Thursday, 14 July 2016
Woman and the War
ENGLAND IN ARMS
From The Canadian Magazine, XLIX Toronto, May, 1917 No. 1.
By Lacey Amy
To appraise with fairness the participation of the English woman in the war requires some acclimatization on the part of the Canadian. My earliest impressions were of a gentler sex, only a stage removed from the actual conflict, who would benefit from a lesson in work from her Canadian sister. Later experience, while it may not have altered greatly my opinion in that respect, has subdued it and shaded it through a better understanding of relative values. Justice demands the inclusion in the perspective of more than the mere manual or mental performances of the English woman.
It is impossible, I think, that in any other country the stress of an extended war could break so strikingly into the career of the non-combatant sex. Indeed, England, from top to bottom, has been torn and revolutionized by sheer necessity, as no other country need have been under similar circumstances. That is the natural concomitant of a system of distinct class boundaries. A short war might have been struggled through without the social cataclysm that has struck England; but such a struggle as the present one levelled social fences as a part of victory. The high were brought down and the low raised.
The wealthy were forced to the level of some sort of labour by legislation, by popular demand and custom, by a real desire to assist, and even by the necessity of earning a living. The poor were lifted to the plane of profitable labour by the pressing demand for their hands.
What this levelling process means to England may be partly estimated without living through the metamorphosis. And it was among the women of the nation that “class” was, before the war, developed to its highest point and maintained by a determined tradition of aristocracy and by a submissive, conventional proletariat. Nothing in human nature exceeded the chasm between the “lady” and her servant. There were, it is true, the closest bonds of fidelity and loyalty, but nothing ever for a moment permitted the two representatives of the extreme classes to meet on a level of humanity.
The result on the English woman of the better class was a traditional refusal to perform the most ordinary services for herself. Only a few days before the writing of this, the death of the Duke of Norfolk brought out this marvellous evidence in the daily press of his “unselfish and unaffected nature”—that, entering a room in his house to receive a visitor and finding the grate unlighted, “he knelt at once down and lit it himself, taking immeasurable pains to make it burn quickly and brightly.” A woman of any class would no more have thought of “kneeling down” to do anything—except for her prayers—than she would have carried a parcel from the store to her waiting car. And the English woman, from the lower classes to the top, never learns the simplest branches of household art unless circumstances force her to it.
Thus it was that she was faced with a catastrophe. To be useful at a time when every hand and brain counted, the upper classes must overthrow a tradition that had become fixed in the nation’s creed. And the lower grades of society were bewildered by a condition wherein they counted even more than their superiors, and where their country was willing to pay for it.
The response of the English women, therefore, cannot be dissociated from the upheaval in the social system. Where the Canadian woman simply pitched in and knit socks or made bandages or organized others for the work, the English woman had first to reorganize the whole social fabric of which she was the most adamantine part. If an aristocrat, she had never had a knitting needle in her hands; she had never moved a muscle for anything a servant might perform for her. If a plebeian, she was forced to be a party to a levelling process never anticipated in her wildest dreams, and to do it without disrupting the social co-operation necessary for the profitable fulfilment of the sphere she and her sisters of all classes were called upon to fill for the very salvation of the Empire.
I have elaborated on what might be considered merely an introduction, because nothing done by the women of England can be considered by a Canadian in the light of Canadian experience alone.
This description of conditions precluding complete participation by the English woman in the war work open to her frees me for a general statement without prejiidice, omitting for the moment consideration of her handicaps. I am prepared to say that not all the better class women of England have done in the aggregate what a tenth their number of Canadian women would have accomplished in the same time. They have not taken to knitting for several reasons. Those who are keenly anxious to do effective war work without delay have not the patience to learn; and those who have but yielded to the prevailing fashion do not see in quiet knitting that which will return them full credit for their energy. Also, there are still those in whose mind continues the almost unsuspected impression that knitting is for a lower class. In a whole year I have seen only one English woman knitting.
It is the women of the lower classes who have responded in a manner that calls for no qualifications, no conditions, and not alone for the high wages their work now brings them.
I will go further. Women in England (even to-day, although the past few months have seen wonderful strides in this respect) have never been organized for that profitable production which commenced in Canada with the outbreak of the war. There again the social lines are responsible, not thoughtlessness. The great middle class (and there are three or four grades in it) looks to the levels above for its cue. But the early work of the aristocrats was in the way of spectacular operations that took them into hospitals, in England or in France, through organizations of their own kind; and there the middle class was unable to follow. Even to-day the opportunity of sharing in the immediate care of the wounded in hospital is obtainable only by influence; it is a real victory, a social distinction. For Ladies and Honourables have from the first hankered even to get down on their knees on the front steps of a hospital (the very depths of menial labour) and apply the brush.
The result was a complete lack of organization among the middle classes. I personally know whole suburbs where, up to the middle of last year, not an organized effort was being made. The churches were not the centres of working parties, as in Canada. There were no local associations, no gatherings of friends. It was partly owing to the fact that it is a London custom not to know one’s next door neighbour; and there is not the church fraternity that prevails in Canada.
Having said that, I wish once more to warn my readers not to deny the English women their dues. During the last six months they have learned more hard work than the country has known in centuries, and only now is the one great central organization, the Women’s Department of National Service, getting to work. It is impossible, too, not to be astonished at the whole-souled, enthusiastic efforts of thousands of well-born women from the first days of the war. Their sacrifice has been greater than a Canadian can imagine, for the reason that with their manual labour fled a traditional prejudice, an ancestral idleness, the instincts that have for ages determined their social level. Many a social leader has ruined the grace and colour of her hands for life, many a titled heroine has willingly stooped to work she would have asked only of her lowest servant. And the early hysteria of publicity has long since lost its attraction, so that now it is only the assistance they are giving that counts. I hope that nothing I have said, or will say, may rob these women of the glory that is theirs.
And with my respect for these iconoclasts goes a reverence for the hundreds of thousands of munition workers who risk their lives every day, the great majority of them taking as keen a satisfaction in their share of the shell-making and filling as thrills their “boys” at the front when one of the products of female hands bursts in a German trench. When the great explosion occurred in London, there was no reluctance among the women to continue their dangerous toil. Within the following week the Ministry of Munitions advertised for 30,000 women workers among high explosives, and the response was keener than it had ever been. I believe that the very extent of the danger brought home to them the value of the risk they were taking, its importance in the winning of the war. As I stood at the one exit from the scene of that explosion and saw the hundreds of women stagger out, wounded, bearing everything they possessed in the world, there was no fear in their faces, no mental evidences of having passed through a tragedy. And within the week the fit among them were again working with the T.N.T., the great explosive of this war.
The amazing discovery of the war is the adaptability of woman to tasks never before attempted by her, tasks that have been so exclusively confined to man’s sphere that nothing but a prime necessity would have offered them to the other sex. When the idea of female substitution was first broached it was accepted that there were definite limits to its utilization. Only in certain tried, conventional positions could a woman be placed to relieve men for the front. At first she was placed in offices. After that it was considered wise to proceed cautiously to prevent disorganization and wasted effort. But gradually the insistent call for more men in the trenches encouraged experiments which brought bewildering results.
To-day even the Prime Minister’s secretary is a woman.
There is not a trade or occupation in the varied industries of England, save those few in which is necessary the highest trained skill—trades which occupy so very few men as to be negligible—where woman is not proving that, with the necessary physique and commonsense, she is capable of becoming an effective substitute for man during the trying phases of the war. That does not intend to imply that she performs all her tasks as efficiently as man, for the training and instincts of generations cannot be altered in a year or two; but her unsuspected applicability has lightened the burden of war and succeeded in breaking down barriers whose existence was not conducive to the greatest development of any race. Without the women of England the war would never he won.
The streets of London reveal this diverse usefulness of the gentler sex at every step. Dressed in pantaloons and long coats they clamber up uncertain ladders to clean windows. They drive delivery wagons, horse and motor. They act as conductors on omnibus, tram, and underground. They run elevators, carry messages, deliver and collect mail, push milk and bread carts, clean the railway carriages, light the street lamps, substitute for chauffeurs by the hundreds, and form almost the entire staff at theatres, restaurants and hotels. They have even encroached on that profession of the male “crock”, the sandwich-board carrier.
Into these urban occupations they slid with no sound of rubbing or jar. But it was when they began to dribble into the heavier, more skilled trades that the nation began to rub its eyes.
The necessity for brute strength does not exclude them. I have seen them handling huge beer kegs with more vim and speed than their brothers. They load brick and perform porter’s work in hundreds of establishments. In munition factories they lift shells and wheel trucks, and grumble less than the sex built for heavy work. They toil on the docks with the surliest, roughest men in civilized life.
When women secured a chance to exhibit their diverse accomplishments in the skilled trades they surprised themselves, their employers, the men who worked on the next benches, and the nation. Early in the war they were taking the place of painters, and the differences are not evident to the inexpert. As carpenters they were slow to develop, partly because of the close corporation they had to fight in the Carpenters’ Union and partly because of their instinctive fear of sharp tools. Now the authorities are sending them to France by the score to erect soldiers’ huts. They make roads better than the old men who undertook the work when the younger generation was called up.
From the mechanical arts of the factory they were long excluded by the unions, most of which had agreements with the Asquith Government that they should not be interfered with by the recruiting officers. But again necessity interfered and a scheme of substitution once inaugurated they showed themselves so amazingly proficient that the men are ashamed of themselves. In the munition factories they manipulate the most complicated machinery, of late even doing their own repairing. They do almost all the work in connection with the construction of aeroplanes. On the Tyne are female blacksmith’s helpers. They do electrical wiring, chip, clean, and paint warships, construct turbines, make lifeboats, assemble the parts of barometers and compasses.
Women have revolutionized the army. The old folly of male cooks has been relegated to the past. In opposition to every tradition of the British army women are being taken on to manage messes as fast as they can be secured. This is principally the result of enforced economy, and the other benefits have come unexpectedly. Up to the third year of the war it was a tradition of the army that economy in the mess was undignified, contrary to every precedent upholding the honour of the soldier. Then it was discovered that the waste from a battalion would keep another. Reforms were attempted early, but results were disappointing. Convention demanded that they should be disappointing. The men suffered and the saving was paltry. The introduction of female cooks altered everything. Not only is there a real economy, but the men are better fed and better satisfied, there is less graft, and discipline is more easily maintained.
The number of women who had responded to their nation’s call by the end of 1916 is revealing. Although at the time of writing the new National Service is but started, the many organizations of the first thirty months of the war had replaced almost a million men with women. It is an interesting point that it required only 988,500 women to take the places of 933,000 men. But these figures should not be taken too literally as an absolute comparison of values. Many industries have been curtailed or closed; but on the other hand many have been enlarged.
All told, there are estimated to be more than four and a quarter million of paid women workers engaged in regular occupation, and in this number are not included the voluntary hundreds of thousands, the many nurses and part-time workers. Two and a half millions are in factories. The 2,000 in Government establishments before the war have grown to 120,000, and the rate of increase is several thousands a month. In commercial occupations are 750,000, in professional occupations 82,500, in banking and finance the number employed has increased from 9,500 to 46,500. In hotels and public amusements there are two hundred thousand, in agriculture 140,000, in army messes 2,000. And so the list continues, growing so rapidly that figures hold even approximately only for a few days. By the time this is read there will be another quarter of a million at work of real value for the progress of the war. The call for substitutes for the men behind the lines in France is bringing women in throngs to the organization headquarters.
Some industries have turned over their men entirely to the military authorities. One railway has built up its female staff from seventy to five thousand. There are 35,000 nurses. The post-office employs 65,000. The London telephone service, before the war employing men largely, is now “manned” by women. The London Gas, Light and Coke Company employs 1,100. In ten months 1,655 women conductors have passed through the general omnibus training school. The latest sphere for them is driving taxi-cabs, and their record here will be watched with more than ordinary interest as revealing better than any other occupation their fitness for work that requires presence of mind and mechanical efficiency on short notice. Although they are not yet on the streets, the men have threatened to strike if their domain is invaded.
One of the developments of the later months of the war is the demand of the women for pay commensurate with their work. This applies not alone to the working classes who are accustomed to pay for services, but to all. It has been brought about by the discovery that paid work is most satisfactory, both for discipline and reliability; and thousands of those who offered themselves in the early months without reward find themselves unable to continue thus. There is, too, a feeling that while some are making fortunes from the war, there can be no reason in others exhausting themselves for larger returns to profiteers.
In agriculture women, while unfitted to replace men, individual for individual, have proved themselves adaptable to conditions their sex instinctively dislikes. Scoffed at as workers of the land, they have conquered by sheer determination and pluck. The sliminess and muck of the English climate, and the odious class distinctions from which the farmer’s help suffers most, have failed to erect a barrier against the gentler sex. The farmer has resisted their encroachment into his organization from the first, yielding only when it became women or no crops. In the early stages of substitution many incompetent women offered themselves for that which afforded the greatest publicity as most uncongenial to their sex. The result was disastrous to the farms. These city-bred and better class women quickly wearied of the life or were dismissed as inefficient, and for a time only the rough, or country-bred were available. Lately the necessity for greater food production brought into the fields those untrained women who promise to do their best because of the very fact that they offer themselves when the nature of the work is better known. The great obstacle of insufficient pay for the women to keep themselves is now overcome by a Government measure that sets the minimum at twenty-five shillings.
Policewomen are new in England. In their regular capacity as assistants of the men they are proving themselves of real service in London in the handling of the demi-monde. In outside towns, however, their experience has varied. Some municipalities are pleased, others have dispensed with them after trial. As in other spheres, success depends upon the individual. Not long ago the Government advertised for three hundred policewomen for munition factories, their duties being largely to maintain discipline among the female workers and to prevent the introduction of dangerous elements among the high explosives. Almost a thousand applied. The pay ranges from two pounds to two and a half a week, uniform not found.
Of course, the great demand for the women workers has been in the munition factories. Here, from a small beginning, the number has increased to more than half a million and their duties include everything but the most severe lifting. As a rule, too, men are still employed to manage the floors and to repair machines, but even they are being replaced. It is unnecessary that thousands of fit young men be concealed in munition factories, for the experience has been that women do their work better than the men. However, many foremen are still prejudiced against them, and here and there are managers who fear to lose a few pounds by extending the substitution. The unions, too, stand behind the men. Yet the experience of France has been that the introduction of female labour has increased each worker’s daily output of shells from three to nine.
Many factories never cease work, Sundays and certain hours of day or night being filled by “lady” workers.
Naturally, with such diversity of demand and response, the calibre of the work performed by women varies. The paid worker must, as a rule, earn her money—except perhaps in the Government Departments, where thousands of extravagantly dressed women and girls crowd in each other’s way, report late, leave early, and go by taxicab to an expensive restaurant for a luncheon lasting an hour and a half. Not every custom can be overthrown, even in three years of war.
It is in the realm of voluntary work that are exhibited heights of wasted energy and disorganization. The first rush of the better classes for war-work was to the hospitals and canteens. In the former their success depended upon their influence and position in society, until their frequent uselessness impelled the Government to clean them out of France and limit their duties in England. During the first six months of the war the ambition of the titled woman seemed to be to get her picture into the illustrated papers in nurse’s costume. The uniform may have been flattering, but the work was not of a nature to be forgotten once the picture had appeared. By scores and hundreds they succumbed to the drudgery, and general inefficiency completed the exodus. After that it dawned upon England that a title did not preclude real nursing ability or working sense; and there are still hundreds of wealthy, blooded women in the hospitals of France and England performing work their friends never suspected them to be capable of.
But where the rush of influence was so clamorous there was introduced a system that still prevails. The hospitals of England are staffed by part-time workers who are permitted the luxury of work only one or two half-days a week, on account of the numbers who desire to be connected with the work for the wounded. The result is that they never learn much, never take their work seriously, and exhaust their nervous energy and strength by too many outlets. There are thousands of English women flitting about between half a dozen employments, criticism being silenced by the fact that they accept nothing for their services. And yet most of them would be willing to confine themselves to one task were the custom to be altered. I do not think it will alter, except as the Government takes over war-work, as it has lately taken over the canteens.
Another unfortunate feature of English organizations is that everybody must be headed by a title. It seems impossible to operate, however necessary the work, however honest the organization, however technical the duties, without the committee of management consisting of titled women. The result is easily imagined. There is glaring lack of organization, wastefulness and incompetence, without any effort to improve. The principle is not peculiar to England, although its development there is most complete. Canteens, charitable associations, women’s employment bureaus—everything is handled by a representative of the nobility who never in her life had to think of economy of money and time and energy. It was this spectacle, I imagine, that induced the Government to step in and put an end to unofficial canteens in munition factories and military camps, managed by volunteers.
I have in mind a large canteen organization. So extravagantly managed was it—although not a worker received a cent—that it was unable to compete with the multiple London restaurants. It paid exorbitant prices for its supplies, was defrauded on every hand by its tradespeople, and even cleanliness was a stranger to it. And yet, as one of the greatest canteen organizations of the war, it was lauded extravagantly. Its workers were all “ladies”. Many of them refused to wash and clean. Often they turned up at the booths with their maids to do the work, while they sat and looked on, their cars waiting for them, to tire of even that exertion. “Bubble-and-squeak”, and “toad-in-the-hole” were to them hideous concoctions beneath their notice. They came and went when they pleased. And always the rules of precedence had to be strictly observed. Yet some of those women are glorying to-day in a knowledge of work they hitherto considered fit only for servants.
The honourary secretary of an economy league furnished through a London paper the other day a sample menu for those who would observe the food rations set down by the Food Controller. In great detail she described the food requirements of herself, her husband, one child, and seven servants, and London patted her on the back as a real economist for sacrificing patriots to imitate.
Of late the largest canteen organization, although headed by two titled women, has definitely decided not to accept ladies as workers.
The effects of this wartime work on England’s women are as yet uncertain in their details, but that there will be tremendous changes in the country after war is certain. I am inclined to think that some of the best results will show themselves in the men. A breach in the walls of class prejudices and distinctions has been made. Women of all classes are working side by side and discovering that, after all, William the Conqueror gave to his most intimate friends very little of real service to their descendants. To produce a shell to kill Germans is worth more than the bluest blood of the centuries. The upper classes are learning to appreciate the lower, and the lower are on the way to asserting their position. One result that will change things in future is the growing independence of woman. Not only has she proven her worth, but a real wage and the ability to earn it have given her self-respect. I do not think that the munitioneer will stand the proprietary, often bullying, tone of the average Englishman to his women.
The fact is that the munitioneer has done better work and more of it than the men, with less absenteeism, less restricting unionism, less complaining, and a greater interest in output. Foremen who have overcome their prejudices frankly state their preference for the female worker, and the tone of the factories has been distinctly raised by the introduction of women and their welfare workers.
There is, of course, another side— the hardening influence of competitive labour. I am inclined to alter my first impressions on that point. Among the lower classes the effect will be improving, and even if the women of the upper grades of society are introduced to a life where female “modesty” is not a rite, a country is better built up by its labouring people than by its aristocrats.
Woman’s suffrage stands to be affected. Undoubtedly many anti-suffragists among the men have been converted to votes for women. But it is argued that because some women have proved their capacity is no more a claim to woman’s suffrage than the equally evident fact of incapacity in others is an argument against it. And even the children of England are working harder than millions of women.
There is no other conclusion than that England’s women have provided the surprise of the war. The working classes have shown themselves a real factor in the winning of the war, able and eager to do their utmost. And even the nobility have overcome much to perform a share that, while in the aggregate it may seem inconsequential to democratic Canada, is relatively a sacrifice to them not equalled by those whose training permits them to be more useful.
In the June Number there will be another article by Mr. Amy on “England in Arms”.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.