Women's Role on the Home Front

During the Second World War, many women on the home front had two roles – one traditional and one brought about by the needs of war. The former was dedicated to the domestic – caring for the family, managing the rations, ‘making do’ and ‘waiting’ at home for loved-ones fighting abroad. However, women were also called upon by the government to take an active role in assisting the nation’s efforts in industry, agriculture, civil defence and community welfare and by actively supporting the armed forces. Women had been asked to take on such roles before, during the First World War, and when the Second World War loomed, women again were called on to serve the nation.

In the run up to the outbreak of conflict and throughout the war, new voluntary groups were set up alongside established organisations to provide assistance in emergency health care, welfare, civil defence and farm labouring. Women were initially encouraged to ‘do their bit’ and take on roles in voluntary organisations but as the war progressed and the need grew, voluntary service from women was not sufficient to fulfil demand. In 1941, therefore, the government began conscripting women into various roles.

Key voluntary groups that engaged women in war work included the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), which was founded in May 1938. It played a significant part during the war in community support and welfare work. Many women also volunteered for roles in Civil Defence and first-aid. In a home movie, entitled War Time (1939-1940) from Surrey, a mother can be seen showing off her Red Cross nurse’s uniform and in other films from the period, such as Civilians in Uniform (ca. 1946) women train for nursing and first-aid activities in the event of enemy attack.

The Women’s Land Army was established in the Second World War, as it had been in the First World War, to help boost the country’s food production. The ‘Land Girls’, as they were known, took on work as farm labourers, carrying out tasks in all aspects of agriculture. The film Sheffield at War (1939-1945) includes scenes of these women at work. Alongside the Land Army, Land Clubs were also set up as agricultural voluntary groups. The 1942 film Start a Land Club shows the workings of this organisation in co-ordinating both men and women on farms in Surrey.

Another key role for women during war-time included taking on work in industry. As with other roles, women had successfully been used in factory work during the First World War and were used again in the Second World War. Women worked in factories, often producing armaments, and can be seen in film from Berkshire manufacturing and assembling Spitfire components (ca. 1941).

In the military services, women initially volunteered and were later conscripted into support forces such as the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Women were not officially permitted to take part in direct military action but played a crucial role in operating military equipment and establishments. In the film Sheffield at War (1939-1945), recruits in the WAAF operate a Barrage Balloon facility. In other film from Sheffield, the Hunshelf Gunsite (1940-1945), the women's ATS is shown on service at an anti-aircraft battery establishment.

Work, and a practical involvement in the war effort, allowed many women to experience roles beyond the home that had previously been barred to them, opening their eyes to wider influences and increased social freedom. The effectiveness of the female labour force also demonstrated that women were highly capable in areas that had previously been considered only ‘men’s work’. In the post-war period, women’s units in the armed forces were established as permanent services although still separate from men’s units and excluded from combat. (Today, women are integrated into almost all branches of the services but continue to not be involved in front line duties.) The war did help to change some perceptions in society about women, but the effects on social equality were unfortunately neither extensive nor lasting. As the war ended, many women were required to return to the home and their pre-war domestic roles, and, for the most part, to their pre-war social and economic status. It would be decades later before women’s roles in society would begin to see genuine change.