Women in the Post Office

Women are usually recognised to have been employed by the Post Office since 1870.

Before this, however, women worked as Sub-Postmistresses, conducting Post Office business alongside another business. Women were also employed as letter carriers (postwomen) in rural areas if men were not available.

Women’s first roles in the Post Office

A black and white image of women working at a telephone switchboard.

Photograph of the Holburn Central Telephone Exchange switchroom, 1904 (POST 118/1149)

In 1870, the Post Office was given control of the telegraph system. The women who worked as telegraphists became Post Office employees. This was the first time women had been employed in substantial numbers by the GPO and their employment was seen as something novel and experimental.

The ‘experiment’ was judged to be successful. In the following years women were employed in clerical roles in the headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank and in the Returned Letter Office. The sexes were strictly segregated at work, partly for reasons of propriety and social convention.

Working life in the early years

For a number of years, women clerks and women working in the largest telephone exchanges and telegraph offices worked physically separately from men even whilst doing the same or similar work. This arrangement was judged to be best for the service and for women’s welfare.

In the early days, women were even escorted in and out of the building at times when male workers would not see them. By the 1920s, some women began to voice their opposition to workplace segregation. They argued that it allowed Post Office officials to deny women equal pay and working conditions. Working at night was deemed unsuitable for women and so men were employed in the late evenings and over night.

Women were also employed in individual Post Offices around the country in the dual role of sorting clerk and telegraphist, handling both mail and telegraph businesses. Here, they could expect to work alongside men in much smaller offices.

The marriage bar

  • Black and white photograph of a women sat outside of Cobham Post Office making lace.

    Photograph of Sub-Postmistress Mrs Helen M Hoppe outside her Post Office making lace, 1939 (POST 118/1311)

  • In 1876, the Post Office instituted a marriage bar which required women to resign on marriage and forbade the employment of married women in established positions. Married women could remain working as Sub-Postmistresses as these were not established positions.

    The marriage bar was the subject of controversy and debate throughout its life. Some women liked it because they planned to finish working when they married anyway, and found the payment useful for setting up their married home. Others felt that it perpetuated women’s inequality with men. Those whose marriages broke down had to make a special application to rejoin the service and were not always successful.

    The bar was lifted during the First and Second World War temporarily to allow employment of married women to take over from men who were enlisted into the armed forces. The bar was to be re-instated after the Second World War but was eventually lifted permanently in 1946 in the Post Office, although remained much longer in some other parts of the civil service.

Women’s employment in the Post Office in the two World Wars

The employment of women expanded massively during the First World War. Thousands of women, whether married or single, were employed in temporary positions for the duration of the war. They worked in roles previously reserved to men as male staff joined the armed forces. Many women began delivering mail in urban areas, and girls worked as telegraph messengers.

Black and white photograph of Barnet postwomen standing next to bicycles.

Photograph of the postwomen of Barnet, 1914-1914 (POST 118/2330)

  • Women’s employment was similarly greatly extended in the Second World War. For example, just before Christmas 1940, the Post Office called for women to volunteer as postwomen.

    Postmen were asked to bring along their ‘wives, sweethearts, sisters and ladyfriends’ to help with Christmas mail delivery. Within hours of the announcement in London, 4,000 women – out of the 8,000 required – had volunteered.

    This was initially regarded as a temporary measure but the women impressed the Postmaster General. The decision was taken to retain them for further work. By November 1941, around 100,000 women were employed by the Post Office in either permanent or temporary capacities.

  • Black and white photograph of a women adjusting her postwomen hat in a mirror.

    Photograph of the postwomen uniform, 1929-1941 (POST61/65)

Women and Post Office trade unions

  • The Post Office boasts the first women-only association in the Civil Service. Founded in 1901, the Association of Post Office Women Clerks represented women clerical workers and fought for their employment rights and ultimately for equality with men.

    The Association later became a branch of the Federation of Women Civil Servants, and from 1931, it became part of the National Association of Women Civil Servants. There was also the Association of Civil Service Sorting Assistants (later the Association of Writing Assistants) which represented women on the Sorting Assistant and Writing Assistant grades.

    Women telegraphists and telephonists were represented by the Union of Postal Workers, formed in 1919 from an amalgamation of a number of other Post Office unions. The executive committee posts included a ‘Woman Organiser’. Women’s interests were sometimes in conflict with men’s, however, and as men held the majority membership, women’s concerns could remain underrepresented by union policy.

  • A yellow recruitment poster featuring a a women behind a counter and two men.

    Poster for the recruitment of personnel at Crown Offices; featuring Post Office clerks, 1958 (POST 110/1363)

The campaign for equal pay and equal opportunities

Black and white photograph of women sat in a line working the telephone exchange with a supervisor.

Photograph of women working the Telephone Exchange, c.1940-41 (POST 56)

Until the 1960s, women were very often paid less than men for doing the same jobs in the Post Office. This situation was replicated across many employment sectors in the country. There were various campaigns for equal pay for Post Office women workers, beginning with campaigns by the Association of Post Office Women Clerks in the early twentieth century.

During the Second World War, the Union of Post Office Workers campaigned against wage inequalities for women telephonists who worked overnight in telephone exchanges for the duration of the war. In 1953, the Royal Commission on Equal Pay in the Civil Service was convened. In 1955, it was announced that equal pay for men and women would be introduced in phases over the following six year period for most grades.

Case studies

At the end of 1908, Mrs Elizabeth Dickson retired as an unestablished rural postwoman after 30 years and 8 months’ service. It was reported that she had never once been late for duty and had only taken off 14 days for illness.

She was well-known in her district, walking thirteen and a half miles each day in the course of her duties. On her retirement, the staff magazine St Martin’s Le Grand noted that she had walked 129,392 miles during her Post Office career, ‘or a distance equal to more than five times round the world.’

Miss Jane Buchanan, Superintendent of the Female Staff of the Post Office Savings Bank, received an OBE for her service during the First World War.

Florence Marie Cass, a telephonist, was one amongst many women telegraphists and telephonists who received the MBE for displaying ‘great courage and devotion to duty’ during the First World War. Florence had been in charge of a telephone exchange when there was an explosion at a nearby munitions works. She made her way in the dark to the engine room to switch on the emergency motors and then prepared her staff to deal with the volume of calls.

Miss Elizabeth Anderson became Assistant Medical Officer of the GPO in 1931. She was born in Penang and educated in England, gaining her medical qualifications in Durham. She spent a number of years in hospital work and specialised private practice before joining the Post Office. In 1944, she was asked to form the Welfare Section.

Violette Szabo, the SOE agent who was shot by Nazi officers in 1945, worked as a telegraphist at the Central Telegraph Office between November 1940 and February 1941 before joining the SOE.

1946 marked the retirement of Miss E E Wade as Sub-Postmistress of Wivenhoe, Essex, after 37 years’ service. Miss Wade had succeeded her mother in the role. In the same year, Mrs Annie Cooper, aged 70, completed 50 years’ service as Sub-Postmistress of Newbridge Lane, Stockport. She had also previously assisted her father when he had held the position of Sub-Postmaster. The local Sub-Postmasters’ Federation organised a presentation in her honour.