Changes to women’s employment during The First World War

Curator Joanna explores the changes for women employed by the Post Office.

The First World War presented lots of new opportunities to women such as education, employment, and national service. But it’s important to remember that while many women could take advantage of these prospects, there was great importance placed on traditional gender stereotypes. Motherhood was represented as central to women’s identities.

Postwomen, c.1914 (POST 118/6825)

Here are three ways women’s employment at the General Post Office changed during The First World War:

1. Lifting the Marriage Bar

The temporary lifting of the ‘marriage bar’ changed the employment opportunities available to married women. The bar was implemented in 1876 and required most female employees to resign from their posts upon marriage, forbidding the employment of married women in the majority of cases. The bar was reinstated at the end of the war.

Women were divided about whether married women should continue working at the end of the war. Isobel M Pazzey of Woolwich reflected a widely-held view when she demanded that married women should be sent ‘home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother’s care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work.’

The marriage bar was not permanently lifted until after the Second World War, and some parts of the Civil Service retained the bar until 1973.

2. New Jobs for Women

Women were allowed to work in jobs which had previously been occupied solely by men. For example, women could work in the Cable Room of the Central Telegraph Office for the first time. Women could also operate telegraphic circuits linked to France.

Before employing women to this job, the GPO enquired about whether women were competently operating the French telegraphic systems to the United Kingdom. Monsieu Frouin, Director of the Telegraphic Works in France, responded that ‘the yield obtained [from women] was found to be as good as with men.’

Wireless Telegraph Station c.1890, (2010-0418/2)

Wireless cabin – Lantern Slide c.1913, (2010-0418/1)

Some jobs were considered a step too far and remained off-limits to women. In 1915, applications were received from women eager to be employed as Temporary Wireless Assistants on board ships and at wireless stations. Such an application was refused in 1915, on the grounds of the unsuitability of ‘the accommodation of female operators at Wireless Stations’. A further refusal letter from 1916 cites the ‘military nature’ of the work as the reason for women’s unsuitability to the role.

Many job roles were specifically for the duration of the war only. So, the gains made by women would be taken away at the war’s end.

3. Change to working hours

Between 1914 and 1915, the time of day it was acceptable for women to work was pushed later and later. In 1914, a few months prior to Britain joining the war, the cut off for ‘ordinary scheduled duties of Female Telegraphists’ was 20:30 in the evening’. In mid-1915 authorisation was given to employ women on indoor duties until 23.00. It was stipulated that the accommodation must be suitable and that ‘facilities are available, or can be arranged, for women’s conveyance home’.

Women sorting letters at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, c.1914 (POST 118/18274)

There were concerns about the dangers faced by unaccompanied women, outdoors, at night, and the advice given that women should not be employed on outdoor duties after 20.00. Later in 1915, it was advised that girls could be employed on telegram delivery after 20.00, but only in ‘districts carefully chosen for their suitability’.

The Postmaster General was also willing to receive proposals ‘for the performance of all-night telephone duties by a staff of women in exchanges where it is found difficult to maintain a sufficient force of male night operators’.

Group of postwomen at Barnet, 1914-1918

Some women would relinquish their employment happily at the end of the war, content to re-establish some sense of normality, as men returned to the head of the house. Other women wanted to maintain the independence of the war years. The war had a complex impact on women and of course, no two women had exactly the same experience.

Postwoman’s Overcoat c.1917, (2010-0497)

You can research appointment records, establishment books and pension records in our Discovery Room to find out more about women’s employment history.

– Joanna Espin, Curator