“So many of us are aching to do something to do our bit for England,” wrote Filomena in 1914 in the “Ladies’ Page” of The Illustrated London News. Sidelined and frustrated at the lack of any meaningful occupation to help the war effort, women initially set up numerous voluntary organisations, some of which harnessed the traditional female skills of sewing and knitting to produce socks and other “comforts” for the troops, as well as clothing for hospital patients or Belgian refugees.
Many young women trained as Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurses, but only the most feisty, determined or experienced made it over to France, Belgium and other combat zones in the early days. The effectiveness of these pioneers and the growing importance of VADs paved the way for many more women to nurse close to the conflict. Members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry also served near the fighting, often driving ambulances under treacherous fire.
In July 1915, shortly after the so-called Shell Scandal, a procession of 30,000 women marched through the rainy streets of London agitating to be given employment. Although the main aim was to open up opportunities for women in munitions factories, it was to mark a turning point. Soon women were carrying out a multitude of jobs – in breweries and dental surgeries, and as butchers, police officers, firefighters, chemists and “tracers”, copying technical drawings.
Thousands went into clerical work due to an increase in war-related administration. Others cared for horses, managed theatres, drove taxis and delivery vans, washed windows, pasted billposters, delivered coal, operated lifts, were bus conductors or worked as grocers (previously a male domain).
Thousands left domestic service to take up more lucrative work in the munitions factories, leading to cartoons commenting on the “servant problem” caused by the departing “munitionettes”. Women also worked on the land, as farmhands or as part of the Forestry Corps (the Women’s Land Army was formed in 1917). Together with the munitionette and the angelic nurse, the image of the capable and wholesome land girl was celebrated by artists and advertisers alike.
A number of women’s services – the W.A.A.C., the W.R.N.S, the W.R.A.F and the Women’s Legion – all provided auxiliary services to the Armed Forces such as cooking, cleaning, driving and typing, and came with a smart uniform.