Women and the lost generation

Women and the lost generation

Lorraine Schofield explores the impact of World War One on women and the social changes it led to

Lorraine Schofield, Freelance writer with a particular interest in social and family history.

Lorraine Schofield

Freelance writer with a particular interest in social and family history.

Many women worked as ‘munitionettes’ in World War One, typically in highly dangerous conditions
Many women worked as ‘munitionettes’ in World War One, typically in highly dangerous conditions

World War One is infamous for its enormous number of casualties with 700,000 men being killed in active service, leading to them being labelled as ‘The Lost Generation’. Indeed, many talented and ambitious young men were tragically lost, some of whom would have contributed to the educated and cultural elite, especially as there was a disproportionate number of middle-class men. However, these devastating losses not only impacted upon the men’s families and loved ones but also had dramatic social consequences for women – as the 1921 census showed, there was now a serious imbalance within the population, with there being 1.75 million more women than men. This meant that for many women aged under 40, marriage and also motherhood were unlikely to be a realistic option nor an achievable goal. In fact, when the details of the 1921 census were made public, the press was quick to exaggerate the significance of this population imbalance and label the excess of women as ‘surplus’ or ‘superfluous’ implying that, without the option of marriage and children, these women were destined for meaningless, unfulfilled lives, as marriage was seen as the ‘crowning glory’ of a woman’s life and her ultimate goal. Not surprisingly, this statistical revelation sparked much concern and anxiety and meant that many women, whether middle or working class, would have to find an alternative life path and be both emotionally and financially independent, which for many was an unexpected and challenging prospect.

Recruitment posters for the Women’s Land Army, founded in 1915
Recruitment posters for the Women’s Land Army, founded in 1915

War effort
World War One brought about many changes to the lives of British women by the time it ended. Women proved to be vital to the war effort, taking on the jobs of men by working in the munitions factories often in dangerous conditions, as well as serving as bus drivers and conductors or serving in the Land Army.

Consequently, many women gained a greater sense of confidence and self-belief, along with independence, proving that they could cope just as well as men in stressful situations and in skilled roles.

As a reward for their war efforts, women over 30 who owned property were awarded the vote in 1918, when the Representation of the People Act was implemented. Although most women gave up their wartime roles when the soldiers were demobilised, their experiences had certainly whetted their appetites and made them realise that they could exist and even thrive independently of men. Therefore, although the feminist movement prior to the war had made some headway in breaking down patriarchy, the war certainly accelerated the process as women had proved themselves equal to men. In 1919, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act changed the law so that women could not be barred from professions such as law, veterinary medicine, architecture or from becoming civil servants or sitting upon juries. In 1920, Oxford University allowed women to take degrees. Therefore, there were many more options now available to women and especially middle-class and educated women, highlighting that not all women aspired to become wives and mothers but instead could find fulfilment through their careers.

Two female bus conductors in Croydon during WW1
Two female bus conductors in Croydon during WW1

Financial stability
However, despite these advances in status, for the vast majority of women and especially working-class women, the key life goal still remained that of marriage and raising a family. Some of those who failed to achieve this were looked upon with a certain amount of pity. Indeed, often these women were labelled ‘maiden aunts’, ‘old maids’ or ‘spinsters’, which contributed to feelings of inadequacy and failure. They also faced the reality of having to provide for themselves financially and prepare for a future where they would more than likely have to ensure their own financial stability, as there would be no husband upon whom they could depend. Indeed, the statistics show that in 1921 in the 25-29 age group there were 1000 men to every 1209 women, and that ten years later 50% of these women were still single. With regard to working-class women, the fact that they worked in low-paid sectors such as domestic service or retail, meant that the future did not bode well for them and many envisaged a long, hard struggle ahead.

Nonetheless, despite what appeared to be a bleak or uncertain future ahead of them, as the historian Virginia Nicholson highlighted, Britain’s single women in the post World War One era, had “no intention of adding their own names to the casualty list”. Many embraced their situation both bravely and pragmatically and not only made the best of their situation but also created meaningful lives for themselves in which they saw themselves as far from superfluous members of society.

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The writer Vera Brittain, famous for her book Testament of Youth, in which she describes her experiences and the impact that WW1 had on her generation, served as a nurse in the armed forces during the war but returned to her studies at Oxford afterwards. Indeed, the war brought devastating consequences for her as she lost her fiancé, her brother and also a very close friend which was a bitter blow and clearly left her distraught. However, she admitted that returning to Oxford and her studies offered “a balm to her sore and bitter soul”. Consequently, she forged a career as a writer, a journalist and also as a political activist. She did eventually marry and have a family, proving that many women were able to surmount their sorrows and start again.

One of the fears of contemporary observers was that the excess of single women would tempt married men into having illicit affairs and so lead to lowered standards of morality. In 1920, a Doctor Murray Leslie delivered a lecture to the London Institute of Hygiene, in which he propounded his viewpoint that not only was “social stability threatened by female discontent” but he also voiced his concerns about the collapse of marriage and family life.

Vera BrittainBlue plaque
Vera Brittain played an active role in WW1 in a Voluntary Aid Detachment, and later forged a career as a journalist and political activist

However, social stability was not unduly threatened and many middle-class women forged out successful careers.

Around 80% of female Oxford graduates entered the teaching profession, although as the marriage bar was still in place it meant that women were forced to resign from their posts once they married, as it was deemed not respectable for a married woman to engage in paid employment. Therefore, for many who loved the intellectual stimulation and challenge that working in teaching provided, the marriage bar itself provided a strong deterrent against getting hitched. Many other middle-class women trained as nurses or entered the clerical profession working as shorthand typists or bookkeepers.

Nevertheless, it is apparent that, in order to secure a husband, some women were willing to compromise and middle-class women often placed adverts in the press stating that they would gladly marry an officer who was blinded or injured through the war.

In view of the financial insecurity of the single woman, Florence White (1886-1961) set up a National Spinsters’ Association in 1935 to fight for the right of single women for a pension, highlighting the unique circumstance of this generation’s large number of single women and their right to financial security in old age. Women were encouraged to branch out and broaden their horizons through the growth of self-help literature which emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, and to join clubs and societies so as to build up a good social network. Many woman found solace in close personal friendships and often flat shared as a means of combating loneliness. In addition, middle-class women often broadened their outlooks through travel which earning a salary made affordable while many others found comfort in religion.

Campaigners for better pensions for women, from the National Spinsters’ Association, in 1946
Campaigners for better pensions for women, from the National Spinsters’ Association, in 1946

Ultimately, the single women of the post-WW1 generation showed much courage and adaptability and, despite their losses, sorrows and uncertain futures refused to be passive victims and instead made meaningful lives of their own, showing that a failure to marry and have children should not been seen as a failure of womanhood. Indeed, as Virginia Nicholson said, in many ways this generation of women were pioneers as they not only met the challenge of grief and loss but used their fate of being denied marriage as a “liberation and a launching pad” highlighting that women could shape their own destinies and thereby proved both to themselves and to later generations of women that marriage and a family is but one of the many options available to the modern woman.

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