A generation before Rosie the Riveter, munitionettes “wo-manned” Britain’s factories and mines, replacing the men who volunteered for General Kitchener’s New Army in 1914 and 1915.
Women were initially greeted in the work force with hostility. Male trade unionists argued that the employment of women, who earned roughly half the salary of the men they replaced, would force down men’s wages.** Some argued that women did not have the strength or the technical skills to do the work.
When universal male conscription was passed in 1916, need out-weighed social resistance. By the 1918, 950,00 women worked in Britain’s munitions industry, outnumbering men by as much as three to one in some factories.
The hours were long and the work was dangerous. Munitionettes were popularly known as “canary girls” because prolonged exposure to toxic sulfuric acid tinged their skin yellow. Deadly explosions were common.
Munitionettes were not the only women to enter Britain’s work force in World War I. Another 250,000 joined the work force in jobs that ranged from dockworkers and firefighters*** to government clerks, nurses, and ambulance drivers. The number of women in the transport industry alone increased 555% during the war.
At the end of the war, most of the munitionettes and their fellow war workers were replaced by returning soldiers. Many of them were probably glad to go. But the definition of “women’s work” had been permanently changed. The thin edge of the wedge had been inserted.
* Evidently the simple solution of negotiating for women to be paid an equal wage for equal work did not occur to male-dominated unions. As a consequence, women’s trade unions saw an enormous increase in membership during the war.
** Imagine fighting a fire in a long skirt and petticoats.