Women’s perceived role in society took a giant—if temporary—leap up in Second World War Britain, as played out by those brave and tenacious women in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. At its peak in 1943, working women exceeding seven million, filling the gaps left by the men, many with more than one job, or volunteering in addition to their main work.
At first, they were given unskilled jobs in factories and as farm laborers, but as the war progressed, women were trained to become engineers, skilled workers, and managers. Young women were taking the spaces left by men in universities, studying sciences, medicine, and law, including Margaret Thatcher who studied chemistry at Oxford during the war. Running fire stations, driving ambulances, and chopping down trees for the forestry commission, they proved that they could do it, and—more than that—they proved that they had the brains, the strength, and the resourcefulness to do it on their own.
Some groups of women quietly fought for equal pay during the war, a task that had to be carried out carefully so as not to be seen as unpatriotic; everyone’s focus should be on the war rather than pay, after all. Female factory workers in the Rolls Royce Hillington plant in Glasgow went on strike in 1943 and gained some pay concessions; skilled female workers would be paid the same amount as semi-skilled men. In the same year, the women ferry pilots flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary finally achieved equal pay. This was the first time in history that women had been paid the same amount for the same work. It set a new standard; the women had proved that it could be done.
(Ironically, despite pressure from his advisers, Hitler didn’t allow women to work in bomb or munition factories, feeling that their rightful place was in the home. He did, however, use captured women from occupied countries as slave labor working in German factories, and many sabotaged their work to aid the Allies.)
At the end of the war, women were encouraged to give up their jobs and return to the home. In many professions, such as banking and in the government sector, women had to give up work when they got married, known as the marriage bar, although already this had begun to be controversial as it was not implemented in low-pay unskilled jobs, which deterred women from seeking higher education. Crucially, pay for women went back to being significantly lower; in factories, unskilled women were paid 53 per cent that of men.
However, it was their energy and tenacity that lay the groundwork for the push for equality in the 1960s. How can you argue that women are not worthy of equality when they have already proved that they have the minds and abilities to do be just as productive as men? We have the Second World Women—those wonderful spirits of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir—to thank for showing everyone how it can be done.