WWI women’s role changed women’s history. With so many men off at war, all governments involved in the war effort had to come to terms with the fact that women could and had to work the same jobs as men. But acknowledging that was an altogether different story.
During WWI, governments involved in the conflict not only had to tolerate working women, but they had to come to terms with needing them.
Women took up all sorts of jobs vacated by men, including some formerly performed exclusively by men, like heavy or precision machinery in engineering, something women had been thought incapable of. They also led cart horses on farms and worked in the civil service. Thousands worked in the munitions factories.
Society wasn’t ready for this. All governments made clear that this was for the duration of the war, as long as the emergency lasted. Once soldiers came home, everything was supposed to go back to normal. Women received lower wages than men for doing the same job, normally from 50% to 80% less. The number of women employed out of the house raised considerably in all states involved in the war, and the number of married women who worked skyrocketed. Before the war, women were expected to leave their job as soon as they got married.
When the soldiers came home, a great many women lost their jobs. Even their lower wages didn’t save their employment. Yet many managed to stay and started to work with different unions asking for equal rights and wages, a cause that eventually joined the demand for women’s suffrage.
The Canary Girls
Victorian and Edwardian women were considered too delicate to be involved with anything related to fighting or killing. But when the war broke out, the need for munitions spurred the opening of new factories, and the only workers available were women.
It was hazardous work during the war and afterwards since it gave health problems long after the exposure to the toxic TNT.
The entire process was dangerous.
These women constantly exposed themselves to the chemical compound trinitrotoluene (TNT), an explosive agent. TNT had been known to be toxic since 1914, and from 1915 doctors acknowledged its connection with the severe jaundice disease. Munitions factories should have taken health and safety measures, such as providing protective clothing that, although not enough to prevent all risks, did give some protection.
But in the was emergency, very little precautions were taken. Women worked at the munitions with basically no protection, and this caused them several problems, some of which proved to be fatal.
The least it could happen was that their skin and hair turned yellow, which is why they were called Canary Girls. The yellow colour revealed to these women that they were being exposed to something toxic – the TNT was yellow. They were turning yellow. Of course, there was a connection. Yet they kept working out of patriotism and in support of their men at the front. Working also gave them a sense of independence and purpose. It was surprisingly heady.
The consequences of the exposure to TNT weren’t normally too serious. Once removed from the agent, the yellow colour would fade, though some of these women gave birth to babies who also were yellow.
But sometimes, the poison went deeper, it reached the liver, and that caused far worse illnesses that could be fatal: anaemia and jaundice.
Historians have estimated that some 400 women lost their lives from TNT poisoning in Great Britain alone.
The job required filling the casing with powder and then putting a detonator on the top. The worker then had to press the detonator down, and here lay the danger. If they tapped too hard, it would detonate.
Many women lost their hands, their sight, or were otherwise severely injured by this kind of accident.
What these women did wasn’t less risky than being on the frontline, yet their job was seldom acknowledged. Canary Girls – who did their bit even during WWII – were often left out of history. Only now many nations are acknowledging their work and efforts.
Mario Isnenghi and Giorgio Rochat, La Grande Guerra, 1914-1918, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2014
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