Before the Second World War, some people believed that a woman's place was in the home.
Many firms were reluctant to employ married women. For example, until the Married Women Teachers Sex
Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, women had to leave teaching when they got married. After 1919, even
though it was illegal, some local authorities still placed obstacles in the path of female employees.
The Second World War changed all that. It was a total war that meant everybody was involved. With many men away in
the army, navy and air force, women had to take over the jobs they left behind. Women worked everywhere:
in the armed forces as drivers, clerks or military police; on the anti-aircraft guns and in ARP control centres;
as sand-bag fillers and fire-fighters; in the Women's Voluntary Service (the WVS); in factories, underground and over ground,
producing munitions for the war; on farms in the Land Army growing food for a hungry nation.
Under the National Service Act of 1941, all women between the ages of 18 and 60 had to sign up for some form of work.
These figures show how essential the contribution of women was to the whole war effort.
1942 December 8.5 million women, aged 19 to 46,
1943 May6,311,000 were working in
industry or the armed services
1943 December 1.5 million women workers in the engineering industry, 30% of the total workforce
One out of every three workers in the factories was a woman, making the planes, tanks, guns and bullets needed in the war, labouring on heavy industrial machinery that prejudiced people before the war had said was not 'women's work'. To help all the workers in industry, Ernest Bevin (the Minister of Labour) introduced improved welfare facilities in or near the factories. These included proper canteens, nursery schools and medical help.
Women from all social backgrounds got involved. The Ministry of Information followed one upper-class young woman in her duties at a WVS canteen:
"Miss Patience Brand, in the thick of London's society whirl before the war, is now a hard-working Women's Voluntary Services (WVS) worker whose happy smile and unbounding energy have cheered and comforted thousands of blitzed Londoners. Boo Brand is only 18, her friend Rachel Bingham 20. They sleep at the WVS canteen service depot with the alarm set for 2.30 am for it is at that unearthly hour that they must get up and get their canteen ready for serving shelterers who leave for work at the crack of dawn. Despite the hour they get up cheerfully and dress between the pillars reinforcing their sleeping quarters"
The massive contribution made by women to the war effort was recognized by all. The US War Department offered this advice to American soldiers when they came to Britain in 1942 (quoted in Susan Briggs 'Keep Smiling Through', Fontana 1975):
"British women have proved themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motor-cycles have been blasted from under them. There isn't a single record of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post, or failing in her duty under fire. When you see a girl in uniform with a bit of ribbon on her tunic, remember she didn't get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich"
Gillian Tanner was one of these "girls in uniform with a bit of ribbon on her tunic", awarded the George Medal as a fire-fighter in the Auxiliary Fire Service. The George Medal is given to civilians only for acts of great courage and bravery where a person has put her or his own life at great risk in order to save others.