Women Factory Workers in Birmingham during the Second World War

During the Second World War large numbers of women were recruited to work in factories to meet the labour shortage caused by men going to fight in the war. Many factories in Birmingham supported war production, including Cadbury’s, the British Small Arms Company and Austin Motors. Spitfires were also made in a factory in Castle Bromwich. All of these companies employed women during the war.

Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, initially tried to avoid bringing in conscription (call-up) for women workers, but women did not volunteer in high enough numbers to meet the labour shortage. Registration for women workers was introduced in March 1941, which required all women aged 19 – 40 to register at labour exchanges, although war work was not yet compulsory at this time. But conscription was later brought in from December 1941, meaning that single women aged 20 – 30 could be called up for war work. The age limit was later extended as the labour shortage continued (by 1944 women aged between 19 and 50 could be conscripted).  There were some exceptions: for example, women with children under the age of 14 were exempt, but could of course volunteer if they wanted to.

Many work processes in factories had been broken down and simplified so that large numbers of unskilled workers, including women, could be recruited and trained up quickly. This ended up putting some women off from volunteering. Some women had also worked in munitions during the First World War, or had family members who had done so, and they had heard stories of how women went ‘barmy’ because of the monotony of the work.

Other women, of course, were keen to do their bit for the war effort.

This quote from a woman who worked making ammunitions in a Birmingham factory illustrates how processes had been broken down. She had been an office worker before the war but had signed up to work on munitions because she wanted to work in a role that she felt would do more to help the war effort.

“One had their bit to put in. Well, it didn’t mean a thing, really. I knew I was stuffing something in for the war and I knew it would go up with a bang, and that was really all that concerned me.”

The Government not only had to convince women to take up war work, but also had to encourage employers to employ women. Despite women being widely employed in munitions during the First World War, many employers were still sceptical of hiring women workers.

Some employers had very fixed ideas about what kind of women should be working in their factory. A personnel manager at a Birmingham engineering company wrote this entry in his diary in January 1942: “See two more girls sent down from London. A striking blonde from a beauty parlour and a brunette from a gown shop, both in the West End. Capstan shop foreman afraid to put them on his machines; said they were too good a type. I was seriously concerned myself as our factory is an old shabby place and its sanitary arrangements of a very low standard… Local factory class girls are used to them.”

Some men saw women entering the workforce as a threat to gender relations and a possible threat to their pay and conditions. Some men protested this by sabotaging machinery. For example, in a Birmingham factory men who were working on the night shift loosened all the nuts on a lathe they were working on because they knew that a woman was working on the same machine during the day.

Despite the pressing need for more workers, women were still only allowed into the workplace under certain conditions. The Extended Employment of Women Agreement was created by the unions and helped to protect men’s pay and conditions by ensuring that women’s employment was temporary, so that men would not be permanently replaced. It also ensured that women’s wages were kept under control.

Unions played a large role in both the recruitment of women and their pay. Ernest Bevin did not want the Government to get involved with controlling women’s wages and instead wanted the unions to deal with the issue. The Amalgamated Engineers’ Union (AEU) in particular wanted to safeguard men’s conditions at work, so they wanted to make sure that as much work as possible was classified as men’s work and that women were paid the rate for the job – they were afraid that otherwise men might suffer a loss of earnings or be permanently replaced by cheaper labour (i.e. women).

Some women chose to work during the war purely for the income, particularly those whose husband’s had been called up for service, as the allowance given to wives of servicemen was not enough to support a family.  Engineering was one of the better paid trades at the time, and workers in these industries in the Midlands were generally better paid than in other areas of the country.  However, many women were understandably not satisfied with their pay. Although it seems that the majority of working women were more concerned with securing better pay rather than equal pay.

It is worth noting that a campaign for equal pay was happening in parliament during the Second World War, though, and was successful in securing in securing equal pay in some areas, for example for teachers; but unfortunately not for the majority of women workers.

Many factories throughout the country had inadequate facilities to cope with the influx of women workers, particularly at the beginning of the war. Many of the factories had inadequate washing facilities, inadequate time given to wash dirt or oil off hands and poor ventilation in the workshops. Permanent blackout in many factories meant an absence of daylight and many factories were noisy and dirty.  A rapid increase in employees coupled with wartime shortages made it difficult to make timely improvements.  The poor conditions along with the long working hours meant that women could, and often did, suffer health problems. Sometimes women suffered from skin disorders because of the oils that got onto their hands.  Resistance to diseases such as tuberculosis was lowered by fatigue and poor ventilation, and some women suffered from anaemia or ‘nervous disorders’.

Wartime orders meant that factories engaged on government work could be directed to provide canteens, welfare supervision and medical services.  However, these services were often inadequate. A government report on women’s welfare noted that medical services were not up to scratch in many factories  and works canteens were often criticised by the workers. Common issues raised at works council meetings included capacity of the canteens, opening times and the quality and the quantity of the food.

Despite the Government’s efforts to provide welfare services, this did not change the fact that working hours were often long and work was monotonous. Before the war the 1937 Factories Act stated that women could not be employed for more than 48 hours a week and were not allowed to be employed on night shifts. This law was relaxed at the beginning of the war and women were permitted to work a maximum of 60 hours a week, and they were allowed to work nights, Sundays and on 7-day rotas.

The long hours obviously had an impact on women’s home lives. Even if women were working full-time, they were still expected to run the home and look after the children. The Government’s ‘make do and mend’ propaganda reinforced and encouraged this role. It was almost as if women, despite being encouraged to go out to work, were constantly being reminded that their place was still in the home. The Government’s report into women’s welfare (1942 – 1943) said that “Many married women are of necessity now doing the equivalent of two full-time jobs and, though they do this willingly and cheerfully, the strain of this must inevitably reduce their power of endurance.”

The historian Penny Summerfield has argued that this image of women performing their duty heroically, and putting up with things uncomplainingly, is not entirely correct. Her evidence for this is that women took time off work in order to perform all the tasks expected of them.  Women’s absenteeism was twice as high as men’s and was even higher amongst married women.

One of the reasons women took time off was to do their shopping. The only time women had in which to shop was their lunch hour, which meant they didn’t have time for a meal or a rest break for themselves.

One woman who worked in a Brass Foundry in Birmingham during the war explains the shopping difficulties many women faced:

“Shopping was a problem, and they used to have to go out in their dinner hour, and I mean, they hardly had any dinner hour, because they would be going, seeking food for their families. And then they would have to go home and have to cook it. And they would be working all day.”

Some employers developed shift work and part-time work schemes to try to reduce absenteeism. However, Penny Summerfield warns that these schemes were not really aimed at allowing women to make domestic arrangements. Part-time work was only offered to those women who were exempt from conscription, e.g. women who had children under 14 years old.

So after all the hard work that women put in during the Second World, what happened to them when the war ended? While women’s efforts during the war were highlighted in newspapers and magazines at the time, many women still lost their jobs once at the end of the war. This process of women moving out of the workplace at the end of the war was known as ‘demobilisation’. Men were encouraged to return to their jobs and women were encouraged to return to the home to make way for them. The vast majority of war-time nurseries were closed.

Demobilisation was not a quick process, however. Some factories had actually started making redundancies during the war, once production targets had been reached for the D-Day landings.  The whole process of demobilisation happened before the war ended and continued after the war had ended.

Employers were encouraged to release married women from war service first so that they could get back to normal family life.

Some women were of course glad that they did not have to work in the factories anymore. However, some women were not happy to return to their pre-war women’s trade or to leave their current jobs. Some women had got used the money they earned in their war jobs.

Despite the cuts to the female workforce, the number of women in engineering did not return to pre-war levels. So, the war did have some impact, but it did not necessarily mean more equality for women in the workplace. Women were still paid less than men and employers still did not have a desire to train women or to give them skilled work, and they were often still regarded as temporary workers. There was no move towards traditional gender roles changing after the war. Men expected to return home and take their place at the head of the household again. Some men insisted that their wives should not work once they returned (and some men did not like the fact that their wives had gone out to work at all). There was an assumption that women would want to return to the home, along with a very strong view that young children should not be separated from their mothers.

Even though the war did not immediately change women’s lives in terms of work and gender balance, some women did feel having worked during the war gave them a greater sense of independence. Many women expressed a desire for a more interesting life after the war even if they did not want to continue working. +69 However, it is also important to remember that although women had more opportunities for employment during and after the war, this did not mean that there was equality in the workplace: women were still paid less than men and were more often than not seen as casual workers who were just supplementing the family income.

Written for Sheroes of History by Charlene Price
For references please see this version of the article on Charlene’s blog.

Find out more:

The Striking Women website has some great resources and information about women in work during the Second World War.

Another great resource is the Imperial War Museum website.

The Union History site has some great information about the fight for more equal pay during the war.

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