Love, Sex and War
From Chapter 10: A Woman’s Work Was Never Done
After the British Government had taken the step of introducing compulsory female mobilization at the end of 1941, the Ministry of Labour estimated that over eighty per cent of all single women between fourteen and fifty-nine, forty-one per cent of wives and widows, and thirteen per cent of mothers with children under fourteen were at work or in the uniform of the auxiliary forces. Even without the conscription of women in the United States that same marked wartime increase in the employment of wives and mothers was to be reflected in the ten per cent increase in the numbers of married women at work. Making up almost a quarter of the total wartime labour force, married women outnumbered single women in the workplace for the first time.
The involvement of such a large percentage of wives and mothers in the World War II production battle was to accelerate the erosion of the sexual division of labour and the traditional reluctance of mothers to join the industrial workforce. (p. 197)
‘At first you think you’ll never do it,’ a former Blackpool grocery store assistant told a fresh female trainee in the machine shop of a Ministry of Aircraft Production plant building fighter aircraft. ‘You drop your tools and everything. But the men are very good. They teach you. To anybody with common sense, it’s quite simple. And when you can do it – well it’s a real man’s job.’
Early in 1941, the government training centres were opened for the first time to females who sought skilled training in the engineering trades – and within two years, four out of ten workers in the British aircraft industry were women, who were performing half of all the production tasks needed for building fighters and bombers. But considerable hostility met this steadily increasing invasion. ‘In they came, brunettes and blondes and gingers, quiet women and cheeky ones,’ recorded a shop steward at a railway engineering factory in 1941. ‘The men watched them with curious eyes, wondering whose jobs they were going to take.’
An opinion poll of steelworkers revealed that while most agreed emphatically, ‘It’s not women’s work here,’ their real concern was not the unfeminine environment, but to defend their own jobs against what they considered to be an invasion by a rival labour force. In some plants the men would tamper with the lathes during the night-shift to cause problems for the day-shift women. ‘We don’t like you to be working on this machine,’ one male worker confided. ‘Here’s one woman doing it – they’ll be getting other women in and then we’ll be out of jobs and sent into the army.’ (pp. 200-201)
A series of ‘War Work Week’ parades staged in November 1941 brought a temporary carnival-like atmosphere to bombed cities like Coventry, with women dressed in overalls and gowns adorned with V-signs riding on tanks followed by lorryloads of girls busily demonstrating filing, riveting, and driving airplane components. The banners enjoined, ‘DON’T QUEUE LIKE SHIRKERS, JOIN THE WOMEN WORKERS,’ but the women to whom the slogans were addressed were reluctant to take full-time work. ‘We would get war in our homes if we took it,’ one potential recruit told the officer who interviewed her at the employment exchange. Surveys soon revealed that for most married women, her primary duty was to her husband and her home.
One woman who gave up her war work explained: ‘My husband’s on night-shift and I used to get home about six – it wasn’t time to cook him his dinner and he was losing sleep doing it himself. Then they wanted us to stay and do overtime till 6.30 or more – I couldn’t do that.’ Another housewife had considered volunteering, but rejected the idea: ‘I feel very guilty sometimes, but there’s my husband to think of. I know our homes are not supposed to count any more now, and it’s only my husband and myself, but you have to do something in a house, or you’d get overrun by rats and mice.’
Many of the menfolk also felt that their contribution to the war effort was at home. As an air-raid warden put it:
If married women are called up home life will vanish, and it will be very hard to revive it after the war. Men coming home on leave will find that they can only see their wives for an hour or two a day. Men in reserved occupations will come back to cold, untidy houses with no meal ready. Friction in the home will be greatly increased, and with children evacuated there will be nothing to hold it together.
It was not surprising, therefore, to find that employment exchanges reported by the end of 1941 that women were growing increasingly choosy about leaving their homes to take full-time war jobs which did not bring the glamour, high pay, and excitement they had been led to expect by the posters and broadcasts. (pp. 205-206)
Absenteeism was to become a chronic wartime problem for those factories employing large numbers of married women, many of whom could only attend to essential household duties like shopping by taking time off. A 1942 Ministry of Labour study was sympathetic to their plight:
A married woman with a house, a husband, and children, already has a full-time job which is difficult to carry out these days. Yet thousands of them are working long hours in factories. They are trying to do two full-time jobs. If they can carry on with a mere half-day per week off in ordinary factory hours they are achieving something marvellous.
‘While winning the war is the only big consideration,’ warned a 1942 Mass Observation report on women at work, ‘if the bonds of family and continuity are weakened beyond a certain point, the morale, unity and work effort of the country is weakened.’ Yet the provision of adequate time off for shopping or day-care facilities for the children of married workers had not even rated a mention in the 1941 Ministry circular. It was left to a journalist to point out that housekeeping was unpaid, had never been economically rated, and that ‘a whole family of five to eight people is looked after entirely by one woman, and if she is sent into full-time work, her jobs have to be taken on by no fewer than six different groups of workers, i.e. for day nursery, shopping, washing, meals for school children, evening meal for husband, care of children after school.’
The Minister of Labour himself admitted he was not ‘anxious to increase the employment of women with young children if it were possible to obtain the labour otherwise’ – but by the end of 1941 Bevin was obliged to concede that the voracious manpower requirements of total war would oblige the Government to tap every available resource, including young mothers with pre-school children. (pp. 207-208)
‘Music While You Work’ and government ‘War Work Weeks’ proved insufficient incentives to attract enough women into the factories. After the Minister of Labour had reported to the War Cabinet in November 1941 that the number of women in ‘essential’ war production was a third lower than planned, Churchill’s Cabinet reluctantly decided, in December, to take the momentous step of introducing compulsory female mobilization. The National Service Act No. 2, which was passed by Parliament just ten days after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor had brought the United States into the war, made Britain the first nation in history formally to conscript women. (p. 210)
‘When there is, practically speaking, no reserve whatever of labour, you are forced to do things you wouldn’t have done without the irresistible urge of absolute necessity,’ a member of Britain’s Womanpower Committee told a meeting of the War Manpower Commission in the United States in 1944. Fortunately for the Allies, Adolf Hitler did not recognize the ‘irresistible urge of absolute necessity,’ which might have harnessed Germany’s female population into the war effort, until it was too late. For too long the Nazis persisted in sticking to the Fuehrer’s belief that it was a man’s role to fight while, ‘There is nothing nobler for a woman than to be a mother of the sons and daughters of the people.’ The policy was articulated by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, who wore her hair braided in the approved Volkish style while she fiercely articulated Hitler’s model of the housewife-creator made famous by her 1937 proclamation, ‘Though our weapon in this area is only the wooden spoon, its impact will be no less than that of other weapons.’
Yet despite the Fuehrer’s dogmatic assertions that a woman’s work was in the home, a third of all German women – fourteen and a half million – laboured out of economic necessity, almost half on family farms. These women were urged by the Women’s Office of the German Labour Front to ‘utilize the feminine and maternal forces within them in the interest of the whole nation’ in what was officially designated ‘womanly work.’ In 1939, single women were supposed to register for a ‘duty year’ of such activity or, as an alternative, do twelve months in the uniformed Labour Service which drilled them in ideology and agricultural activities. Most girls from well-to-do and middle-class families feigned compliance by nominally working as domestics with family friends.
In 1942, the newly-appointed Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, urged Hitler to consider expanding female factory employment now that Germany was fighting a production and military battle against both the United States and the Soviet Union. But the Fuehrer refused to consider any female mobilization plans for fear that it would damage the health of the ‘present and future mothers of our nation.’ Instead over six million foreign labourers were shipped in from the conquered European nations. Hitler’s failure to appreciate the productive and military potential of the Third Reich’s female population was to prove a significant factor in Germany’s ultimate collapse.
Not until 1943, when the Wehrmacht’s invincibility had been shattered by the defeats in Russia and North Africa and the Reich was being hammered nightly by British and American bombers, did the Fuehrer consider it necessary to begin mobilizing the entire nation for ‘total war.’ The German economy and labour force at the beginning of 1943 were not geared for an all-out production war, since six million workers were still turning out consumer goods from refrigerators to lipstick cases, in industries which in the United States and Britain had long been turned over to more essential manufacturing. (pp. 215-216)
Yet despite the quickening pace of the Allied bombing offensive against Germany’s cities and industrial centres, most of the better-off women resisted all efforts to get them into the final scramble of war production, preferring to stick to their traditional role spreading butter rather than making guns. Nor was there the same economic incentive for the wives of German soldiers to take on war jobs, because the marriage allowances and pensions paid by the Wehrmacht were far better than the allowances made to wives and widows by the British and American services.
In the final year of the war the number of women who responded to a barrage of Dr Goebbels’ patriotic propaganda urging them to take a factory job added less than a fraction of one per cent to the Reich’s labour force. ‘The Russians are fighting a total war, we are fighting an elegant war,’ complained a German officer on leave from the Eastern Front in 1944. Hitler’s miscalculation of the national effort required to win the war and consequent failure to mobilize the productive potential of Germany’s female population was disastrous. There simply weren’t enough German women working to meet the requirements of a total war, and the ill-fed and poorly motivated foreign workforce lacked energy and commitment. Hitler’s error was to prove critical to the final outcome of World War II. (pp. 216-217)
John Costello, Love Sex and War: Changing Values, 1939-45. William Collins, London, 1985.