When the war began, millions of women looked after homes or worked as maids and cooks to rich people. People thought, "A woman's place was in the home". But this changed. This was war and so in all the warring nations, the woman lined up to do "men's work" in the factories, making shells and other weapons and operating cranes and machinery. At the time, many people believed that the war had helped advance women politically and economically, the war offered women increased opportunities in the paid labour market.
'Between 1914 and 1918, an estimated two million women replaced men in employment, resulting in an increase in the proportion of women in total employment from 24 per cent in July 1914 to 37 per cent by November 1918 in England'. Female workers had been less union ised than the males. This was because they tended to do part-time work and to work in smaller firms. World War One forced unions to deal with the issue of women's work. However, the war did not increase women's wages. Employers tried to outsmart wartime equal pay regulations by employing several women to replace one man, or by dividing skilled tasks into several less skilled stages.
In these ways, women could be employed at a lower wage and not said to be 'replacing' a man directly. By 1931, a working woman's weekly wage had returned to the pre-war situation of being half the male rate in more industries. The role of women is dealt with both on the home front and as members of the military. The 2700 Australian women who joined British or Australian military nursing units were significant as the front line of female membership of the armed forces.
Although women from other Allied countries were accepted for a range of support roles such as driving, nursing was the only role which women were permitted to fill in the Australian forces. The price of food doubled during the war. Many foods, such as margarine, meat, potatoes, sugar and tea, became scarce. As a result, mealtimes became a worry for women. Men were not so aware of the problems women faced, as few shopped and cooked.
These jobs were seen as a woman's responsibility. The women, who went to the Front, did not find life easy. Living conditions were very different from what they had been used to at home. Most women found their heating and washing facilities inadequate and were frequently visited by rats, fleas and bugs, especially at night. With so many men being called away to fight, women had to keep the factories and farms going.
Australian women volunteered for services in supporting roles, as cooks, nurses, drivers, interpreters, munition workers and skilled farm workers. Munition workers became known as 'Canaries', because the explosives stained their clothes, skin and hair bright yellow. More than 300 women were killed in explosives or accidents. While the government welcomed the service of nurses, it generally rejected offers from women in other professions to serve overseas. Australian nurses served in Egypt, France, Greece and India, often in tiresome conditions or close to the front, where they were exposed to shelling and aerial bombardment. In Britain the first women trained as doctors or went into the factories, but Australia was not a great industrial country: when women were wanted, it was mainly in the commercial world, as 'business girls'.
Australian women also ran the canteens, visited wounded soldiers, sold buttons on button days, rattled collection boxes on collection days, organised fetes, baked cakes, put together 'comfort parcels', in cities they drove buses and trams, and above all they knitted. The Australian women knitted 1,354,328 pairs of socks for the Comforts Fund during the Great War. The impact of the war was felt at home. Families and communities grieved following the loss of so many men, and women increasingly assumed the physical and financial burden of caring for families. The things that these women had to sacrifice were the most crucial aspects to life. For example the conflicts involved were; having to live on their own because of there partners going off to fight, or having to cater and look after themselves.
They had to experience the suffering of knowing that their husbands or boyfriends were probably not going to return. Although there was a lot of a conflict, in result there were some resolutions. Because all the men were off fighting, this meant that there were a lot jobs that needed to be attended to. This was great for women, as it would increase their independence and allow them to carry out 'men's jobs'. In 1914-1918 women displayed independence by taking over men's jobs and risking their lives as nurses and ambulance drivers at the front. But in 1919, their organizations were largely disbanded as men again took full control of the business.
It wasn't until the United States got involved in World War One that some parts of the government got serious about using 'woman power'. While many young Australian women yearned to take an active role in the war, their opportunities were much more limited than those of the British woman. Australian nurses served overseas, but they were not mobilised for war work. Woman's experience of the war was very diverse. Woman of all classes played a crucial role in the war effort by working in different occupations on the home and fighting fronts. They all went through a hard time, as majority of woman had to deal with a range of different hardships such as long working hours, dangerous or difficult jobs.
Many also had to cope with the absence or death of loved ones in the war. Apart from all these down points, the war did bring changes to all women's lives. Some changes were permanent and some were temporary. For example, most of the difficulties in domestic life - running the home and the shortages of food, were resolved with the end of the war.
Many women had now experienced financial and social independence. They had made new friends and earned higher wages then before. As a result many women's self image and confidence had increased, and this could not be taken away from them. 'As one woman who worked during the First World War said: It allowed women to stand on their own feet'.