Women in the War


In 1939, the average housewife hardly knew a calorie from a protein; by the end of the war, to the delight, if embarrassment of the Minister of Food, she was writing angrily to complain if her corner-shop was failing to provide her family's share of body-building and energy-giving foods..

Norman Longmate, How we lived then (1973)

A history book based on the author's huge collection of people's memories.



The 'HistoryLearning' site - basic info  

BBC site - excellent

Imperial War Museum site

  Film clips

Blackpool memories


The 1940s House

WWII fashions


Brenda Wood's memories   

The Aycliffe Angels

In 1939, women made up more than half of the population - a proportion which grew, of course, as more and more men went abroad on active service.   It is important to realise that 'the part women played in the war' was not just about the things they did specially.   Everything that happened on the Home Front happened at least equally to women; women were involved in almost EVERY aspect of the war.


It was the women who had to:


Source A

I believe that women are bearing the brunt of this home-fronted war...   And I see everywhere ... very little sign that the women's point of view matters nearly as much as the man's.   This war is being led by men and run by men, mostly old men.   They are appallingly ignoring women's problems.

Comment to Mass Observation survey of Industrial and Personnel Management (1939).



   take their children to the station, wave them off, and bear most of the emotional pain of the parting.

   (pregnant women and mothers with babies were evacuated themselves) cope with all the difficulty of living in another woman's house according to another woman's standards.

   bear the brunt of the extra cleaning, bed-wetting, cooking and problems in the host homes.


  Source B

When war started I was in the Royal Infirmary having an operation, and my husband came in and said, "the kiddies had been taken away"..., so I broke my heart crying and I said "where are they?"   He said "I don't know where they've gone."   So any road the nurses all come round me and gave me a cup of tea and I said "I want to know where they are" and he said "I don't know where they are", he said "they've just gone."   So when I came out of hospital, I was on two sticks, I went up to Betws-y-Coed.   I found out where they were, (they were there for six weeks)....   When I went up to see them they were in a little alleyway, you know a little porch house, in the teams of rain.   I said "out, home". I had to bring them home.

Emily Banks, a Liverpool mother during the war


Home Life 

   keep the home going and bring up the children while the men were away fighting.

   do ALL the things previously done by their husbands (e.g. the garden/ the decorating) AS WELL AS everything they had done before the war - the war changed the balance of roles within the marriage (although many things returned to how they had been after the war).

   cope with the absence (or often the death) of a husband or boyfriend.   Sexual moral standards changed.

   1.5 million American GIs were stationed in Britain in the run up to D-Day, and 15,000 of them married English girls in 1944 and 600 GI brides went to live in America in 1946 (many of these marriages did not work).   In all, perhaps 70,000 English girls became pregnant by American soldiers.


Source C

The war was the best thing that ever happened to us.   I was as green as grass and terrified if anyone spoke to me...   At work you did exactly as your boss told you; then you went home to do exactly what your husband told you.   The war changed all that.   The war made me stand on my own two feet..

Mona Marshall, a nursemaid who had become a steelworker during the war, said this in 1986.



   queue for the groceries, the butcher's, (and after an air raid) for washing and water etc..

   learn how to cook interesting and nutritious meals on rations without essentials such as flour or lard.

   wear 'utility clothing' (which used a minimum of cloth - so no frills or turn-ups)

   'make do and mend' socks, skirts etc.  Women unravelled old woollens and knitted new clothes, or made new coats out of old blankets.   Women's magazines gave hints to women how to use cup hooks and bottle tops to make jewellery, use bicarbonate of soda as under-arm anti-perspirant, burnt cork as mascara and Reckitt's Blue (a laundry whitener) to give grey hair a 'blue rinse'.   The greatest prize was an enemy parachute - it could be used to make some silk knickers.

   get 'new' clothes from swap shops.

   do without nylons (women used gravy browning with a eyebrow pencil-line drawn down the back of the leg as the 'seam') and without make-up.

   'grow their own' in allotments or their gardens.


Source D

Food is running very short this week, a little cheese, no tea, no meat to be had.   I think there is a hold-up in transport, but undoubtedly hunger is the least of things we will have to face before this war is over.

Diary of Moyra Charlton of Essex for 3 January 1941.


Blitz and Air Raid Precautions 

   make the blackout curtains (and close them every night), tape up the window panes etc.

   sit pumping air into their baby's gas mask - if they stopped (and some did) the baby suffocated.

   bear the brunt of the Blitz.   In Coventry women took their children to sleep in the fields for fear of bombing.   It was women and children who made up the majority of people who slept in the Underground.

   after an air raid, clear up the mess.

   go without sleep - many women stayed up during the night because the men had to go to work in the daytime.

   help with the civil defence services during the raids; women drove ambulances, worked as telephone operators or despatch riders, did fire-watching and worked as ARP wardens and nurses.

   volunteer for the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) - in 1939, 10,000 women a week joined; they set up tea canteens in bombed areas, looked after shock victims, helped with First Aid and manned Incident Enquiry posts.


Source E

The mother had spent most of the night trying to keep the child asleep.   The father had wanted to take over her job but she told him she could sleep while he was at work whereas he would grumble because his work wasn't done properly.   As a result the father had 4 or 5 hours of genuine sleep.   The mother is worst affected but makes the best of it: 'I'm lucky.   I manage to get an hour or two in the afternoon'.

Mass Observation Survey.



   go out to work - as Mass Observation showed that 97% of women thought that women should go out to work to help the war effort.  

   In 1941, the government started to conscript single women aged 20-30 into war work - in the Auxiliary Services or industry.   Married women were encouraged to volunteer.

   live in hostels because they were conscripted into industries in a different part of the country.

   do dangerous work filling shells (e.g. the Aycliffe Angels).

   put up with dirty and inappropriate conditions in factories (many factory toilets, where men had worked, for instance, did not have doors)

   join the Women's Land Army to help farmers whose labourers had joined up - about 80,000 women became 'Land Girls', of whom 1,000 worked as rat-catchers, and 6,000 joined the WLA Timber Corps.

   cope with children AND a job when the husband is away on active service.

   try to do the shopping AFTER finishing work at 5pm when all the shops had closed.

   manage on much less than the men were being paid for the same job - AND suffer the hostility of the men who thought they were taking away men's jobs and helping to depress men's wages.


Source F

I was seriously concerned myself as our factory is an old shabby place and its sanitary arrangements of a very low standard.   Our canteen is not good.  Lavatory accommodation such as most factory hands use without a qualm will revolt these girls.

Comment of a factory manager to Mass Observation.



The film Land Girls (1997) glamorises the role of the Women's Land Army.

Source G

A poster put out by the Ministry of Food.   'Medals' were awarded for thing such as 'making delicious dishes from home-grown vegetables', 'trying fresh-salted cod', 'acting on recipes and hints from Kitchen Front wireless talks', 'saving all bread crumbs ... and making crisp rusks', and 'going without, rather than pay unfairly high prices for foods that may be scarce'.


Source H

A propaganda poster encouraging women to go to work.


   in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) - on ack-ack guns, search-lights, and radar control, a swell as doing sentry duty and servicing trucks and motorbikes.

   in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) - doing sentry duty, manning the radio, directing planes to landing and take-off - women pilots were only allowed to deliver new planes to airfields, however; they were NOT allowed to go into combat.

   in the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS - 'the Wrens') - where they overhauled torpedoes and depth charges, repaired mine sweepers, learned morse code and semaphore.

   for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) - driving ambulances and staff `cars in battle areas, and doing some nursing on the front-line.

   about 2000 women worked on ULTRA - the group at Bletchley Park which decoded enemy messages.

   some few heroic women worked as spies, radioing back information, and co-ordinating supplies of weapons to the Resistance fighters in occupied France.

   Other women worked for ENSA (the group of actors and singers set up to entertain the troops) - Vera Lynn was perhaps the most famous.


Source I

The war affected women enormously.   The war effort required their participation and co-operation in every aspect of their lives... 

     By 1942 more men, women and children had been killed at home than soldiers in action.

                            Caroline Lang, Keep Smiling Through: Women in the Second World War (i989)

One of a series of school textbooks: Women in History, about the part women have played in the past.