A female munition worker, 1915

WW1: Women Engineers in the First World War

The First World War was a major defining factor for the professional and social status of women engineers.

It was 1916, and at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, London, over 30,000 women were recruited to handle explosives, work on the cranes and assemble weapons. In Barrow, Vickers employed more than 7,000 female workers under well-paid female superintendents. In Tongland, a tiny village in the south-west of Scotland, at a factory dubbed The Feminist Munition Factory, women were making shells.

The world was at war, and the whole of British society was pulling together. Women were manning the Home Front, producing the munitions, driving the transport and helping construct the machinery that would lead to victory. French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre wrote, "If the women in the factories stopped work for twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war."

Yet just two years earlier, even a few hundred women having these roles would have been inconceivable. Before 1914, the main purpose of a woman in engineering was as a mere ornament. In early 20th Century Mazda advertisements, a brightly smiling woman holds up the lightbulb. That was thought to be the limits of her technical capabilities. It would take a cataclysm for women to enter technical fields in large numbers.

Cataclysm as a catalyst

That cataclysm was the First World War, when men went off fighting. "There had been the odd determined woman who had broken down the barriers," says Dawn Bonfield, vice-president of the Women's Engineering Society. "But the war was the big driver. That was the catalyst for women to get into engineering for the first time."

Even so, any aspiring woman's range of engineering or technical career choices would not have been as broad as a man's. Large numbers of women worked in the burgeoning munitions factories. Transport – driving buses and trains – was another field to which they were welcome, while the new disciplines, such as aeronautical and automobile engineering, were more open. More established areas, however, such as civil engineering, remained difficult for women to break in to.

"It was the new wartime occupations that women by and large were going in to - not heavy engineering such as power stations. This was a reserved occupation, so the male employees weren't called up," says Anne Locker, the IET's Archivist (the Institution holds the records of the Women's Society of Engineering, founded in 1919.) Nor was women's presence on the production line accepted from the outbreak of hostilities. Sarah Paterson, librarian at the Imperial War Museum, London, says: "We tend to see the First World War from our 21st Century perspective as all one piece. But during the early years of the war, nursing was the acceptable occupation for women, not engineering. It wasn't until after conscription was introduced in January 1916 that more women came into the workplace. The factories needed to rely much more on women then." The IWM Library holds the Women's Work Collection, which began in 1917 when the museum opened.

Engineers or technicians?

But were these women really engineers at all? An article in an early edition of the Women's Engineering Society journal argued: "At the moment, the number of women who may justly claim to be engineers in the true sense of the word is comparatively small but ... we are confident that many women will aspire to higher positions than that of 'machine minders'."

During World War One, the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough, Hampshire, (now the Farnborough Air Sciences Trust and Museum) was designing and building aircraft for the Royal Flying Corp. "Women were in the workshops, [as] carpenters, and made air frames. They were welders and built parts for engines," says Dr Graham Rood, a retired aeronautical engineer, who now looks after the Museum's archives.

"There would have been women working in the scientific departments and in the administration," he adds. "A large number of women were in the drawing offices producing plans on how to build aeroplanes. These plans then went out to the furniture factories to build fuselages. But women weren't what we'd call engineers now. They were more like technicians. They were skilled artisans."

Women were restricted to lower grade tasks because training opportunities had not been available to them. Before the war, they were barred from apprenticeships, so the traditional route into engineering was closed. As the war progressed and it became clear it wouldn't be over by Christmas, training for women was developed.

In 1915, Loughborough Technical School became a training centre for munitions workers, most of whom were women. Among the short courses they offered were gauge-making, draughtsmanship, welding, pattern-making and aero-engine testing. During the war, the school trained 1,338 women, almost twice as many as it did men. 

It wasn't only the women's training and work opportunities that changed. The culture inside the hangars, factories and works also shifted. "If you look at archive photographs, there were flowers on the table in the factories during the First World War. You wouldn't see that in an engineering works these days. Did the women turn their workplace into an environment that suited them? Maybe, because they were in the majority? Now women are absolutely in the minority. Now the environment is very male," says the Women's Engineering Society's Bonfield.

In fact, the working conditions of women during the war were generally good. "Because the factories were really dangerous places, women welfare workers were put in place to look after the wellbeing of the women, provide good recreation facilities, and check that they were eating properly. These welfare workers definitely brought in the women's touch," says the Imperial War Museum's Paterson.

But these comforts were not due to altruism towards females. "They really needed women and girls," says the IET's Locker. "So they even set up cr'ches and beefed up their dining halls."

Women were even praised for the unique skills they brought to engineering. "They are born mechanics, who work with their brains as well as their hands. I have found that a woman's touch is more trustworthy than a man's. She seems to have a special instinct," one employer told a newspaper.

"Employers said women were more careful, had more aptitude for details and were better at delicate work. And that they got less bored," says Locker. "The language the employers used was very flattering – but very much from a male perspective."

With all these newfound opportunities and praise, in 1917 The Gentlewoman magazine confidently declared: "One girl is already in charge of 6,000 women workers in one of the largest munitions works in England... There is no finality in engineering, and the trained woman engineer has come to stay."

Back to old ways?

But she hadn't. In 1919, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced women to give up their jobs to make room for the men returning from war. It was stringently enforced by the trade unions. Companies who attempted to keep women on their books were prosecuted. "Most women simply went home," says Locker. "They left the factories and workshops, stepped out of the cars, cabs and trains, and went back to their former lives. They had all these opportunities and facilities. They felt very valued. But as soon as the war finished, these go. They didn't need to keep bringing women in and keeping them happy enough to stay."

"Women in factories, munitions and any technical roles were thrown out," says Bonfield. "They were at a loss. So the Women's Engineering Society was established to enable women to get degrees and remain in technical roles." Founded in 1919, the Society is now celebrating 95 years of supporting women engineers in education and employment. They have launched a Magnificent Women programme for schools, in the hope to encourage more girls to look to engineering as a profession.

Among the pioneering women engineers, the Magnificent Women programme features maths teacher Hertha Ayrton. Her first significant scientific work was on the hissing of the electric arc, for which she was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. She worked with her husband's support, but was careful not to carry out similar lines of research to him just in case he was credited with her results.

While nursing her sick husband at a seaside resort, Ayrton had noticed how ripples were created by the action of water on sand. Her experiments would lead to a paper on water vortices, which she would apply in the war to poison gases. But in 1902, she was still denied Fellowship of the Royal Society on the grounds of being a married woman.

The First World War gave Ayrton the chance to excel. The new use of gas attacks in the conflict was horrific for soldiers in the field and to the patriotic British public at home. Ayrton realised she could apply her research on water to air and use vortices to push gas back and to expel it from a trench. She developed a basic fan, made of cane and canvas. The editor of The Electrician described seeing her toy models of the battlefield, complete with dugouts, pill boxes and gas, made from burning brown paper, on which she tested her theory and conducted her experiments. Over 100,000 of Ayrton's gas-repelling fans were eventually issued to soldiers on the Western Front.

Verena Holmes was another woman for whom the war opened doors. At the outbreak, she worked building wooden aircraft propellers in a factory in Shoreditch and then for an aero-engine firm in Lincoln. In the evenings, she took classes at the local technical college. Before the end of the conflict, she had trained as a draughtsman. However, when the men returned, there was no role for her. Determined to support other women in the same situation, she became a founding member of the Women's Engineering Society. Locker points out: "World War One gave women a wider view. But I'm not sure it gave them more opportunities."

Bonfield says: "At the end of the war, when they had to leave, women might look for alternative ways of continuing their engineering career. They might start their own business, run a garage or be a consultant. Holmes started off in aeronautics, but then had to give that up. She went on to be a consultant and inventor as she couldn't work for many engineering companies."

Holmes's work included developing and patenting a dozen engine components and medical devices, such as the Holmes and Wingfield pneumo-thorax apparatus for treating patients with tuberculosis. During the Second World War, her friend and fellow engineer Claudia Parsons wrote of Holmes: "Her profession has so long been exposed to some of the meanest male prejudices that she was only now winning the merits she had long since earned because they could no longer be withheld."

Paterson agrees that it took decades for real change to occur. "World War One paved the way and proved that they could do more – but only at time of conflict. When it came to the Second World War, it was much easier, as they'd proved in the First World War that they were up to the job. The trail had been blazed. Women didn't need to prove their worth again." 

Further information

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles