Learn about women's role in the First World War using archive material from the National Library of Scotland (NLS) collections. Learners of all ages can use the suggested activities and questions relating to each of the seven sources.

Find out about women at work, the impact of the war on women's lives, and the portrayal of women in magazines, newspapers, and images of the time.

You can also start to explore related material in the NLS collections.

Women's role in the First World War

Below are seven items from the NLS archives which highlight different aspects of women's role in the First World War.

Source 1 illustrates the perceived role of women in encouraging men to enlist. Sources 2 and 6 are first-hand accounts written by Scottish women working in France and Romania. Sources 3 and 4 highlight the work of two female ambulance drivers on the western front. Source 5 is a film clip of a Scottish Women's Hospital unit in France, and Source 7 relates to pay and conditions for female workers.

Women at work

During the first year of the war, there was mass unemployment in Britain. Trading routes were disrupted, and the general atmosphere of uncertainty led to the closure of businesses and factories.

However, the situation soon changed as more men left their jobs to enlist. There was also an increasing demand to supply food, clothing, and armaments to those fighting on the front line.

Men's jobs on the home front were increasingly taken over by women, and at least one million women were added to the British workforce between 1914 and 1918. Some women also volunteered their services abroad as nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, cooks, and clerical assistants.

Although many working women enjoyed new-found financial independence and the opportunity to develop new skills, life was not always easy. Women often worked long shifts, in addition to caring for children and queuing for food rations.

The impact of war on women's lives

In many ways, the war had a dramatic effect on the lives of women. As well as increased financial independence, women also enjoyed a greater social freedom.

For the first time, young single women could openly visit pubs, cinemas, and other public places unaccompanied by men.

The war years also had a lasting effect on women's fashion. Clothes became looser and more practical, hair was worn shorter, and trousers became generally acceptable.

However, some historians have said that the long-term effect of the war on women's lives has been over-emphasised.

When men returned from the front, many women had to give up their wartime jobs, and there was an increased emphasis on the virtues and duties of motherhood.

Although women over the age of 30 were granted the vote in 1918, it took a further 10 years before universal suffrage for everyone over the age of 21 was achieved.


History main page