The War Archives - Women At War

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Universal conscription for women in Britain was introduced in 1941, but women had been volunteering in large numbers since the declaration of war in September 1939. Even with the advent of conscription, women were not necessarily forced into the so-called auxiliary armed services, and had the option of undertaking civil defence work, including fire-fighting, policing and air-raid precautions (ARP)… or of joining the Women’s Land Army, or taking up ‘such specified jobs in industry as the Minister of Labour may direct’.
Even those who were not conscripted made a huge contribution, assisting with rationing work, organising savings drives, collecting scrap, growing vegetables, collecting kitchen waste, and co-ordinating scarce transport resources.

Nowhere was the impact of the entry of women to the war effort greater than in industry. As the numbers of men and young people employed in industry fell, from 13.08 million in 1939 to 10.17 million in 1945, so the numbers of women increased accordingly.
For example, the numbers of women employed in engineering and metals, explosives, chemicals and shipbuilding, rose from 488,000 in June 1939 to a peak of 1,855,600 in June 1943, and it was a similar story in the manufacture of aircraft, motor vehicles and cycles, with the number rising almost ten-fold from 45,200 in June 1939 to 417,700 in December 1943.

With valuable shipping space reserved, for example for the trucks, tanks and weapons that were vital to the fighting men, Britain’s farmers were encouraged to grow more and thus to reduce the need for importing food. During WWII, seven million acres of grassland were put under the plough, and the area of arable land in Britain was increased by 43 per cent. By the end of the war, Britain had the highest rates of agricultural productivity, and was producing more food per acre than any other country in the world.
Part of this success story must be attributed to the creation of the Women’s Land Army in 1939, which saw some 80,000 women sign-up to work in agriculture.

Although there was no conscription for women until Winter 1941, by the end of 1939, more than 36,000 women were enlisted in the three auxiliary services – the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, together with 7,000 women in the (military) nursing services.
By late 1943 the numbers peaked at 453,000 for the three military services, with a further 17,500 in nursing.

WWII has often been described as ‘total warfare’, requiring maximum effort from servicemen and civilians alike. As in Great Britain, the role of US and Canadian women was indispensable, and millions became involved in the war effort, either in uniform, or undertaking work that had previously been the exclusive domain of men. In May 1942, the USA created the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, subsequently renaming it as the Women’s Army Corps. Later, women were allowed to enlist in the US Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. A total of 350-400,000 women served with the US armed forces.
It was the same story in industry, with hundreds of thousands of women flocking to work in the defence industries.

WWII changed women’s perceptions of their role in society and broadened their horizons. For the first time, millions of women realised that there was a life outside of the home. Surveys showed that women valued their new-found freedoms and, whilst the transition to peace cannot have been easy, surveys showed that many women wanted to keep their jobs. The outbreak of peace also saw thousands of women ‘demobbed’ from the services, with those that remained no longer seen as ‘auxiliary’ services.
By the ’seventies and ‘eighties women started to make inroads into military areas that had formerly been the exclusive domain of men…. the conflict may have been over but, for women, there was no looking back.