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Historical Perspectives

provided residential care. There were also government funded schemes to pay for child minders. Working women were also very concerned about shopping as long hours prevented them from reaching the shops whilst rationed good were still in stock. To overcome this problem, some factories paid for professional shoppers, but women preferred to do their own shopping. Eventually many factories conceded a regular extended lunch break or 'shopping hour' to meet this need. Under emergency powers legislation, the right to strike was removed, although in practice disputes over grading sometimes led to stoppages, particularly towards the end of the war. Also the compulsory direction of labour meant that individual workers lost the right to freely change jobs when it suited them. In return, the government recognized that happy workers were good workers and that minimum standards of welfare were necessary to provide a congenial working environment. Consequently, the government funded schemes to build canteens providing cheap, nourishing hot food, washrooms and other welfare facilities. The BBC radio programme Music While You Work was also introduced to help pass the long hours.

Even so, collective action by women was vital to assert their demands. Strong oral evidence suggests that, although reluctant to enter industry, once women were at work they enjoyed the experience, particularly financial independence and the company of other women. Even without equal pay, women earned a great deal more than before the war. Gone were the timid, deferential attitudes of the 1930s, replaced by a much more assertive and confident women's labour force. More pay in their pockets and loosening of moral codes meant that young women enjoyed themselves as never before, using their hard won cash and leisure time for the cinema, dancing, roller skating, clothes shopping and seaside trips. Overall, women were not liberated by the war, but they did in some sense 'discover' each other and the power to produce change by concerted, collective action. This situation changed rapidly at the end of the war. With demand for women's labour no longer at a premium the government ceased to fund nurseries with the result that the great majority closed down within a short time. The dramatic fall in the birth rate produced a 'moral panic' about falling population by 1945. Women who had previously been welcomed into the workforce were now told to go home and have babies. Integral to the post war settlement was the notion that returning soldiers should have a woman waiting at home for them. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the equal pay campaign all but fizzled out. The 1950s heralded in a new era of domesticity for women when so called child care experts guilt tripped them for leaving their small children even for short periods. When the women's liberation movement erupted onto the scene in the late 1960s it appeared that these women's activists had little in common with their mothers. But it was their mothers who had been the strong assertive, women of war time Britain. Perhaps they wanted something better for their daughters.

Further Reading:

Penny Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War, Production and Patriarchy in Conflict, London, Croom Helm, 1984.

Claire Whiteman, More Than Munitions; Women, Work and the Engineering Industries 1900-1950. London, Longman, 1999, chapter 7.

Sue Bruley, Women in Britain Since 1900, Macmillan, Basingtoke, 1999, chapter 4.

Sue Bruley, Working For Victory, A Diary of Life in a Second World War Factory, London, Imperial War Museum/Sutton, 2001.
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Women Workers in the Second World War by Professor Sue Bruley