Labour History Review

‘They didn't want women back in that job!’: the Second World War and the construction of gendered work histories

Labour History Review (1998), 63, (1), 83–104.

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This paper is based on material researched for my forthcoming book Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lines, Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War. See in particular Chapter 6, ‘Demobilisation and Discourses of Women's Work’ Google Scholar

On the effects of the Second World War on women's paid employment see P. Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War, Production and Patriarchy in Conflict, 1989 Google Scholar

For example David Vincent argues that women's work histories in the first half of the twentieth century were concentrated in categories he labels ‘meandering’ (that is movement through numerous unconnected jobs with no apparent progression) and ‘fractured’ (that is career paths broken and not recovered, usually as a result of marriage). In contrast men's work histories were mostly in the ‘gold watch’ and ‘migration’ categories, of steady progression in work either for the same employer or for different employers but within the same trade or profession. See D. Vincent, ‘Mobility bureaucracy and careers in twentieth-century Britain’ in A. Miles and D. Vincent (eds), Building European Society. Occupational Change and Social Mobility in Europe, 1840-1940, Manchester, 1993, pp. 217-39. (On these career pathways specifically, see pp. 225-26.) Google Scholar

For example, Sylvia Walby used the work history method for a study of de-industrialisation in Lancashire women's lives in the period 1960-1980. This concluded that relatively few women experienced de-industrialisation personally, because of continuity in the sectors in which they worked, extending across breaks due to childbirth. This conclusion was the result of analysis focused on aggregate movements of women between industries and occupations over the period, based on a coding of the jobs women did, and whether childbirth was a reason for leaving. Walby commented that some of the 300 interviews lasted ‘several hours’ rendering information which could not be used in the analysis. S. Walby, ‘Labour markets and industrial structures in women's working lives’ in S. Dex (ed.), Life and Work History Analyses: Qualitative and Quantitative Developments, 1991, p. 300 Google Scholar

The interview project was resourced from an Economic and Social Research Council grant, R000 23 2048, 1990-1992, entitled ‘Gender, Training and Employment 1939-1950, An Historical Analysis’. I am indebted to Nicole Crockett, Research Associate, and Hilary Arksey, Student Researcher, for their help in conducting the interviews. For a report of the findings of the project see P. Summerfield, ‘The Patriarchal Discourse of Human Capital: training women for war work, 1939-45’, Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (November 1993), pp. 189-205. Although only a few women requested anonymity when asked, they have all been given pseudonyms. For a discussion of oral history methodology, and the ethics of bestowing anonymity in particular, see P. Summerfield, Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lives, Chapter 1, ‘Gender, Memory and the Second World War’ Google Scholar

See, for example, J. Scott, ‘Experience’ in J. Butler and J. W. Scott, Feminists Theorize the Political, 1992, pp. 22-40; J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1990 Google Scholar

D. Riley, War in the Nursery. Theories of the Child and Mother, 1983, p. 190 Google Scholar

Riley, War in the Nursery, p. 191 Google Scholar

D. Riley, ‘Am I that name?’ Feminism and the category ‘women’ in History, 1988, p. 98 Google Scholar

Catherine Hall has posed this question powerfully: ‘Do we really think about ourselves only as subjects interpolated in a discursive field? Is it not also vital to think about the ways in which individuals and groups are able to challenge meanings and establish new inflections which expand the terrain?’ C. Hall, ‘Politics, Post-structuralism and Feminist History’, Gender and History, 3, 2, 1991, p. 210 Google Scholar

B. Davies, ‘Women's Subjectivity and Feminist Stories’ in C. Ellis and M. G. Flaherty, Investigating Subjectivity. Research on Lived Experience, 1992, p. 54 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

M. A. Hamilton, Women at Work: a Brief Introduction to Trade Unionism for Women, 1941, p. 12. See also Parliamentary Papers, Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, Cmd 135, HMSO, 1919; Parliamentary Papers, Home Office, A Study of the Factors which have operated in the past and those which are operating now to Determine the Distribution of Women in Industry, Cmd 3508, HMSO, 1930; Parliamentary Papers 1930-1, xvii, Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance, First Report, Cmd 3872; Pilgrim Trust, Men without Work, Cambridge, 1938 Google Scholar

See P. Summerfield, ‘"The girl that makes the thing that drills the hole that holds the spring …" Discourses of women and work in the Second World War’ in C. Gledhill and G. Swanson (eds), Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and the British Cinema in World War II, Manchester, 1995, pp. 35-52 Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and the British Cinema in World War II 35 52 Google Scholar

G. Williams, Women and Work, 1945, p. 11 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 12. ‘Men have muscular strength’ read the caption to one of the black and white photographs illustrating the book, and on the opposite page,‘- but women have the deft touch’; over the page ‘the man applies the skill’ and ‘- the woman runs the machine’ Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 19 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 104 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 118 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 127 Google Scholar

See, for example, Parliamentary Papers, ‘Marriage Bar in the Civil Service’, Report of the Civil Service National Whitley Council Committee, Cmd 6886, 1946; Parliamentary Papers, Report of the Royal Commission on Equal Pay, HMSO, 1946, Cmd 6937, especially para. 343 to 366; J. Newsom, The Education of Girls, 1948; Ministry of Education, Half Our Future, a Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England), HMSO, 1963 Google Scholar

F. Hunt, Gender and Policy in English Education, Brighton, 1991, pp. 138-44 Gender and Policy in English Education 138 44 Google Scholar

P. Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, Popular Magazines for Girls Growing Up in England, 1995, p. 115 Google Scholar

Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, p. 93 Google Scholar

Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, p. 90 Google Scholar

On the construction of teaching as a particularly feminine career; see A. Oram, Women Teachers and Feminist Politics 1900-39 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996), especially pp. 15-23 Google Scholar

Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, pp. 94-100 Google Scholar

On the marriage bar see for example A. Oram, ‘Serving two masters? The introduction of a marriage bar in teaching in the 1920s’ in London Feminist History Group (eds), The Sexual Dynamics of History (Pluto Press, 1983); M. Zimmeck, ‘Strategies and stratagems for the employment of women in the British Civil Service, 1919-1939’, The Historical Journal, vol. 27, no. 4 (1984), pp. 901-24; M. Zimmeck, ‘Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure: Women, Bureaucracy and the Post Office, 1870-1920’, in M. Savage and A. Witz (eds), Gender and Bureaucracy, Oxford, 1992, pp. 65-93 The Sexual Dynamics of History Google Scholar

Girls' Own Paper, November 1945, pp. 6-7, quoted by Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, p 114. Although, like Williams, this writer referred to views derived from post-war psychiatry of the benefits to women's psychological health of working outside the home, she put a different gloss on them. Careers, rather than the unskilled routine jobs of Williams's version, were her objective. And she linked the personal fulfilment of ‘every girl’ (as well as the good of the children) with the dual pursuit of motherhood and a career Google Scholar

A. Myrdal and V. Klein, Women's Two Roles. Home and Work, 1956, 1968 edition, p. 155 Google Scholar

Myrdal and Klein, Women's Two Roles, p. 157 Google Scholar

For this kind of writing see for example M. Wandor (ed.), The Body Politic. Women's Liberation in Britain 1969-1972 (London, Stage One, 1972); S. Rowbotham, Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973); Spare Rib, a Women's Liberation Magazine, published from 1972 to 1992 The Body Politic. Women's Liberation in Britain 1969-1972 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See C. Cockburn, ‘The gendering of jobs: workplace relations and reproduction of sex segregation’ in S. Walby (ed.), Gender Segregation at Work (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1988); S. Heath, ‘Preparation for Life’? Vocationalism and the Equal Opportunities Challenge (Aldershot, Ashgate, 1997) Gender Segregation at Work Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, Clarity Educational Productions, Emeryville, California, 1982. Producer and Director, Connie Field. See P. Colman, Rosie the Riveter, Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, New York, 1995 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

For details of these agreements see Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War, chapter 7 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

This paper is based on material researched for my forthcoming book Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lines, Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War. See in particular Chapter 6, ‘Demobilisation and Discourses of Women's Work’ Google Scholar

On the effects of the Second World War on women's paid employment see P. Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War, Production and Patriarchy in Conflict, 1989 Google Scholar

For example David Vincent argues that women's work histories in the first half of the twentieth century were concentrated in categories he labels ‘meandering’ (that is movement through numerous unconnected jobs with no apparent progression) and ‘fractured’ (that is career paths broken and not recovered, usually as a result of marriage). In contrast men's work histories were mostly in the ‘gold watch’ and ‘migration’ categories, of steady progression in work either for the same employer or for different employers but within the same trade or profession. See D. Vincent, ‘Mobility bureaucracy and careers in twentieth-century Britain’ in A. Miles and D. Vincent (eds), Building European Society. Occupational Change and Social Mobility in Europe, 1840-1940, Manchester, 1993, pp. 217-39. (On these career pathways specifically, see pp. 225-26.) Google Scholar

For example, Sylvia Walby used the work history method for a study of de-industrialisation in Lancashire women's lives in the period 1960-1980. This concluded that relatively few women experienced de-industrialisation personally, because of continuity in the sectors in which they worked, extending across breaks due to childbirth. This conclusion was the result of analysis focused on aggregate movements of women between industries and occupations over the period, based on a coding of the jobs women did, and whether childbirth was a reason for leaving. Walby commented that some of the 300 interviews lasted ‘several hours’ rendering information which could not be used in the analysis. S. Walby, ‘Labour markets and industrial structures in women's working lives’ in S. Dex (ed.), Life and Work History Analyses: Qualitative and Quantitative Developments, 1991, p. 300 Google Scholar

The interview project was resourced from an Economic and Social Research Council grant, R000 23 2048, 1990-1992, entitled ‘Gender, Training and Employment 1939-1950, An Historical Analysis’. I am indebted to Nicole Crockett, Research Associate, and Hilary Arksey, Student Researcher, for their help in conducting the interviews. For a report of the findings of the project see P. Summerfield, ‘The Patriarchal Discourse of Human Capital: training women for war work, 1939-45’, Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (November 1993), pp. 189-205. Although only a few women requested anonymity when asked, they have all been given pseudonyms. For a discussion of oral history methodology, and the ethics of bestowing anonymity in particular, see P. Summerfield, Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lives, Chapter 1, ‘Gender, Memory and the Second World War’ Google Scholar

See, for example, J. Scott, ‘Experience’ in J. Butler and J. W. Scott, Feminists Theorize the Political, 1992, pp. 22-40; J. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1990 Google Scholar

D. Riley, War in the Nursery. Theories of the Child and Mother, 1983, p. 190 Google Scholar

Riley, War in the Nursery, p. 191 Google Scholar

D. Riley, ‘Am I that name?’ Feminism and the category ‘women’ in History, 1988, p. 98 Google Scholar

Catherine Hall has posed this question powerfully: ‘Do we really think about ourselves only as subjects interpolated in a discursive field? Is it not also vital to think about the ways in which individuals and groups are able to challenge meanings and establish new inflections which expand the terrain?’ C. Hall, ‘Politics, Post-structuralism and Feminist History’, Gender and History, 3, 2, 1991, p. 210 Google Scholar

B. Davies, ‘Women's Subjectivity and Feminist Stories’ in C. Ellis and M. G. Flaherty, Investigating Subjectivity. Research on Lived Experience, 1992, p. 54 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

M. A. Hamilton, Women at Work: a Brief Introduction to Trade Unionism for Women, 1941, p. 12. See also Parliamentary Papers, Report of the War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry, Cmd 135, HMSO, 1919; Parliamentary Papers, Home Office, A Study of the Factors which have operated in the past and those which are operating now to Determine the Distribution of Women in Industry, Cmd 3508, HMSO, 1930; Parliamentary Papers 1930-1, xvii, Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance, First Report, Cmd 3872; Pilgrim Trust, Men without Work, Cambridge, 1938 Google Scholar

See P. Summerfield, ‘"The girl that makes the thing that drills the hole that holds the spring …" Discourses of women and work in the Second World War’ in C. Gledhill and G. Swanson (eds), Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and the British Cinema in World War II, Manchester, 1995, pp. 35-52 Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and the British Cinema in World War II 35 52 Google Scholar

G. Williams, Women and Work, 1945, p. 11 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 12. ‘Men have muscular strength’ read the caption to one of the black and white photographs illustrating the book, and on the opposite page,‘- but women have the deft touch’; over the page ‘the man applies the skill’ and ‘- the woman runs the machine’ Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 19 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 104 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 118 Google Scholar

Williams, Women and Work, p. 127 Google Scholar

See, for example, Parliamentary Papers, ‘Marriage Bar in the Civil Service’, Report of the Civil Service National Whitley Council Committee, Cmd 6886, 1946; Parliamentary Papers, Report of the Royal Commission on Equal Pay, HMSO, 1946, Cmd 6937, especially para. 343 to 366; J. Newsom, The Education of Girls, 1948; Ministry of Education, Half Our Future, a Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England), HMSO, 1963 Google Scholar

F. Hunt, Gender and Policy in English Education, Brighton, 1991, pp. 138-44 Gender and Policy in English Education 138 44 Google Scholar

P. Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, Popular Magazines for Girls Growing Up in England, 1995, p. 115 Google Scholar

Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, p. 93 Google Scholar

Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, p. 90 Google Scholar

On the construction of teaching as a particularly feminine career; see A. Oram, Women Teachers and Feminist Politics 1900-39 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996), especially pp. 15-23 Google Scholar

Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, pp. 94-100 Google Scholar

On the marriage bar see for example A. Oram, ‘Serving two masters? The introduction of a marriage bar in teaching in the 1920s’ in London Feminist History Group (eds), The Sexual Dynamics of History (Pluto Press, 1983); M. Zimmeck, ‘Strategies and stratagems for the employment of women in the British Civil Service, 1919-1939’, The Historical Journal, vol. 27, no. 4 (1984), pp. 901-24; M. Zimmeck, ‘Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure: Women, Bureaucracy and the Post Office, 1870-1920’, in M. Savage and A. Witz (eds), Gender and Bureaucracy, Oxford, 1992, pp. 65-93 The Sexual Dynamics of History Google Scholar

Girls' Own Paper, November 1945, pp. 6-7, quoted by Tinkler, Constructing Girlhood, p 114. Although, like Williams, this writer referred to views derived from post-war psychiatry of the benefits to women's psychological health of working outside the home, she put a different gloss on them. Careers, rather than the unskilled routine jobs of Williams's version, were her objective. And she linked the personal fulfilment of ‘every girl’ (as well as the good of the children) with the dual pursuit of motherhood and a career Google Scholar

A. Myrdal and V. Klein, Women's Two Roles. Home and Work, 1956, 1968 edition, p. 155 Google Scholar

Myrdal and Klein, Women's Two Roles, p. 157 Google Scholar

For this kind of writing see for example M. Wandor (ed.), The Body Politic. Women's Liberation in Britain 1969-1972 (London, Stage One, 1972); S. Rowbotham, Woman's Consciousness, Man's World (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973); Spare Rib, a Women's Liberation Magazine, published from 1972 to 1992 The Body Politic. Women's Liberation in Britain 1969-1972 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See C. Cockburn, ‘The gendering of jobs: workplace relations and reproduction of sex segregation’ in S. Walby (ed.), Gender Segregation at Work (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1988); S. Heath, ‘Preparation for Life’? Vocationalism and the Equal Opportunities Challenge (Aldershot, Ashgate, 1997) Gender Segregation at Work Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, Clarity Educational Productions, Emeryville, California, 1982. Producer and Director, Connie Field. See P. Colman, Rosie the Riveter, Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, New York, 1995 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

For details of these agreements see Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War, chapter 7 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

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Summerfield, Penny