You take two sugars, don’t you?

What status in the social, political and even the religious pecking order did a female hold prior to WW1? Apart from having no outlet for advancement, their station in life was limited to the nurturing and servile occupations such as teaching, house work and nursing. Even though the suffragette movement had commenced its campaign as far back as the 1860s to obtain voting rights for females, this array of radical reformers antagonised rather than aided the feminist agenda. Did WW1 accelerate woman’s advancement and if so how and what was the quantum thereof? Or was the change ephemeral and only for the duration of the war?

This is the odyssey of a number of females who took advantage of the situation and spread their wings. Without the condescending guffaws of males to cajole them not to be foolish, they each in their own way proved that females could achieve their dreams with ingenuity, perseverance and hard work.

Main picture:

A woman at work in an armaments factory, during the first world war.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

None of them was in any way a hero or martyr, in the conventional sense, but their stories are set in an era that disparaged females’ abilities and viewed them as inferior and incapable was in vogue. Cast in that light, these vignettes illuminate woman’s first strides at prizing open the chauvinist door. Maybe the door was only ajar at the termination of WW1, but with the light flooding through the crack, the first tentative steps to equality had ineluctably been taken.

A woman driving a wagon and horsesin north London during WW1

A woman driving a wagon and horsesin north London during WW1

In one respect WW1 did have a profound and immediate effect and that was religiosity. From 90% in 1914 of the population adhering to the strictures of the church and their dogma, to 1918 where disillusionment with religion was so wide-spread that only 60% of the population could be classified as being highly religious or pious. Whereas the Enlightenment had permitted people to question the teaching and the role of church, WW1 allowed them to reject its core tenets.

Ironically the church was at the forefront of such sexist practices. Kate Adie, a writer on woman’s rights and especially their contribution to war, recounted these words during her documentary Women of WW1 as regards the view of women by the church:

Female railway employees

Female railway employees

 In Corinthians 14:34 of the King James’ version of the Bible, the role of the woman in the church was stated blandly as follows:

 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

 And if they learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home for it is shameful for them to speak in church.

 For Adam came first, then Eve.

 This biblical injunction defined life more by what a woman couldn’t do than by what she could. This tenet for instance implied that women could not read the lesson nor could they preach in the church and certainly never from the pulpit. Indeed women were forbidden to even perform such mundane functions as handing out hymn books, taking the collection or even ringing the bells.

What an indictment? This situation not only made the church complicit in the subjugation of women but society in general.

Kate Adie

Kate Adie

Forceful and intelligent women had long chaffed against these societal strictures. Few persevered against the relentless pressure to conform. Some were fortunate to marry men who treated them as equals not merely in the boudoir but in their occupation. These were a minority. For the rest it was an annual pregnancy and another child to nurse.

How did WW1 transform the balance within the household? With the men at the front in Flanders or France and a scarcity of men to man the machines in the factories, women were encouraged to occupy those positions. One such woman was Gabrielle West. Whilst not a patrician in status or part of the landed gentry class, Gabrielle represented the genteel middle class albeit miniscule in that era. In equal measure it was a sense of duty and a sense of adventure that delivered Gabrielle to the front door of the Woolwich Arsenal in London.

St Gabriel's Church Hall, Kayll Road, Sunderland

St Gabriel’s Church Hall, Kayll Road, Sunderland

Ironically it was a liberal social reformer and ex Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George whose strenuous endorsement of the proposal that females be allowed to work in the factories when he appointed as Minister of Supply during WW1 that ensured the smooth sailing in the adoption of this measure. A little known fact is that it was Lloyd George himself who had arranged, in cahoots with Emmeline Pankhurst, an inveterate suffragette, a demonstration in favour of the measure. In terms therefore the munitionettes, as the female factory workers were known, could perform jobs previously reserved for men.

Gabrielle West

Gabrielle West

It was Emmeline herself who had suspended the campaign to obtain voting rights for females for the duration of the war

Working conditions in these factories were abominable. It was into this maelstrom of noise and instant death – health and safety was not a consideration, production output was – that Gabrielle had commenced her “adventure.” The working girls were an admixture of the baser females in society. One in particular, Mary Morgan, was Gabrielle’s bête noir.

Initial her role was mundane: a tea lady. With the establishment of the Women’s Police Service, Gabrielle volunteered and was appointed as a guard at the same factory. With very little formal training, their role was to maintain order and to prevent pilferage. Their right of arrest of female police women was strictly limited as they were not granted jurisdiction over males.

Gabrielle Wests's diary

Gabrielle Wests’s diary

Meanwhile Sarah McNaughton, a writer and a spinster, approaching 50 and bored with the tedium of life, was seeking adventure of a different kind. To this end she had gathered a bunch of high society females and volunteered as nurses at the front.

The first obstacle that she encountered was chauvinism writ large. In spite of the dire shortage of male nurses in Belgium, the doctor in charge, a male of course, a Dr Beavis, refused to let these enthusiastic nurses close to the wounded and sick men. For him, all that this bunch of females was capable of was to make tea and scrub the floors.

Sarah Broom Macnaughtan

Sarah Broom Macnaughtan

Ironically when the German threatened to overrun their extemporised hospital, it was the male nurses who absconded with the fighting men leaving these fearless female nurses to attend to these terrified and distraught men. With no equipment of whatever sort, it was merely by their cheery optimist manner that they encouraged the men to hold on.

On getting word of the massacre of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks, Sarah persuaded her loyal troop to travel to Tiflis in the Caucasus where she was informed that Armenian refugees were residing under shameful conditions. During this extensive odyssey, they endured a trek through Sweden and then to St Petersburg and ultimately down to the Caucasus Mountains. On their arrival, they were thwarted in their every attempt to journey to where the refugees were actually located.

Miss Sarah McNaughton

Miss Sarah McNaughton

Gravely ill, Sarah was forced to return to England without accomplishing her mission. She died in London during 1916 without finishing her autobiography My Experiences on Two Continents.

Meanwhile in the Caucasus, a girl by name of Marina Yurlova, a Cossack by birth, had elected to assist the Cossack men in the fight against the perfidious Turks. A strong mentally determined slip of a girl at 16 years old she embarked on her crusade to become a Cossack fighter.

Her autobiography relates her travails not only against the Ottoman Turks but against the Bolsheviks when they usurped power in a bloody revolution in 1917. Ultimately Marina was to escape from Russia and settle in America.

Cossack Girl
Finally there was Ethel Cooper, a middle aged Australian woman, who recalls in her autobiography what it what like to reside in Leipzig, Germany as a single woman in the heart of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Reich during WW1. In her book, Behind the Lines: One Woman’s War, 1914-18 Ethel recounts her sparse life trapped as an enemy alien behind enemy lines. In spite not being a threat to Germany, the German population treated her abominably.

In cahoots with a German doctor during 1917 she attempted to be allowed to travel to Switzerland. In order to obtain a covering letter regarding her ill-health, the doctor was paid by way of exchange: her grand piano.

Ethel Cooper

Ethel Cooper

When this application was rejected on “military grounds,” Ethel had lost her only solace, source of comfort and source of income; the piano.

What was unthinkable before the war, by 1918 was commonplace. Female soccer teams attracted large crowds as if it was not unusual for women to play sport. Naturally the traditionalist bemoaned the fact that none of these participants would ever be able to conceive children as rigorous physical exercise would destroy the delicate female organs.

Women ambulance drivers

Women ambulance drivers

Moreover in spite of working a 12 hour shift – 6am to 6pm – groups of females – much like the bachelorettes of today – they cruised the streets after work. Their sense of freedom was palpable. Even though they earned a fraction of what a male did while performing the same job, but by earning more than as a domestic worker, for the first time in most of their lives they had money to spend on frivolities and fripperies such as beer.


Lady Florence Norman, a suffragette, on her motor-scooter in 1916, travelling to work

Lady Florence Norman, a suffragette, on her motor-scooter in 1916, travelling to work

The church lamented the deterioration of moral standards whereas in fact the main moral “depravity”, prostitution was severely curtailed. With the men being at war in Europe and the women not requiring to supplement meagre wages by an occasional “quickie” on the side, the level of prostitution had declined precipitously in the UK. In France, the reality was different. The French military adopted a pragmatic approach to the men’s need for sex. They opened official brothels known as “maison tolérée” or “maison close”. Here the females were restricted to 15 clients per night.

At 11am on the 11th November 1918, the armistice came into effect halting the human slaughter machine that was the Great War. Like the men, the women were “demobilised” after the war. In the case of the men, it was a return to their factories, mills and farms. In the case of the women it was back to drudgery of the kitchen, housework and other menial jobs mainly without pay or gratitude.


A woman 'land girl' driving a tractor ploughing a field in March 1918

A woman ‘land girl’ driving a tractor ploughing a field in March 1918

In short order, females were debarred from being bus drivers, mechanics, factory workers and soccer players. It took slightly longer for the Police Commissioner to abolish the Women’s Police Force but by 1920 it was an historical aberration.

In most respects, the world of 1920 was a replica of the world of 1914, with males occupying all positions of influence and performing all the work in the factories, fields, police, and judiciary – in short everywhere. Women again became the unseen and silent gender.

The war had demonstrated that women were capable of performing most of the jobs previously performed by men but its impact had been superficial. Shortly afterwards, women were granted the vote in the UK but apart from a solitary female MP, Lady Astor, nothing had changed.

A woman mechanic repairing a car at a Women's Volunteer Reserve garage

A woman mechanic repairing a car at a Women’s Volunteer Reserve garage

It was again as if women were ignored, inconsequential and an irritation if they objected to their station in life.

The weight of the church, society and male public opinion was too oppressive for them to overcome.

It was back to the kitchen and the drawing room where the often the level of social interaction would not rise above the inane phrase, “You take two sugars, don’t you?”

SErving tea

It would take another World War plus another two decades before the freedoms first tasted during the Great War, could again be universally enjoyed by females without the overt approval of society [read males]


  • Sarah McNaughton: My Experiences on Two Continents available as a free download on
  • Gabriella West: World War I diary of Miss G. West.
  • Marina Yurlova: Cossack Girl 
  • Ethel Cooper: Behind the Lines: One Woman’s War, 1914-18
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