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Taking Over 'Men's' Work

With thousands of men away serving in the armed forces, British women took on a variety of new jobs during the First and Second World Wars.

Many of these roles had traditionally only been done by men and were thought unsuitable for women because they were dirty or difficult. But now, all over the country, women became train cleaners, bus conductors, volunteer policewomen; they worked with dangerous chemicals in factories, drove tractors on farms and transported coal on barges.


Recruitment poster, WW2 women's Land Army showing a woman in uniform with a fork in a field
WW2 Women's Land Army Recruitment Poster

Women’s work would be vital to the British war effort in World War Two, so much so that it soon became compulsory (women had to do it by law). Early in 1941, Ernest Bevin, the Government Minister for Labour, declared that, 'one million wives' were 'wanted for war work'. Later that year, in December 1941, women began to be conscripted for war work, when Parliament passed the National Service Act.


Handwritten register and photos of workers at RAF Conningsby
Register and Photos of Workers at RAF Conningsby

All unmarried women aged 20-30, (later extended to 19-43), now had to either join the armed forces, work in a factory or work on the land with the Women's Land Army.

Women in the Armed Forces

During the Second World War, women served in the armed forces, including, for example:

The Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS)

The ATS was the women's branch of the British Army during World War Two (see the ATS recruitment poster above). Women between the ages of 17 and 43 could join and, although they were barred from serving in battle, they could take on other roles, such as cooks, storekeepers, orderlies, drivers and postal workers. Later in the war, when there was a shortage of men available to do some jobs, women in the ATS became radar operators and anti-aircraft gun crew members as well.


Poster says "Great responsibiliy is borne by the ATS cooks who serve our troops with nourishing food well cooked"
Recruitment Poster for the ATS Catering Corps

The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS)

At the start of the war, the women’s arm of the Royal Navy was seen as a way of freeing men in non-combatant roles (like driving or cooking) to fight. 'Join the Wrens today and free a man to join the Fleet’, one recruitment poster urged. Nicknamed ‘Wrens’, these women went on to do extremely important and varied work, from code-breaking at Bletchley Park to operating radar equipment.

Women also served with a range of other services

- the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps

- as pilots and ground crew in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)

- in the Women’s Auxiliary Service, as voluntary policewomen

- as military nurses or volunteer nurses (VADs) with the Voluntary Aid Detachment

- and even as spies with the Special Operations Executive (SOE)

Discussion Ideas

  • Why do you think women were banned from fighting?
  • Some people did not approve of women working in WW2. What reasons might they have had for this?
  • When conscription was first introduced, only unmarried women between the ages of 20 and 30 were called up.
    - Why do you think this was?
    - Do you think this was fair?
  • How you think views of women workers changed during and after WW2?
  • Do you have a female relative who worked in WW2?
  • Are there still any jobs that women are banned from doing today?

Activity Ideas

  • Research women in the British Armed Forces today:
    - Are women allowed to serve in battle today?
    - What sort of roles do women carry out in the modern armed forces?
    - Are there any different rules for women in the British Army these days?
    Look at modern recruitment posters aimed at women. Compare them to the ATS poster above and the WW2 recruitment posters on the Leeds University Wiki website (see link below).
    • Analysing sources - ATS poster:
      - How is the woman in the poster presented?
      - Is she shown as a professional worker? If not, why not?
      - What do you think of the work she is doing?
      - To what extent could the poster be described as presenting traditional ‘women’s work’?

      Using the poster images from the Leeds University Wiki page, compare the ATS poster to how women’s war work is presented in other recruitment posters.
      - What similarities are there between the posters?
      - How do they present women’s war work differently?
      - How might they be exaggerating or presenting things in a positive light?
      - Which war work would you prefer to do, just from looking at the posters?


Anti-aircraft gun - guns which shoot at aircraft attacking overhead
Auxiliary - acting as support or back-up
Bletchley Park - place where people tried to break coded messages to find out German plans during WW2
Compulsory - something you have to do
Conscripted - having join the armed services without a choice
Non-combatant - someone in the military who does not fight
Operating - managing, running
Orderlies - non-medical workers who help in hospitals
Recruitment - taking on new workers