The Impact of the Second World War on British Women’s Lives


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Women often performed very specific, detailed jobs, as employers would often break down the functions of highly skilled jobs into a series of smaller tasks which could be performed by women. Employers were desperate for skilled labor and had to find ways to attract and incentivize skilled labor. As such, equal pay was established in select industries where women were entering fields which required highly skilled workers or where women performed the same jobs as men without any assistance or male supervision. This was most prominent in the engineering field as the supply of skilled labor was low. Unfortunately female workers in “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” jobs were not compensated similarly, as they were exempt from equal pay negations.

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Once the war was over, the British government wanted women to return to their previous duties and disregard the policies which were originally created for them. Concerns grew surrounding the high involvement of women in the labor force, as the government speculated that it may result in declining birth rates and poorer execution of responsibilities in the home. As the male soldiers returned home from war, many of the positions which were being filled by women were returned back to the men. Although the wages for women during the war did not drastically change, the increase in the pay rate was a significant win for women and was a step in the eventual direction of equal wages which was achieved in Britain through the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Why should women be working while men were unemployed? This was a question which many British men had asked when returning home from the war. Much of society had quickly forgotten about the contributions that women had made during the war and felt as though that women were now creating more problems than they were actually worth. However, women were not quick to give up on their newly found independence and were now provoking debates about the oppression of British traditions and gender roles.

Most working women prior to the Second World War were unmarried and without children. However, as subscription was legally mandated, many married women were thrust into the workforce for the very first time. To the dismay of British government, many women found themselves enjoying the processes of working. Whether it was attributable to the monetary incentive, the mental and physical riggers of the work, or the enjoyment of being out of the home, regardless, many women sought to continue working after the war. Women had proven that they could handle the physical endurance and mental concentration needed for skilled jobs previously done by men.

As a result, much instability and tension amassed across British homes as thousands of men were unable to secure jobs after the war. Many men felt betrayed as they returned home to see a female counterpart had replaced them at half the cost. This provoked further discussions surrounding equal pay as many men felt that women were only selected for these jobs as a cost cutting measure for employers rather than their actual skills. Women were now able to further argue equal pay as they noted that equal pay for equal work would reduce the cost cutting measures taken my employers and that equal pay would ultimately provide those which are most skilled with employment.

Experts have made grandiose claims that the Second World War had changed the status of women and social and economic gains had been made especially in the labour force. In other words, it is safe to argue that the war contributed to gender reorganization of the labour force as well a boost in morale, earning power and confidence for women to keep moving forward. When making such claims, it is important not to make such sweeping generalizations towards all women of different ages, race, class and ethnicity. However, evidence suggests from interviews and autobiographies from women during this time period in Britain that their exposure to new experiences as a result of Second World War had allowed them to explore new opportunities.

British women’s roles have changed drastically over the last 75 years in different ways, and many of these changes are rooted in part to the commencement of the Second World War. Without the war, women would not have had the boost in morale and confidence or experienced the realization that gender norms could be broken. With the introduction of conscription, many women would not have been given opportunities in the workforce. It is safe to say that women’s ever changing roles in Britain during the Second World War undoubtedly promoted social change.

However when the war had ended, not all women were in agreeance on the idea of returning to domestic work. Men’s return from the war was a difficult transition period for women, as many were expected to return to care for the home and the children. Without succumbing to the postwar pressures of the war and having to go back to their domestic spheres, some women kept pushing for what was right. Women realized that they too were able to work and earn a living for themselves, instead of relying on men to be the primary breadwinners. Although the war brought a favorable reality for some women in specific jobs, it did not change women’s roles in Britain for quite some time.

The political and societal implications of the war were great and had the potential to overrun British society. However, it transformed it to something new. The war affected the way that many societal roles were perceived. Married women with families were able to work, females were considered for jobs often dominated by men and women discussions surround equal pay were being had. As can be seen from the preceding information, the Second World War has had immeasurable impact on British women’s lives that are still being researched today.

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