Working Women and War Widows 2/2

​At the close of the war, a coming election required a change to voting laws. An existing rule required any voter to be a man who’d resided in the country the past twelve months. This would have effectively barred the majority of men from voting.  Feminists seized the moment and won limited voting rights, for property owning women over 30. The significant contributions of women during the war were a major talking point to this end. 

As men came home and wartime production efforts ceased, many pressures urged women back into their homes. Unemployed veterans resented women workers. Sexist male unions and businesses were eager to end contracts with women workers. Widows and single women resented employed married women and supported contracts that required resignation upon marriage. Women’s employment levels fell, but the women who kept working did not go back to domestic service. 

Public spending in general was cut after WWI but a new sense of state responsibility for children was beginning to emerge. Compulsory education had only existed for children aged 5-10, with exceptions if they were employed. The Fisher Education Act of 1918 raised the age to 14, with provisions for compulsory part time attendance for those 14-18. The percentage of children earning wages decreased. 

War widows were a new social question to be answered. Previously the expectation for a widowed mother was that she would remarry after a period of mourning (period to ensure she wasn’t pregnant). She might live with her in-laws or family until then, with very few freedoms. Unmarried women were pariahs, frequently coerced to relinquish their children to foundling homes or hire them out as servants. Respected independent single mothers did not exist. 
Now that 8% of the total British population, 17 million young men, had been killed or wounded, remarriage soon after losing a husband to the war could be seen as disrespect. An estimated 3-4 million war widows were the subject of intense public scrutiny to be faithful to their fallen husband. The small widow pensions they relied on would be revoked if they remarried. Their constance to a memory became their inescapable wartime duty. It must have been terribly lonely. 

And yet it would have been better than disgrace. I don’t know how many unmarried mothers moved to new towns and rewrote their biography so their child’s father was a deceased husband, but I have to imagine it was more than zero. Undoubtedly some unmarried women’s babes really did have fallen soldiers for fathers, just no marriage. Love in wartime is notorious for throwing caution to the wind. The divide in treatment between women who’d married a week before her lover’s deployment and those who’d planned to wait until her beloved returned was crystal clear. 

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