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Vol. VI – n°4 | 2008
Gender Disturbance: Women and War in 20th Century United Kingdom

Turbulences dans les rôles masculins et féminins : femmes et guerres au Royaume-Uni (vingtième siècle)
Sous la direction de Elizabeth de Cacqueray

In most societies gender stereotyped roles attribute to men combative functions related to defence and attack, whilst women are engaged in the functions of motherhood and caring for the community. This was nowhere more the case than in the UK, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: strict division of gender roles, in the middle and upper classes, allotting men to the public domain and women to the home, suited the demands of developing industrial production. However, between 1939 and 1945, in the national emergency of “total war,” the contribution of women to the war effort became an absolute necessity: as the government commissioned poster states, victory depended on them. They were first called upon on a voluntary basis, hence the poster campaigns to encourage women to take on an active role outside the home. When it became evident that an even greater workforce was required, in an unprecedented move, in Britain or elsewhere in the world, the War Cabinet introduced conscription for women (National Service Act N° 2, December 1941). Finally, over seven million women replaced men in industry and in agriculture and entered the women’s auxiliary armed forces, carrying out all number of different tasks, new to women. None were left unaffected by profound changes in their lives, due to the war, as those who did not enter “external” active service saw the nature of their homes transformed – men folk conscripted, children evacuated – if not physically destroyed by air raids. War led thus to a shake up of gender roles on an unprecedented scale, calling radically into question the earlier social order. Yet, after the war, the majority of women returned to their homes, leaving their newly found functions to men, in spite of a continued shortage in the workforce. Soon one would hardly have known they had ever been there. Women’s contribution to the Second World War, particularly on the Home Front, was only really officially recognized and honoured with the setting up of a monument in Whitehall, in July 20061. This phenomenon of effacement was not entirely unprecedented: indeed, already, between 1914 and 1918 large numbers of women had mobilised to meet the demands of the war industry and women had begun to take on some duties within the army. Here too, women returned to their homes, though it is possible that their determined contribution during the war forwarded their access to suffrage.

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