganda
- Find out about Operation Dynamo, the May 1940 evaculation of Dunkirk in WWII, at Dover Castle
- See photographs of life during the Blitz
- Find out about WWII spies and their operations by taking a walk in London and using the free app Spooks, Spies and Videotape – London's Secret War
Best children's books about life during WWII
Find out more
- Find out about the Women’s Land Army
- Kids' fiction about WWII : read stories to find out more about the period
- Sir Nicholas Winton saved the lives of 669 children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Prague in 1939. His daughter Barbara Winton tells his story in a BBC School Radio programme for children aged 7 to 11
- Look at objects from WWII
- Find out more about WWII weapons like doodlebugs and V2s
- What was life like for children who were evacuated ?
- See a map of how London was bombed during the Blitz
- Read a story of extraordinary bravery in east London during WWII
- Find out about the products (chocolate, tights and more!) that America soldiers, G.I.s, brought with them when they came to Britain in a Horrible Histories song
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