I have written before about English history and the ways laws and custom prioritized men at the direct expense of the women they impregnated and their children. Today I want to examine a brief snapshot in time, when England had relatively high numbers of socially accepted single mothers: the aftermath of WWI. Unwed mothers were still detested, but a new category of honored war widows emerged, and changed how the nation treated fatherless children.
WWI is known as “the Great War” in England, a reference to its large scale not its goodness. As an empire, war was hardly a novelty to the military forces of the United Kingdom. They’d spent much of the prior century invading and conquering around the globe. Earlier than that, centuries of warfare defined western Europe’s constantly shifting borders. War was traditional.
But the Great War was so massive, so geographically present, and used such terrifying new war machines that it cut down a generation of men. The war, brought on by the assassination of the heir to Hungary-Austria’s throne, dragged on far longer than people hoped or expected. Britain’s ally Russia was besieged by political problems at home. More and more UK troops were called to the front.
British women had their Rosie the Riveter moment a generation before the US. Within the first three years of UK involvement in the war every British man of eligible age, occupation, and physical health had been enlisted. Conscientious objectors were either imprisoned or else conscripted as stretcher bearers, one of the deadliest jobs possible. For women this meant new opportunities for work in a variety of fields including munitions manufacturing and secretarial work.
Domestic service had been one of the few work opportunities available to women, and it was rife with sexual assault and without worker protections. About 1 in 4 British women worked a paid job before the war. That went up to 1 in 3 as men fought and died on the battlefield. Traditional mens-only labor unions were often hostile to women workers, who formed their own unions and signed up over a million members in four years. Women’s wages were kept depressed by the use of part time work, using many women to do one man’s work so they couldn’t be said to “replace” men.
A number of factors combined to close the era of huge estates populated by dozens of servants. The war had been tremendously expensive and the taxes to pay for it couldn’t be shouldered by the poor. New and increased taxes on servants were coupled with servants demanding higher wages and more time off. Factories and Civil Service lured workers away, and their own decreased wealth prevented the gentry from simply increasing servant pay.