Kate Adie, former BBC Chief News Correspondent discusses how the societal role of women changed during WW1.
Women in WW1 were photographed as never before. Glamorous images on posters to persuade women to join the war effort. Working class girls doing a ‘man’s job’ in heavy industry. Uniformed women astonishing the public by forming volunteer fire brigades and police patrols. And ‘munitionettes’ – hefting huge shells and packing them with TNT – and wearing trousers.
The war saw women take up every kind of work hitherto seen as the preserve of men. They delivered the post, cleaned trains, became ‘conductorettes’ on omnibuses and trams. They tarred roads, worked as navvies and wielded axes as ‘lumberjills.’ They were in the national spotlight every week, whereas before the war, only society grandes dames and actresses received such publicity.
Nurses looked romantic in their demure skirts and floating veils – but the reality of the war saw them pictured increasingly among the appallingly injured men. And nearer the front lines – where females were never expected to be, volunteer ambulance drivers drove unwieldy vehicles under fire, the members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry toughing it out in stylish fur coats….
Later in the war, uniformed women’s branches of the services were formed to provide cooks, cleaners and clerks, freeing servicemen to go to the front to fight. The public was alarmed at the sight of official military-style uniforms on females, having already had difficulty accepting Land Army girls in smocks and gaiters, and the munitions workers celebrating their tunics and trousers – by getting married in them.
Heroines graced the many magazines and newspapers: Edith Cavell, the nurse shot by the Germans for aiding British and French soldiers to escape. Flora Sandes, the only British woman to serve on the front line during the war – accepted into the Serbian Army and usually captioned ‘the lovely sergeant.’ Queen Mary toured countless hospitals and recuperation centres – and went to France to see the battlefield of the Somme, where tens of thousands had died, and the artillery continued to thunder in the distance.
Much of the photography was officially commissioned: the British Government needed womanpower to maintain production, especially of shells and bullets. Nevertheless, it chronicled the new roles which women took on with enthusiasm, proving that they were equal to tasks always done by men.
It also recorded the new image – more practical clothing, shorter skirts, fewer ‘wasp waists’ (corsets needed metal that was wanted in the factories….) and of course, trousers.
At the war’s end, the men reclaimed their jobs – firmly backed by the Government. However, the images remained – a lasting testimony – women proving what they could do. And shorter skirts, bobbed hair and trousers came to stay.
About Kate Adie
Kate Adie, author and broadcaster, became a familiar figure to viewers through her work as the BBC’s Chief News Correspondent. She is considered to be among the very finest reporters, as well as one of the first British women, sending despatches from danger zones around the world. She is also the long-serving presenter of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent and a guest on many other radio and television programmes.
Kate’s memorable assignments include both Gulf Wars, four years of war in the Balkans, the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster at Zeebrugge, the massacre at Dunblane and the Hatfield rail crash.
She has been named “Reporter of the Year” twice by the Royal Television Society; the first occasion was for her coverage of the SAS end to the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980. She also won the Monte Carlo International Golden Nymph Award in 1981 and 1990, and was awarded an OBE in 1993.
Kate grew up in Sunderland and gained her BA from Newcastle University where she read Swedish. She was a member of the National Youth Theatre and still attends the theatre and visits galleries when time permits. She is an avid reader of both fiction and history, and has served as a judge for literary prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction, the old Whitbread and the Costa. Kate has served as the Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts and as a trustee of the Imperial War Museum. Her illustrated, companion history to the museum’s exhibition about women in uniform, Corsets to Camouflage, was published by Hodder & Stoughton to coincide with its opening in the autumn of 2003.
Her first book, The Kindness of Strangers, an account of her work as a reporter and how she came to undertake it, was published by Headline in 2002 and remained on the Sunday Times best seller list for 37 weeks. Hodder & Stoughton has now published Nobody’s Child: The Lives of Abandoned Children, 2005, which formed the basis of the BBC 1 documentary series, FOUND, and INTO DANGER, 2008, a study of men and women who risk their lives for work.
Fighting on the Home Front: the legacy of women in World War I, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in September 2013.
Kate lives in the West Country.Kate’s book, ‘Fighting on the Home Front: the legacy of women in World War I’ published by Hodder & Stoughton is available now. See more WW1 imagery from the archives here.