event details

Organising Women in WW1

2015 is the centenary both of the formation of the Women’s Institute Movement in Britain and the publication of the Maternity Letters by the Women’s Co-Operative Guild. To commemorate these events, participants came to Bantock House from all over England to take part in the Organising Women in WW1 Conference. 

The day began with two papers that considered women’s struggle to attain fair pay and equality in the workplace.  Although many women were working the same hours as men, and in some places doing the same task, Chris Day and Vicky Iglikowski, from the National Archives, amply demonstrated that they were not regarded in the same light, citing a report of the time which stated:

A girl of 18 is equal to an unskilled young man of 25

Chris and Vicky’s paper, ‘Striking Women’: labour unrest amongst First World War female workers, used documentary evidence held at the National Archives, to explore the range of reasons that led female munitions workers to strike during World War One, and looked at how effective their actions were.

They were followed by Dr Cathy Hunt of Coventry University, whose paper Demanding their place in the sun: women and trade unionism during the First World War in Britain focussed on the work of the National Federation of Women Workers. This union, established especially for women, was essential since women were barred form membership of most other trade unions.  It covered all forms of workplace, from farm labour and domestic service, right through to factory workers and civil servants.  The officers campaigned for fair pay for their workers at a time when their employers dismissed such claims, saying

They will only spend it on fur coats and peppermint creams

For more information, see Cathy’s book: The National Federation of Women Workers (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).

Carmen de Silva, from Harper Adams University, has been researching the development of Women’s Agricultural Education and Researchand shared with us some of her early findings.  Inevitably, her presentation included mention of the creation of both the Land Army and the Women’s Institute during WW1 and introduced some of the key women instrumental in getting these organisations off the ground including Dr Grace Hadow (1875-1940), Dame Meriel Talbot (1866-1956), Margaret ‘Madge’ Watt (1868-1948) and Lady Gertrude ‘Trudi’ Denman (1884-1954).

The afternoon session began with a paper from Ruth Cohen, independent researcher, which commemorated the centenary of the publication of Maternity: Letters from Working Women by the Women’s Co-Operative Guild in 1915.  A full text of this fascinating book is available for download.

The Women’s Co-Operative Guild (WCG), a unique national organisation, had, by 1914, over 32,000 members, mostly married women from better off sections of the working class. Led by a dynamic General Secretary, middle class feminist and socialist Margaret Llewelyn Davies, it had a democratic decision-making structure, and campaigned locally and nationally on a whole range of issues affecting working class women.

After exploring why and how Margaret collected the maternity letters, and what we know about the women who wrote them, the paper discussed their influence on proposals for state maternity services which she and a colleague drew up for the WCG in 1914. Allying with like-minded groups, the WCG persuaded central government to promote maternity services. They also contributed to a shift in opinion about how to combat Britain’s high level of infant mortality, a hot topic during the war: away from simply blaming poor mothers’ inadequate baby care, and towards recognising the impact of poverty, insanitary housing and lack of access to medical and practical help.  Like the WI, the intention was to educate women to help themselves.

This was followed by the presentation of a mystery by Dr Katherine Storr.  In her paper, Miss Sophie Carey and the National Food Fund, Dr Storr presented the story of Sophie Carey, vicar’s daughter and energetic middle-class organiser who set up and then was dismissed from the National Food Fund, following accusations of malpractice and possible embezzlement. Was Sophie genuinely a crook, or a highly successful but naive philanthropist brought down by jealousy and class-hatred?  Was she indeed, the only one to suffer in this way – Dr Storr mentioned other similarly successful women of the time pushed out of their posts and written out of history by men who took over charity management once they realised how successful the ladies had been.

The last paper of the day was presented by Dr Paul Huddie, of Queens University,Belfast, was a brief case study of The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families’ Association (SSAFA), County Dublin Division, August–November 1914. SSAFA has recently digitised and made available the entire set of its annual reports for 1914.  The material is fascinating and provides a county by county breakdown of donations, expenditure, assistance cases and staffing, providing a practical insight into the relative levels of want and provision of welfare for military families around the British Isles, India and the colonies.

The day closed with a brief plenary session, led by Professor Maggie Andrews, before the the participants dispersed.

For speakers abstracts, download the Organising the women in WW1 programme

This Conference was organised by The Midlands Region of the Women’s History Network; The University of Worcester and the Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its Legacy Community Engagement Centre.

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