Women's Work in the First World War
'What can a girl do?'
At the outbreak of war, new opportunities began to be opened up for many women as they moved into areas of commercial and industrial life previously closed to them. Women’s contribution to the war effort through waged work has received a good deal of attention from historians but their involvement through voluntary activity has been less well explored. At the outset, there was little official organisation of women’s initiatives and so women responded by using the traditional and organisational skills that had been developed and honed in pre-war membership of women’s social, service and political organizations. In time, as these contributions of these groups became essential, the government began to coordinate and regulate their efforts.
Members of the various women’s suffrage societies had developed a sense of citizenship through their previous experience of political activism. Both the NWUSS and the WSPU agreed to suspend their political agitation when the war began. In Tunbridge Wells, a notice was placed in the window of the NUWSS premises in Crescent Road which read: 'All Political and Propaganda Work is suspended'. For some suffragists, the progression to war service was straightforward whilst others turned progressively towards pacifism.
Representatives of Tunbridge Wells’ women’s organisations became involved in all aspects of war work, some of which conformed to traditional expectations of female roles whilst others were less conventional. The local branch of the National British Women's Temperance Association ran rest and recreation rooms for the women of the town whose husbands and sons had enlisted, as a source of companionship and inexpensive refreshment. Elsewhere, in addition to nursing the wounded at the numerous local hospitals, women were active in providing refreshments for hospital visitors, and in running canteens and recreational facilities for the many soldiers billeted in the town. The local branch of the National Council of Women set up a laundry where soldier’s clothing and uniforms were washed and mended. Clubs were organised for the wives of soldiers who were away fighting and as a meeting place for soldiers and local girls.
Contemporary advertisement: women's contribution to the war effort was encouraged at all levels
source: Kent and Sussex Courier
The presence of so many soldiers in the town gave rise to concerns about an outbreak of ‘khaki fever’ amongst the town’s girls and young women, and so voluntary women patrollers were organised to befriend and protect them, an initiative that paved the way for calls for women police officers.
In the early days of the war many thousands of Belgian refugees arrived in Kent and were offered accommodation in the county, many in private homes and lodging houses in Tunbridge Wells. A relief fund collected subscriptions and other donations.
By 1916, in the face of conscription of all men of military age under the Military Service Act, the government began to organise women's auxiliary military services to replace men in non-combatant roles. A Tunbridge Wells unit of the Women's Volunteer Reserve trained women as dispatch riders, signallers, telegraphists, motorists, and trench diggers.
Although war work was rejected by some pacifist feminists, and some suffrage campaigners had been active in the protest against conscription, the local branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies turned enthusiastically to war relief work. The local branch designated its premises in Crescent Road as a War Relief Clothing Depot, where donations of clothing were accepted for soldiers and for Belgian Refugees.
‘The War has revolutionised the position of women’
'Constitutional Suffragists' Public-Spirited Scheme: Propaganda Superceded by Relief Work'
Kent and Sussex Courier
14th August 1914