Feminism and the Somme? Women and the First World War

By Laura Schwartz

This was first given as a talk at the anarchist bookfair in East London, October 2014. We have posted it here today to provide an alternative perspective on the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, when over 1 million men were killed or wounded. Mainly young working-class men from different nations were sent out to murder each other in the name of a power struggle between Europe’s ruling classes. This article looks at what women were experiencing at the time of the Somme, in a Britain that had so recently been the site of a massive feminist movement now increasingly pushed out by wartime patriotism. We also thought it was worth thinking about this moment in history in the wake of Brexit, and what we see to be the callous and opportunistic manipulation of racism and nationalism by millionaires such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

 ‘Women and the First World War’ has been a popular subject in much of the 100 year anniversary commemorations that have taken over the mainstream media in the last few months; and for a long time it has featured in the school history curriculum for that week when, once a year, you get to look at women.

Over and over again, a familiar narrative is put forward which goes something like this: “The First World War ultimately changed women’s lives for the better, because it allowed them to enter the world of work, to take on jobs previously reserved for men, and do exciting things like wear trousers. The suffragettes, the women who had been campaigning for the vote in the decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, came over all patriotic as soon as war was announced, stopped asking for political rights, and instead directed all that pent-up hysterical energy into serving their nation. In 1918, when the war was finally over, women were granted the vote, not because of the last sixty years or so of serious political organising, but as a thank you for all that hard work in the munitions factories and army hospitals.” 

So in this talk, I’m going to try to dispel some of these myths that surround the history of women and the First World War. I’m going to ask what happens to the popular story of ‘war was good for women’ when viewed from the perspective of working class women; I’m going to talk a little bit about the East London Federation of Suffragettes (led by the Left communist Sylvia Pankhurst) and the kinds of things they got up to during the war; and I am also going to introduce you to a few lesser-known socialist feminists active in opposing the Great War.

As I’m sure many of you know, Sylvia Pankhurst was a suffragette, a feminist, and a Left Communist who had been one of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the early years of the twentieth century. She was imprisoned many times over for militant action demanding votes for women, before splitting with her mother and sister (Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst) to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and the organisation which sought to unite feminist struggle with class struggle. The East London Federation of Suffragettes was a small yet genuinely grassroots organisation of working-class women, active in this very neighbourhood, with its headquarters on Roman Road.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s book “The Home Front” was published in 1932 and provides an extraordinarily vivid account of the experiences of working-class women left at home during the war. As men rushed to join up, and military parades took over the streets of central London, things were looking decidedly less cheerful in the East End. Sylvia Pankhurst writes about how, when working-class men volunteered and were quickly packed off to training camps, their wives and families were suddenly deprived of their primary breadwinner. In the first few months of the war, the government was scandalously slow in organising the payment of the small ‘separation allowance’ to soldiers’ wives – in many cases, leaving women literally starving. Sylvia Pankhurst’s book describes numerous cases of these desperate conditions, in which many women had to resort to feeding young babies on boiled bread.

It was in response to this that the East London Federation of Suffragettes began, for the first time, to provide what they called ‘relief’ and what we might call welfare services, or mutual aid. Up until this point, the Federation had very clearly defined itself as a political organisation, dedicated to producing a newspaper called Woman’s Dreadnought, engaging in militant and illegal acts against the government, and raising the consciousness of fellow working-class men and women in their neighbourhood. They were initially wary about providing ‘relief’ because they did not want to replicate middle-class philanthropic or charitable endeavours, which targeted the East End in particular. However, in the face of the extreme deprivation that swept working-class communities in the first few months of the Great War, the East London Federation of Suffragettes quickly discarded such reservations, realising that their primary task was to help their fellow workers to survive. 

Sylvia Pankhurst, in the Woman’s Dreadnought newspaper, began to plead for funds to buy milk, eggs and sustenance for nursing mothers. In August 1914, 400 Old Ford Road was turned into a milk centre where mothers whose breastmilk had dried up due to semi-starvation, could bring their babies to be fed. In the next few months, the East London Federation of Suffragettes also set up communal restaurants, which both provided affordable meals for entire families and lessened the burden of domestic labour on working-class women. Despite their focus on providing relief, the Federation did not give up their earlier commitment to solidarity over charity. Firstly, they insisted upon paying any woman who worked in the milk centres and communal restaurants no less than five pence per hour – the district minimum wage of the unskilled working man. This was in contrast to many other progressive and trade union organisations during this period, which continued to reinforce the gender inequality of wages (whereby women were always paid less than men for the same work) on the basis that they needed to be realistic. Pankhurst and her comrades were highly dismissive of such so-called realism.

Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst’s memory of the first few months of the Great War, then, could not be more different from that often betrayed in popular period dramas such as Downton Abbey or that one that was on recently about women nurses working in the trenches. In these TV shows, the First World War (in spite of its tragedy) is depicted as an exciting and liberating time for their middle-class female protagonists. Sylvia Pankhurst did in fact acknowledge that ‘for women of means [wealthy, middle-class women], undreamt of activities, opportunities, positions opened up on the horizon. The War was but a vast unlocking of their energies.’ With characteristically sarcastic verve Sylvia Pankhurst described how:

 ‘beautiful women in long white coats, flawlessly tailored, already were taking the part of chauffeurs. How speedily they learn to drive! It was truly amazing! Once scarcely saw women driving before the war. How important, how joyously important they were… Every woman who put her hand to the wheel was releasing a man for the trenches. Even if she still had [her own personal] chauffeur in the background [at home] – she was still making a gesture…’

While we may sympathise with Sylvia Pankhurst’s frustration at the memorialisation of women’s experience of the war as one long jolly trot towards emancipation, I think it is important to acknowledge that the war did play a role in smashing up many restrictive notions of Victorian bourgeois femininity, politicising many middle-class women in the process. Moreover, some working-class women also able to benefit from the greater mobility and economic autonomy that the Great War enabled. As the government established munitions factories around the country, thousands of mainly young single working-class women left their home town to work in these factories for wages that (while still well below those paid to male workers) were far higher than any they had previously known. 

However, if we accept this as the dominant narrative, we risk obscuring many other important aspects of working-class women’s experience during this time. Firstly, it was not as if the young women schlepping away in the munitions factories were going out to work for the first time – far from it, most women war workers had worked for a wage before the war, though many domestic servants got their first taste of factory work as a result of the war. I also think we are often made to forget quite how dangerous much of this war-work was and quite how unbearable conditions in the munitions factories must have been. 

For example, one young woman named Isabel Clark was sent by the Belfast Labour Exchange far away from her home in Northern Ireland to the munitions factory at Morcombe in Yorkshire. After her friend and fellow factory worker died from poisoning whilst fitting shells with powder, Isabel Clark was moved to Coventry. Years later she still remembered the sense of anxiety and foreboding that permeated the everyday work of the munitions factory. Munitions workers would first have to weigh out the gunpowder, pack it into the shell with an implement like a broomstick, and then (jn order to ensure the correct amount of gunpowder had been packed in) they had to whack the bottom of the shell with a mallet. And so from descriptions like these it is clear that munitions workers risked death at every turn. Those who were lucky enough not to get blown up, often fell victim to jaundice caused by working with chemicals – turning their skin yellow on a semi-permanent basis.

Both munitions workers and the wives of soldiers away at the front, were also subject to an intense level of state surveillance, often imposed by middle-class women employed by the government in the role of ‘Welfare Supervisors’. Welfare supervisors policed the dress, the drinking habits and the sexuality of their working-class sisters, who were threatened with the removal of whatever pitifully small state benefits they received from the government. 

Working-class women, however, certainly did not take such treatment lying down. Trade Unionists frequently lodged formal complaints about these so-called ‘welfare supervisors’ and, despite strikes being illegal during the war, many women workers nevertheless, undertook unofficial industrial action. In the last two years of the war, it has been calculated that recorded strike activity in fact rose to around half the level that it had been during the pre-war years when labour unrest was at its peak. In 1916, for example, women working in a factory in Newcastle took wildcat action over a dispute about pay. Each morning they would duly present themselves at work, on time, and take up their positions on the factory floor. But instead of producing munitions they came armed with their crochet patterns, knitting needles and books. Their employers, of course, quickly resorted to emotional blackmail, asking them to think of their duty to the poor men fighting at the Front. One spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of her fellow strikers, replied furiously . “Don’t mention the soldiers [to me]. England on 2 1/2p an hour isn’t worth fighting for!”.

And so it becomes clear that it is impossible to talk about the experiences of “women” during the First World War as if they were one homogenous group, and not riven by class conflict, exploitation, and division. I want to end by briefly showing that it is also impossible to make sweeping generalisations about what happened to the feminist or women’s movement during the war. Feminists had been campaigning for the vote, along with many other political and legal rights for women, since the 1860s, but it was in the first decade of the twentieth century that this movement became a genuinely mass and politically rich and diverse movement, involving significant numbers of working-class as well as middle-class women. To give you a sense of this, you only need to look at someone like Jessie Stephen, who was a Glaswegian domestic servant, the founder of one of the first grassroots servants’ unions, a member of the Independent Labour Party as well as an activist for the Women’s Social and Political union, who used to go out dressed in her maid’s outfit because it provided such a good disguise when she wanted to firebomb letterboxes. Her comrade in the Domestic Workers’ Union was another servant, Kathlyn Oliver, who was a self-defined socialist and a feminist, a member of the People’s Suffrage Federation (which campaigned for universal suffrage for both men and women), and an out-lesbian at a time when this was still extremely rare. 

Both Jessie Stephen and Kathlyn Oliver were vocal opponents of the Great War. While the leaders of the two main suffrage organisations – the Women’s Social and Political Union and (after 1915) the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – supported the war, a significant minority of feminists were consistent opponents, organising alongside socialists and trade Unionists in organisations such as the Women’s International League. Though such women were not imprisoned in the manner of male conscientious objectors, they nevertheless faced a great deal of hostility and sometimes even violence, not only from the general public , but also from people who had been their comrades in the women’s and labour movements before the war.

There is much debate among historians as to why and how the leadership of the women’s movement came to support the First World War. Some have argued that the limited franchise that was introduced in 1918 (granted only to women property owners) can be blamed upon the split that occurred over the war, when the pacifists were ousted from leadership, leaving the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in the hands of conservative elements. From this perspective, rather than see the vote being given to women as a result of their war effort, we need to understand the Great War as an obstacle, a step back for the women’s movement in Britain.

I want to end, however, by asking a question that I very much feel I still don’t know the answer to. If Britain looked to be on the verge of revolution in, July 1914 – with a massive women’s movement, unprecedented levels of labour unrest and the forces of Irish republicanism all posing a direct threat to the British state – why did so many people support the war when it was declared? Anti-war sentiment may have been strong among sections of the women’s and the labour movement, but in neither case was it the dominant position. How did patriotism function as a kind of Deus Ex Machina – whipping the vast majority of working-class people up into jingoistic support for the war, even if this did not last very long? Were the forces of the Left weaker than they believed themselves to be in 1913? Were they too inward looking, failing to acknowledge the significance of international relations to the fate of their struggles? I think these are questions that might still be useful for us to ask ourselves today.

Much of the information here on women war workers comes from an excellent book: Cathy Hunt, The National Federation of Women Workers, 1906-1921 (Palgrave, 2014). I recommend you all read it!