|Before the war a woman's place was considered to be in the home. Her role in life was to be a good housewife and mother and she was trained for this from childhood. A girl would learn to cook and clean, knit and sew. Education was thought to be more important for boys, whose role it would be to work and support a family in future years. Some women did work, but usually in clean and gentle occupations or in domestic service for more wealthy families. It was quite unusual for middle class women, especially married ones, to go to work.
Then came the war. As the men were sent away to fight, women were needed more and more to fill their jobs. At first this was done by volunteers, but as the need grew greater women were under more pressure to work in many different jobs. By the mid years of the war, all healthy women under the age of forty were required to work, in one way or another, for the war effort. In spite of poor conditions; food rationing; separation from loved family members; many women found that there were new possibilities opening up to them which gave them confidence and a sense of purpose that they had not had before.
A wide variety of jobs were available to women for the first time. Some became mechanics and engineers; some drove tanks or built ships. Women were employed in factories, making bombs and aircraft parts; as air raid wardens; as members of the fire service and in various voluntary jobs helping the community to get through the war.
The Women's Land Army was set up to keep farms working and providing food, which became hard to get during the war. The work was often hard and physically demanding.
The armed forces recognised the need to employ women to free the men for active service and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) was set up, followed by the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and then the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS or Wrens). Although women were encouraged to join the services, especially young, single women, it was not until 1941 that Britain became the first country to call up (conscript) women, to take part in war work. At first this only applied to single women between the ages of 18 and 26, but later women up to the age of 51 were included, unless they had children under the age of fourteen, when war work was voluntary. Conscripted women had the choice of working in the services, in civil defence or in industry. Those who couldn't work were encouraged to look after the children of those who could.
Many women were very happy about the new situation. They had watched the men in their families go to war and had felt useless, although they knew that they were capable of 'doing their bit'. Many loved the new sense of freedom and independence that came with having jobs of their own. Other advantages were the company of other working women, the pay that they earned for themselves and the feeling that they were able to play a useful part in the war effort.