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Women in Wartime by Michael Brooke
Introduction WWI WWII: Propaganda WWII: Newsreels WWII: Food Features: 1939-42
Features: 1943 Features: 1944-45 Gainsborough Women Filmmakers    
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World War I
Still from Women's March Through London

A suffragette procession in
'Women's March Through
London' (1915)

The popular Topical Budget newsreel (1911-31) spanned the whole of World War I, and provides a number of illustrations of what women were doing during the period. Although nowhere near as sophisticated as the government-sponsored propaganda that came later (a typical item covering a parade or demonstration rarely consists of anything more than a long shot of the event in question, with little commentary or editorial input other than an descriptive title), they nonetheless provide a valuable record.

When war broke out, Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragette movement was at its height, and 'Women's March Through London' (21 July 1915) shows that Pankhurst and her colleagues seized the initiative to demonstrate in public their willingness to help the Ministry of Munitions in any way possible: the banner reproduced above reads "Mobilize Brains and Energy of Women!". (Two years earlier, Topical Budget had inadvertently captured the death of suffragette Emily Davison at the 1913 Derby when she fell under the horses' hooves). The edition of 18 August 1915 bearing the same title featured another suffragette procession, this time to demand votes and equal pay.

But the government had little choice. Faced with a drastic shortage of manpower, women were rapidly deployed in a wide range of professions, many of which were documented by Topical Budget. Historian Luke McKernan says that this would have had considerable interest for audiences of the time, "to whom the very idea of women working at manual occupations considered solely the reserve of men was astonishing, and for many quite shocking".

Of the more traditional women's occupations, 'Actress Recruiter' (25 August 1915) features Olga Nethersole appealing for army recruits - the actress herself would join the British Red Cross in 1916 and work in the Hampstead Military Hospital until 1919, the year after the war ended, while the 'Memorial Service for Nurse Cavell' (30 October 1915) commemorates the life of Edith Cavell, who was, as the no-nonsense titles inform us, "murdered by the Huns". 'British Nurses in Serbia' (24 November 1915) features footage from a British base there, while 'Lady of the Lamp' (16 February 1916) records a memorial service for the great nursing heroine of the Crimean War, who had died only six years earlier. 'Inspection of Nurses' (20 September 1916) shows the Middlesex Volunteers Aid Detachment, and 'Decorating Nurses' (6 June 1917) shows a group being awarded the Royal Red Cross.

Farming activities were crucial to the war effort, as Britain needed to be self-sufficient in food production. These were depicted in 'Women Hay Makers' (12 July 1916), showing land girls on an Essex farm, 'Girl Gardeners at Work' (24 January 1917) shows food being grown for hospitals on the South Coast, and 'Women Farm Workers Competition' (21 April 1917) shows numerous contestants demonstrating their skill at ploughing, hoeing and horse-harnessing.

Professions directly related to the military were shown in 'Munition Workers' Welfare' (23 November 1916) in which Girl Guides were pressed into service as munitions workers. 'Women's Work at an A.S.C. Depot' (28 February 1917) shows the increasing female representation within the Army Service Corps, and 'Women Foundry Workers' (14 July 1917) depicts scenes in a French iron foundry heavily staffed by women. However, despite the increased female representation in a great many types of war work, it is telling that 'War and the Workers' (27 February 1918) a film presenting a supposedly representative group of war workers, is an all-male production.

Aside from members of the Royal Family, women were still unrepresented at the very highest level, and 'Will There Be Women MPs?' (10 November 1917) records a meeting aimed at founding the first Women's Parliamentary Party. Largely thanks to their contribution to the war effort, women were finally awarded the vote (albeit on a restricted basis) in December 1918, an election which also saw the first female MP, though Sinn Fein's Constance Markievicz was unable to take up her seat as she was serving a sentence in Holloway women's prison at the time. The first woman MP to actually take her seat was the American-born Conservative Nancy Astor, elected in November 1919. In 1928, the vote was extended to cover all adult women.

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