With most men of working age being called up to fight during the Second World War there were numerous industries that found themselves in desperate need of people to fill the vacancies. As a result women stepped out of the home into the workplace.
Of course, prior to 1939, some women had taken up employment, but the majority had seen their role as homemaker and parent as being their over-riding responsibility. Pre-war generations of men had grown up believing that it was their duty to be the sole bread-winner and many were strictly against the idea of their wives working. But the war changed all that. After all, men were no longer there to comment and no longer there to provide.
Many women joined the armed forces, working as mechanics or engineers but they also took on jobs to support the war, such as munitions workers, air raid wardens, bus and fire engine drivers. By the middle of 1943 almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were working in factories, on the land, or in the armed forces.
And so, when the war ended and the men returned, the country was faced with a dilemma. Men needed to work, many expected to return to the job they were in before they left to join up. Women were expected to return home and take up with their pre-war duties of keeping house. The change was significant – by 1947 barely a quarter of married women were part of the labour force.
Opinion was divided. The terrible depression of the 1930s when there was mass unemployment was still sharp in the memories of many. Another such unemployment crisis was a genuine fear, fuelled by the economic problems of the war debts and the inevitable cost of rebuilding so many broken towns and cities. A survey of working class soldiers and their wives, undertaken between 1943 and 1946, Eliot Slater (a psychologist) and Moya Woodside (a psychiatric social worker) revealed strong feelings among husbands in particular…
‘The spectre of unemployment is never very far away. Some have experienced it themselves; others remember its effect on their own childhood and for still others it exists as a malignant bogy that must dog the steps of every working man.Patterns of Marriage by Eliot Slater and Moya Woodside (cited in ‘Austerity Britain’ by David Kynaston
But women had had a taste of life outside of the home, they had broadened their horizons. They had discovered a new independence that many hadn’t even realised they were missing. And so many chose to continue working, but usually in occupations that had been oriented towards women since the turn of the 20th century. Little had changed between 1901 and 1951, with 86 per cent of women that year working as teachers, nurses, clerical workers, cleaners, waitresses, shop assistants, barmaids or in textile-factories. And in those occupations the women tended to be confined to lowly positions. And it wasn’t only the positions that were lowly – the pay they received was significantly lower than their male counterparts.
In the 1950s as a whole, full-time female workers earned only 51 per cent of the average pay of male workers. It was not so much a pay gap as a pay chasm.Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
There was a long way to go and much that needed changing in post-war Britain…