The Munitionettes of World War I
Today, we’re taking a small break from the main series as we celebrate women’s history month, and this episode will be on my specialty, WWI, a war which is far too often overlooked due to its more popular sequel. Today, I want to tell you the story of the Munitionettes, those women who produced the guns, ammunition, bandages, kits and everything the soldiers used to fight on the Front. These were the strong, hardy women who, when their nation needed them, rose to the incredible challenge of keeping their respective countries going while the men were fighting. The munitionettes were not just in France, but in Britain too, and this cross-Channel relationship impacted their work and subsequent government policies towards them. As such, the history of the munitionettes in France cannot be told without reference to the munitionettes in Britain, so consider this episode a two-for-one special, as we examine the women workers of the two major industrial cities of the war, Paris and Glasgow, and the struggles these women faced during wartime while the men went off to fight in northeastern France. I’m excited for this episode because I personally think this era is fascinating, I have quite a few bizarre stories to tell, and more than that, I think that the microcosm of WWI is a great way to explore the different attitudes the French and British cultures had towards women. As we will see, the struggle faced by French women was far more arduous than that faced by British women, and after the war while women gained near-equal legal rights in Britain, France ‘rewarded’ its munitionettes with a crackdown on feminist activity. So, with that in mind, let’s jump into our Tale of Two Cities story.
During World War I Paris and Glasgow, more than any other industrial cities served as the main supplier of arms for French and British forces in Europe. At the heart of munitions production were the ‘munitionettes,’ millions of women who swelled the ranks of arms production to fill the void left by the men serving at the Front. On the eve of war, women who weren’t working in the textile or agricultural industries were largely confined to the domestic sphere, either working as domestic servants or living at home raising the family. On the outbreak of war, only about 5% of women in Paris and Glasgow worked in metallurgy. This is understandable as women did not receive equal pay for equal work most women were dependent on male labor, which resulted in women being largely absent from the workforce. Women’s unemployment in both countries was regularly above 20%.
When war was declared millions of men were sent to the Front, prompting the governments of both Great Britain and France to push for a policy of dilution, whereby whereby skilled male munitions workers were replaced by unskilled women. These governments, through direct and indirect control, forced male workers into battle while bringing in women. While the French and British governments claimed to only do what was best for the protection of their nations, skilled metalworkers saw dilution and mechanization as a threat to their employment. Skilled workers viewed this reorganization of factory work as a concerted effort by the factory owners to end the craft of metalworking and replace it with unskilled assembly-line work. What’s more, men were rightfully afraid that if their jobs could be done by these incoming women then they would be left without a legal excuse to remain at home and would be sent to the Front. As such, skilled male metalworkers were understandably opposed to the entry of unskilled women workers into the factories.
Despite this, the government was committed to winning the war at all costs, so women’s entry into the factories was swift. In Britain 200,000 women worked in the munitions industry in July of 1914. By the end of the war over 900,000 women were in the factories. While the French didn’t mobilize women until 1915, once mobilization started their numbers reached that of Great Britain.
Women’s work was long, arduous and dull, with constant noise in often dirty and unsafe conditions. Yet women made friends and developed their own work culture. So much of their previous work was solitary but now women were meeting up with women and working together in large numbers. Just as men formed a band of brothers while fighting together so these women, who often came into the factories as strangers, developed a sisterhood as they sweat together in hazardous conditions producing the arms needed to win the war.
The beginning of the war was a desperate time for women; as their savings ran out they had to depend on wages which paid less than what was needed to survive. As Laura Lee Downs recounts, in Paris, “under the best of circumstances, households that had gotten by on Fr 8-11 a day before the war were now struggling to subsist on Fr 4-5 while the cost of basic goods had risen nearly a third [by the Fall of 1914].” Additionally, French women worked extremely long hours starting at 7:00am and lasting until 6:45pm six days a week with a half day on Sunday. The semaine anglais, the work-week of the munitions workers in Britain, by comparison, was five and a half days, which resulted in between 48-52 hours of work. But while British women technically had fewer hours, many had to work longer hours just to survive, as women in Britain made a third of the average male wages, while the cost of living doubled by 1917. Nevertheless, the last two years of the war women’s conditions in Paris were arguably worse than in Glasgow, despite a smaller pay gap between male and female workers. Additionally, Paris experienced one of the coldest winters on record in 1917, with over 80 people freezing to death. Long hours, low pay and brutal winters combined to make life particularly miserable for the munitionettes of Paris.
The main difference between women’s economic conditions in Paris and Glasgow was government aid. While the British quickly implemented broad government welfare programs, the French government did not provide these until 1917. As Downs notes 1916 in Britain, “the Home Office ordered all munitions factories to appoint a welfare supervisor,” that ensured its munitionettes would have, “[a] clean workroom; the availability of food; restricted hours of work sufficient wages; proper amenities and health precautions; proper supervision…and the provision of some recreational facilities.” In France, large-scale welfare programs only emerged in 1917, and those “welfare” programs rested on mostly pro-natal policies that encouraged women to give birth to as many children as she was capable while simultaneously extracting from her the maximum number of work hours possible.
While conditions were abysmal for women, they were not victims passively accepting this hard labor. The transition these women underwent from domestic service into the munitions factories meant that women worked in large groups together and formed networks. Moreover, their sense of self-worth improved as they were directly supplying the war effort. This newfound self-esteem meant that women would lead the most important strikes during the war period. In Glasgow this occurred in 1915 with the Rent Strikes, while in Paris this occurred in the 1917 May Strikes.
The story of the Rent Strikes is one of those things that is so crazy a fiction writer couldn’t make it up, as a housing crisis led to roving bands of women nearly overthrowing the city government. To set the stage, let me first tell you about Glasgow. Today, Glasgow is a decent-sized city, with 620,000 people spread out across 68 square miles, which is roughly 9,200 people per square mile. Too much for me, but not even close to being the worst major city. At the outbreak of WWI, “no fewer than 700,000 people resided within three square miles of Glasgow Cross and created the most densely populated, central-urban area in Europe” with over 200,000 people per square mile, according to Dr. Michael Pacione. I looked up the most densely populated cities in the world today and found there is no comparison. The closest is either Dhaka, or Manila, with roughly 100,000 people per square mile, or half of Glasgow’s 1914 density. The only modern comparison that comes close to WWI-era Glasgow would be the now-destroyed Walled City of Kowloon in Hong Kong, which was essentially a giant, skyscraper-sized boxed slum for low-paid workers. It’s hard for us to wrap our head around this because even as the world is overpopulating, city planners know to spread people out since congestion can lead to disease outbreaks. During the industrial revolution, city growth was largely ad hoc, without any central planning, resulting in buildings smashed together. Furthermore, before modern birth control became accessible, the average woman at the turn of the century was giving birth to around 7-8 live children. So, most houses or apartments would have a man, woman, and numerous children, and possibly the grandfather or grandmother if they had fallen on hard times.
Because of Glasgow’s unique tradition of city planning, Glaswegians paid a smaller amount of their income on housing than any other major city in Britain. As Pacione notes “wage levels in many trades were highly unstable…‘canny’ Scots workers tended to rent houses that were affordable in the bad times, to treat the surplus of good times as a windfall, and seldom to aspire to homeownership.” In 1915 rents began to rise. This rise, combined with the uniquely unpredictable labor market and housing situation created an epidemic, resulting in Glasgow surpassing the much larger London in evictions. To make matters worse, due to the demands made by the British government, housing development had come to an abrupt end even as workers flooded into Glasgow to enter the factories. All of these factors combined resulted in a city whose inhabitants lived in some of the worst conditions in any modern nation. What made matters worse was that now with the men off at war, women were left to behind to pay the rent and raise the children, even while they were receiving lower wages than their husbands’ did for the same job.
Naturally, these overworked, underpaid women, couldn’t pay rents when their savings ran out, so late 1915 landlords looked to evict them from their homes. When the first landlords tried to evict war wives from their homes it caused a scandal, as women wrote to newspapers, calling for a moratorium on rents. Despite their cries for help, the landlords continued to evict.
But the women of Glasgow didn’t stand idly by, as a housewife named Mrs. Barbour organized women in squads that posted fliers in house and apartment windows, saying “We will not pay increased rent.” And whenever a landlord came by women would rush out to harass them, effectively ending the evictions. Unable to gather the money themselves, landlords would apply for eviction warrants from a judge, thus passing the job on to the sheriff. As Glasgow was famous for its high number of evictions, it was not surprising that Glasgow’s police force thought that they could continue their work as usual. But when the sheriffs arrived Mrs. Barbour and her women were prepared for the law enforcement. As labor leader Willie Gallacher notes, “At their summons women left their cooking, washing or whatever they were doing. Before they were anywhere near their destination, the officer and his men would be met by an army of furious women who drove them back in a hurried scramble for safety,” as the women mobbed them with rolling pins, irons and other makeshift weapons.
In June 1915, women’s groups and labor unions urged tenants to pay only the rent originally agreed upon before the recent price increases. By October, 15,000 Glaswegians were withholding surplus rent and by mid-November, the number had risen to 20,000 including some members of the city government. By all accounts the women had won as landlords couldn’t collect rent. But the landlords weren’t done yet. Unable to evict workers, they decided to coordinate with bosses and directly take rent out of workers’ paychecks. This was too much for the women, and Mrs. Barbour, accompanied by 4,000 angry Glaswegians marched onto city hall. The sight of all these women with brooms, rolling pins, washboards and other weapons so frightened both the local and national government that they immediately passed the Rent Restrictions Act, which froze rent levels at pre-war levels across Britain and is a firm reminder not to mess with Scottish women.
The women of Paris proved to be just as militant as their Glaswegian counterparts as attrition drove them to action. Depending on the year, Paris was a mere 60 miles from the Front, and shells could be heard exploding at mornings and at night. Furthermore, the economic devastation in France was far more pronounced than in Britain. By 1917 women were writing desperate newspaper articles. One pleaded “A mother has the right to feed her children,” and demanded English-style nursing facilities and increased welfare. Another claimed, “The exploitation of women workers has risen to unacceptable proportions…Eat? That’s just an expression, because with a woman’s salary, notwithstanding the care of any children, how can she support her needs with such a sum?” It was in this desperate situation that in June 1917 the munitionettes of the Fibrocol factory took to the streets, waved the red flag and formed a syndicate as they demanded better wages. Thousands of women joined them, marching from one factory to the next, overpowering the managers. It was only when the police and the army coordinated and met the women’s charge with a squad of 60 policemen and twenty mounted cavalrymen at the Renault factory that they were finally broken up.
Unfortunately for these women, one of their biggest opponents was their male coworkers, who refused to join their movements for better wages. In defense of the working men, it was very clear why they didn’t support the women. Having a skilled job guaranteed male workers the right to remain in the factories, far from the Front. But as more women entered the factories, the men they replaced were sent off to fight, and around 1/5th of them to die horrendous, agonizing deaths in the trenches. This caused such anger that one French labor leader claimed that French women workers were responsible for men’s deaths at the front. The women of Paris responded by accusing male workers of being embusques, or deserters, who were shirking their duties by working in the factories rather than fighting. Clearly, the war was weighing heavily on everyone, and it caused a strained relationship between the male and female factories.
Despite all of these troubles, the women endured, and produced enough weapons to finally tip the balance of power. Continued Allied production and the entry of America into the war brought about the defeat of the Central Powers in late 1918, and the subsequent peace in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. What happened to the munitionettes after the war was very different depending on which side of the Channel they were on, as French women were kicked out of their jobs and lost rights, while British women were largely allowed to keep their new jobs, and most gained the right to vote.
The post-war removal of women from munitions factories in Paris was in part due to government initiatives that replaced them with returning soldiers, and partly due to the lessened need of munitions production. Without a reason to build such high numbers of munitions 32% of the total Parisian munitions workforce were laid off; among women this number was 52%. At their height women represented 30% of the metalworkers in Paris, but by 1921 they represented 14%, far more than before the war but their numbers and relative importance was in steep decline. If there had been any chance to change tactics and mobilize the munitionettes it had passed with the rapid process of de-mobilization. After the war President Alexandre Millerand and the right-wing Bloc National triumphed over the divided left as the French people supported the conservatives in their attempt to turn back the clock. A strike by railway workers led to a general strike May 1st. The communist-run paper L’Humanité claimed that half a million workers marched in support of the movement within a week, but the government was ready and sent in armed troops to suppress the workers. On May 22nd the leading unions withdrew support for the strike, and it quickly petered out as workers returned to their homes. This defeat signaled to France that the desire for a return to normalcy was stronger than a desire for restructuring society along socialist lines.
In Britain the engineering unions expected that the government would support them in pushing women out of the factories because of secret promises it made with them to remove women from the factories. These promises were not kept and women largely retained their positions, unlike their French counterparts. Furthermore, the munitionettes of Britain were rewarded for their efforts with such acts as the Parliament Qualification of Women Act of 1918 which gave women of twenty-one years and older the right to stand for office, and women thirty years old and older the right to vote. Aside from an increase in women’s rights, Great Britain enacted a number of welfare programs such as the Education Act of 1918, which increased the length of schooling, the Housing Act of 1919, which authorized the building of half a million new homes, and the Unemployment Act of 1920, which gave a regular payment to millions of the newly unemployed. The adoption of welfare programs served much of the same purpose as the women welfare workers during the war as many of their needs were addressed, which lessened any need for radical change.
In contrast to the increase in women’s rights and welfare in Britain, France went the opposite way, acting to suppress the female workers and women in general. The new government pushed pro-natalist policies and in 1920 banned abortion and pamphleting, educating or even talk about abortion or birth control was banned as the French government tried to return to an old social order which encouraged higher birth rates to make up for the 1.4 million lost in the war.
So why was there this huge discrepancy in the post-war treatment of women in Britain and France? Why did Britain grant women rights and break allow them to stay at their jobs while France kicked women out of the workplace? The answer is that Britain and France had two very different societies that formed in the past 100 years of their history. There are two main reasons why women gained rights in post-WWI Britain while French women lost them: (1) Britain had a long tradition of gradual enfranchisement which France did not (2) British dissidents believed that they could change the government to their liking whereas the French believed the only way to address their grievances was to overthrow it.
To the first point, let’s look at Britain’s long history of gradual emancipation. In the 1830s the poor and middle class of Britain, partly inspired by the French Revolution, demanded equal rights as the aristocrats and rich merchants and industrialists. The old order in Britain was terrified at the prospect of what they viewed as ‘mob rule’ but on the other hand they feared a French-style revolution and the importation of the guillotine if they refused. So, the aristocrats came up with a halfway measure: they extended the franchise to small property holders, effectively giving the middle class equal rights while the poor were disenfranchised. This plan worked perfectly as the newly-enfranchised middle class sided with the upper class against what they viewed as the uneducated, filthy rabble. This settlement held until the ‘rabble’ rose up again in the 1860s. In response, Britain passed the Reform Act of 1867, which gave some workers the right to vote, and expanded this again in 1884. These latter reforms acts, which extended the franchise to poor workers, were incredibly important in British political thought for a very important reason. Initially the Conservative party in Britain, which was composed of aristocrats, feared that when the poor were granted the vote they would side with the middle class Liberals. Yet, that didn’t happen and if anything the workers voted for the Conservatives. The reason being is that the Liberal party was largely secular, whereas the Conservative Party was all about God, the King and the Glory of Britain, which appealed to the largely religious and patriotic working class. Because of this, Conservatives lost much of their fears about enfranchising new people, since their greatest nightmare, the poor getting the right to vote, actually ended up helping them. As such, when WWI ended the Conservatives allowed female representation to pass.
What separated the working class of Britain and the working class of France? The British working class were traditionally-minded people, whereas the French urban working class were radical, having adopted far-left liberalism during the revolution, and then socialism by 1848. So, now let’s turn our attention to France, whose 19th century was completely unlike Britain’s. While Britain had a relatively stable government that slowly and gradually extended rights to its people, France swung from authoritarianism and republics every few decades. From Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension in 1800, to the fall of King Louis Phillippe in 1848, France lived under a monarchy that stifled the ambitions of the middle and lower classes. From 1848-1852 there briefly existed the French Second Republic, which was a radical socialist experiment that guaranteed the right to work and financed national workshops. This government was overthrown by Louis Napoleon. Napoleon understood that as long as the French men didn’t have the right to vote there would always be trouble so he granted universal suffrage. This, and a good economy, placated the urban male workers of France and Louis Napoleon was so popular he transitioned from being ‘Prince-President’ to Emperor Napoleon III. Now to anyone wondering if Napoleon III’s France was a truly representative democracy, let me assure you it was wildly corrupt as Napoleon may have granted universal suffrage but he still ensured that his rich backers always won their elections. This is an important shift in French political culture as the French men already had the right to vote, meaning that their primary political gripe was gone, but since wealth translated into power it only increased their socialist tendencies, as French workers demanded wealth redistribution. This is quite different from what happened in Britain where the poorest male workers in 1918 still lacked the vote and so found common cause with women, a cause which was successful because even many Conservatives were no longer afraid of women gaining power. In France, all men had political rights, and so found no need to ally with women, because after all, they stood nothing to gain from it.
The second major reason why Britain and France diverged over women’s rights has to do with their different cultures. From the 1870s up until the war, Britain had a strong feminist movement, complete with national organizations and regular protests. Women across Britain campaigned for the right to vote, because they had an underlying belief that they could achieve more rights through leafletting, protest, public speeches, and all actions which were allowed within their democratic government. The French did not possess this same faith in their government. The French had lived under horrendous monarchies, their republics had been shaky, short-lived and prone to collapse. Furthermore, as French workers moved from liberalism to socialism, and in 1917 to outright communism, they believed that liberal democracies would always favor the rich and powerful, and so the only way to truly fix society was to replace the representative government with a workers’ government. Just what kind of workers’ government was a continual source of contestation, as each union argued for their own style of syndicalism, socialism, communism, workers’ soviets, anarchy, or some mix of all of them. What is important about this is that many French women workers believed they would only gain equality with the overthrow of a capitalist system, and so they did not pour their energies into changing the government, but opposing it. This meant that the conservative French politicians who came to power after the war didn’t face the same strong feminist movement that Britain had and were allowed to restrict women’s rights. For these reasons it was only in 1945 that French women finally gained the vote.
There are some other reasons, because of course history is always complicated. One important differences were that France was obsessed with it’s birth rate out of a fear or being overwhelmed by the German hordes. Another is that despite the American stereotype of the French as being effeminate and liberal, that reputation is largely from the post-WWII period, when the right-wing Vichy collaborators were purged and the far-left took over. From Napoleon’s coronation in 1800 to the outbreak of WWI in 1914, France usually had a more hierarchical, conservative government and culture compared to Britain, and even when a liberal democracy took control it was continually challenged by anti-democratic forces. Like I said, history is complicated, but that is just a brief overview of why French women were treated so differently from their British counterparts.
Thus ends our story of the munitionettes, those women who made the guns and shells to supply the front, all while raising children and fighting injustices at home. Their story is so often overlooked as most attention is on those men in the trenches, which is why I am glad I got to share this story with you. Thank you for listening, have a great day.
For a full list of sources, see: Girod, Gary, The women who make the guns: the munitionettes in Glasgow and Paris and their lack of interaction with the far-left agitators, published in Labor History, 2019