Minerva: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military

Quarterly Report on Women and the Military: Emancipation Or Exploitation? – wartime work of women

Emancipation Or Exploitation? – wartime work of women – Statistical Data Included

Suzanne V. Cook

The Women’s Land Army in the Second World War

“The Land Army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most crucial battle of the present war may well be fought and won.”(1)

The British Government used the power of persuasion, and when that failed, coercion, to mobilise its wartime workforce, which for the first time in history included women. At the end of 2nd World War, through various pieces of legislation, women were encouraged to return to the home to allow men to resume their pre-war jobs.

Wartime work in the Women’s Land Army (WLA) raised women’s wages, although they still remained below the level of men’s before and during the war. Historians Marwick (1970) and Calder (1969) held that this was the single most important aspect that progressed women’s emancipation and independence. Many women, however, still returned to their low-paid work or unpaid domestic duties.

The concept that the War hastened women’s progress towards emancipation was highlighted by Britain (1953). Research with ex-Land Girls has seen the emergence of a variety of ideas that have a distinct bearing on this concept. Some women say they welcomed the change, others that they hated the interruption of war.

It is only in retrospect that women are able to answer the question of whether they felt their emancipation had advanced or whether they felt they had been controlled through the Government, employers, etc. Some did not fully understand the meaning of the word emancipation. Most women considered their work to be their duty to help win the War. They had not considered the consequences in terms of personal freedom.

Although the Second World War had seen much suffering, turmoil and sadness, there were still many for whom it had been the experience of a lifetime. Opportunities had been provided that were difficult to imagine before the War and which gave women a fresh determination with which to face the future.

“… by your great skill and devotion you have released great battalions of

men who now fight for the land which formerly they tilled.”(2)

Land Girls played an undeniably vital role in the war effort. For many their work was strenuous, isolated, with irregular hours. They had given up jobs and professions such as, “… typists, … shop assistants, teachers …”(3) to serve their country for a war that had yet to begin. Patriotism flourished as feminine clothing was exchanged for rough corduroy trousers and heavy utility boots. Their new “homes” varied from former railway carriages, modified chicken huts, to cosy farmhouses or hostels; shared with veritable strangers often some distance from the comfort of homes and family life. The unfamiliar “… gruelling hard toil and monotony, in all weathers despite the glamorous propaganda posters …”(4) was a culture shock for these young women; and pay was substantially lower than that of their male co-workers.


Strong, sensible, and fit,

They’re out to show their grit,

And tackle jobs with energy and knack.

No longer caged and penned up,

They’re going to keep their end up

Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.(5)

Had the women of the WLA experienced exploitation at the hands of their employers, or through Government’s conscription policies, “… mean and niggardly …”(6) attempts to avoid demobilisation compensation? Alternatively, perhaps it was the Government’s coercive methods of utilising women for war work? As Marwick (1974) contended, perceptions of exploitation, or the acquisition of new found freedom and confidence, are relative circumstances, intricate concepts to verify in historical terms.

Little genuine concern was demonstrated by the British Government for women’s post-war employment. Women’s opportunities were drastically reduced as Government was obligated to reinstate men in their preferred jobs. Government was concerned that a permanent change in women’s pre-war, role of wife and mother, may result in a long-term decline in the birth rate.

In an attempt to further encourage women’s return to the “domestic scene” Government’s efforts to employ the returning men saw a policy for the “… rapid reduction in the number of day nurseries (available) after 1945.”(7) Consequently the women were forced to relinquish their jobs or seek childminders. (It should be remembered that women on joining the Land Army were clearly informed that their employment was merely temporary and that they must be prepared to relinquish their war work immediately when the war ended.)

It became evident that Government was using considerable powers of compulsion over women by the year 1943. It is deceptive to consider, as Marwich (1974) suggests, that “… conscription played a relatively minor role in the changes in women’s employment during the war …”(8) On questioning some Land Army Girls, they appeared doubtful that their emancipation had advanced at all; some did not really understand the meaning of emancipation. Take Mrs. Tame who said, “… and looking back they were the best years of my life!”(9) Mrs. Jarvis made the following comment with little reference to the initial question of emancipation. She answered, “I do know I learnt to appreciate the countryside.”(10)

The WLA’s exclusion from service gratuity schemes and demobilisation benefits, as enjoyed by other women’s services, provided further evidence of exploitation through Government policy. The Land Army Girls’ moral was low, and dissatisfaction and disappointment was keenly felt with the “army” given the demeaning title, the “Cinderella Service” of the Women’s Auxiliary forces.


The 2nd World War, suggested by Smith (1986), created a “… turning poing in the emancipation of women; leading to a new social and economic freedom …”(11) providing opportunities that altered women’s perceptions of themselves. Smith (1986) placed great significance in the changing consciousness of women, suggesting they were becoming “… less willing to accept traditional sex roles and subordination to men.”(12) He endorses his theory with reference to the Government Wartime Social Survey, when in 1943, 2,609 working women had been questioned about their post-war employment intentions. Twenty-five percent said they wanted to go on working. Seventy-five percent of professional and administrative women expressed a desire to continue working, whereas only fifty percent employed as labourers did actually continue working. Married women under 35 years announced that women should stay at home. Asked whether their jobs should be given to the most qualified, or to men, their responses contradicted the concept that wartime employment had fundamentally altered women’s attitudes. Since a large proportion of the increase in workers was attributable to women, their reactions were especially interesting.(13)

“I cannot see women settling to trivial ways — women who have done

worthwhile things.”(14)

Post 1945 saw a renewed interest in marriage and domesticity, suggesting a strengthening of traditional roles rather than an emergence of emancipated women. Does this mean that women did not experience an advance in their emancipation or did many feel so disillusioned with the way they had been badly treated that they preferred to return to their “domesticity?” Goldsmith (1943) concluded that many married women were fundamentally unhappy with the way the war had interfered with their lives. Evidence demonstrates a revival in family life following the war, promoted by governmental encouragement and policies. Smith (1986) consideres that the war’s “… most important legacy for women was a strengthening of traditional sex roles rather than the emergence of new roles.”(15) He questions how their participation in war work could remotely provide emancipation when the Government used coercion. Women’s experiences varied from those who considered themselves cheap labour and grossly undervalued, to the extent of exploitation, to those who relished the radical change of situation.

An important issue resulting from paid employment for women during wartime was the benefits of a greater financial independence than had previously been experienced. Some women earned their own wages for the first time and for many, more than they had earned pre-war, and they enjoyed the friendship of work-mates.

Although many Land Girls experienced a life of “… long hours, exhausting work and subsistence wages,”(16) compared with the meagre salaries earned in pre-war occupations many girls enjoyed an increased level of income. It gave them much more independence than they had known before the war or could have even imagined.

Prior to the introduction of new regulations concerning pay, Land Girls’ pay was in fact fixed by their employers not by the WLA Organisation. Some Land Girls considered they had been exploited by their employers. Girls in Cumberland attempted to negotiate over time rates for working a long weekend. Suddenly, after an exhausting weekend of harvesting, they were informed they must leave their posts, and without pay.

Although the marriage bar did not affect Land Army girls during war time, it had previously encouraged the exploitation of women by leading employers to recruit girls aged 14-18 years, who were cheaper to employ.

Mr. Hannington, President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, said, in 1943, that a policy allowing women to be used in industry “… as `cheap labour’ … with the double object of exploiting them and undermining the men’s rates …”(17) was ludicrous. He said this would have reverberations across the whole country.


“You can’t look on anything you do in the war as what you really mean to

do; it’s just filling in time `til you can live your own life again.”(18)

Athough Government, through legislation, returned many WLA women to their pre-war lifestyles, Smith (1986) suggests that the fall in population figures since 1900 had “… been the single most important factor contributing to women’s emancipation …”(19) However, this trend was reversed as a result of the Second World War. In 1941 the recorded birth rate was 13.9 per 1,000 of the population. The following year saw a rise to 15.6 then the birth rate continued to rise realising a peak of 20.6 per 1,000 in 1947. (This increase was not maintained: the rate began to decrease after 1950.)

These wartime changes in marriage and birth rates were incompatible with the concept that women’s emancipation had been advanced. The, se changes appeared to have reinforced the notion that women had returned to their traditional role. Smith (1986) agrees that Marwick (1970) was accurate in his suggestion that the war provided further pressures for change. However, he suggests that it was extraordinary how little women’s position appeared to have altered. Although many women were unable to reassert their preferences for paid employment, they were not denied the movement towards the emancipation that post-war Britain gave them.


Smith (1986) says that wartime changes did not cease as the war ceased, but continued to affect women’s lives for some time afterwards. Britain (1953) saw these changes as strengthening women’s advancement towards equality. She suggests that the war probably hastened the processes, but stressed that no significant change of values had been experienced by women. Historians Myrdralle and Klein (1956) implied that the changes were a brief reaction to a crisis situation and, that there would be a return to the accepted pre-war patterns of social behavior and consciousness after the war.

Women’s emancipation is not just a matter of change from the traditional role, but it is concerned with transforming women’s beliefs. It is also concerned with how they can impact political areas that could directly affect their lives and their families. It is about education and intellectual understanding, concerned with wanting and experiencing moral and social changes. These are some of the issues concerned with women’s conception of emancipation. Post-war women have proved they are capable of replacing the men in the work force: women who not only rose to the call but were compelled by law to aid the war effort. Did they have to prove themselves? Were the women even conscious of doing so?

It was assumed that women generally accepted wartime changes and took advantage of new opportunities to be more independent and to lead more satisfying and fulfilled lives. However, many women found these changes inappropriate. Some attempted “… to re-establish an idealised version of pre-war relationships,”(20) through the creation of homes filled with tranquility and “… with feminine charm …”(21) with the pressure through Government policy, to procreate.

Land Girls who were questioned during research as to extent they had gained independence or lost their freedom through serving in the WLA. They gave a variety of answers. Mrs. Hunter said, “I don’t think 50 odd years ago we thought so much about emancipation. I did what I thought was my bit for the war effort, and enjoyed a lot of it. My only regret was the loss of those years because there was a war.”(22) Miss Roper said, “I gained my freedom by joining up. From then on it was a battle as a single female to be accepted as independent [but] I found far more prejudice later in life than during my time in the WLA.”(23)

Many women entering the WLA believed it to be their duty to serve their country even though the Government’s policy to conscript women had forced them to consider the alternatives. Many registered with the WLA to avoid the munitions factories. Although many women worked under duress and experienced poor working conditions, there had been a growth in maturity and independence. Women discovered their hidden depths and strength of character and developed strong friendships. Some had left home for the first time and loved being independent. One Land Girl, Joan Shakesheff, a factory girl pre-war said that it had “… changed the whole of life really for women.”(24) Second World War observers saw signs of women’s new sense of self-esteem and considered it would herald a radical “… shake up in women’s position.”(25)

“The role of women during wartime should not be forgotten because the

output and effort in agriculture … began to change male attitudes toward

women and work. Although we gave up our jobs when the men returned, the

experience gave us confidence …”(26)


(1.) Twinch, Carol (1990), Women on the Land, Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, p.65

(2.) The Land Girl, No.9 Vol.2, December 1941

(3.) Farmer and Stock-Breeder, 28 November 1939

(4.) Joyce, K., Land Army Days, Bolton: Auroa, p. vi

(5.) Reilly, C. (1984) Scars Upon My Heart, `War Girls’ by Jessie Pope, p. 90

(6.) The Farmer and Stock-Breeder, 22 May 1945, p. 803

(7.) Smith, Harold L., (1986), War and Social Change, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 222

(8.) Marwick (1974) cited in Summerfield, P., (9189) Women Workers In The Second Worm War, London/New York: Routledge, 36

(9.) Questionnaire No. 2, Mrs. E.M. Tame

(10.) Questionnaire No. 1, Mrs. Moira Jarvis, 21 February 1995

(11.) Smith, Harold L (1986), War and Social Change, Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 209

(12.) Ibid, p. 217

(13.) Questionnaire No. 5, Mrs. A. Hardern, 23.2.1995, “… they had just fought a war, and remember that the war had given these people jobs for the first time in many cases.”

Questionnaire No. 12, Mrs. D. Jerome, 21.2.1995, “I only went in till the war ended so I didn’t mind.”

Questionnarie No. 15, Mrs. J. Hunter (nee Stewart), “… my husband came home and needed a job, so it only seemed right.”

(14.) Braybon, G. & Summerfield, P. (1987), Out Of The Cage: Experiences in Two Worm War, London: Pandora Press, p. 282

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