During World War One, large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918.
Though there was initial resistance to hiring women for what was seen as ‘men’s work’, the introduction of conscription in 1916 made the need for women workers urgent. Around this time, the government began coordinating the employment of women through campaigns and recruitment drives.
This led to women working in areas of work that were formerly reserved for men, for example as railway guards and ticket collectors, buses and tram conductors, postal workers, police, firefighters, and as bank ‘tellers’ and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories.
By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed women workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army.
Known as ‘canaries’ because they had to handle TNT (the chemical compound trinitrotoluene that is used as an explosive agent in munitions) which caused their skin to turn yellow, these women risked their lives working with poisonous substances without adequate protective clothing or the required safety measures. Around 400 women died from overexposure to TNT during WWI.
On top of the dangerous working conditions, women were also paid significantly less than men in comparable positions. In 1918, women workers on London’s buses, trams, and subways organized a strike and managed to win equal pay for equal work.
When the war ended, many women were fired to free up jobs for returning veterans. These photos from the University of British Columbia offer a broad survey of the women who stepped up to keep their country running through an unprecedented conflict.
(Photo credit: University of British Columbia Library).