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The Politicization of Food: Women and food queues in the Second World War, by Charlotte Sendall

The Second World War highlighted many sacrifices women endured for their country. Food became more significant during the conflict as the nations resilience was tested by food shortages and regulations. It was primarily women, who struggled with food shortages and rationing on the home front. Yet in academic debates about the impact on of the war, the impact of the  time and effort women  spent in queues have often been overlooked.

On 8 January 1940, the government, introduced rationing for; bacon, butter and sugar to prevent food shortages, just as they had at the end of the First World War. The scheme aimed to ensure a fair distribution of food and commodities among the people in Britain. On 1 December 1941, the government implemented further restrictions and a points system. As well as their basic rations each individual was allocated a certain number of points to purchase items that were ‘off-ration’. Unlike the general rationing scheme, the points system allowed women to purchase food from any store rather than just their allocated registered shop. By 1942 further foods were incorporated into the rationing scheme, including meat, milk, cheese, eggs and cooking fat. The points system and rationing together attempted to conserve food, but long queues were a by-product of these restrictions, as Bob Well recalled how in his childhood, if the butcher had any off ration food ‘word soon got around and a queue soon formed’. [1]

Government campaigns, in films, radio broadcasts, posters and print media sought to educate the public about food available for consumption during the war. Importantly, this included explaining that food waste was unpatriotic, adding to the stress many housewives experienced as did the closure of a number of food stores due to staff shortages or bombing; causing the length of queues at other stores to increase. Women spent hours waiting to purchase the family’s food. Experiences of queues varied for each civilian, but discontent emerged when women queued for hours only to then be told the store had no available food left. The Eastbourne Gazette reported that an ‘average of thirty-six thousand hours are wasted every day’ by women queuing for food. As the war progressed the availability of food decreased and women often had to prioritise queuing for food over other domestic duties.

The Second World War saw women conscripted into the workforce to help win the war, after the passing of the National Service Act in 1941. Initially, the act expected unmarried women, aged between 20 and 30, to join the armed forces, work in a factory or on the land as a member of the Women’s Land Army. Conscription of women was widened in 1942 to include women aged between 19 and 41, and then later women up to 50 years of age. Many women had to work long hours and simultaneously continue domestic responsibilities. Housewives had to juggle domestic duties and work obligations. Many conscripted women were disgruntled that most of the food stores were only opened and food supplies were delivered at times they were at work. Housewives had to spend their breaks attempting to queue for food. As a sixteen year old Joyce Burdis, recollected her lunch break from her job in a department store consisted of time queuing, but noted ‘It was great to see my mother’s face each time I brought something home’.[2] The time needed for queuing was regarded as responsible for a rise in absenteeism in many workplaces, which undermined the war effort. Importantly, absenteeism indicated housewives prioritise their domestic duties over the war effort, and having the confidence to go against the government’s expectations on them.

The attempt to balance domestic duties and work obligation was such a burden, that some mothers sometimes withdrew their children from education to get them to queue for food, although educational authorities considered this behaviour unacceptable. The Nottingham Evening Post, reported that the increase of absenteeism in schools was a result of children queuing. Their report took a negative tone towards women, who were considered to be shirking domestic duties which were seen their responsibly. However, some newspaper drew attention to the burdens women faced trying to feed their families. Some parents deemed education trivial when faced with the challenges of war. Morley recalled that during the war, as her father was a widower, she and her and sister were expected to queue for the family.[3]

Whilst some women, particularly those who had been involved in queuing, voiced their discontent against the government restrictions, it was at the end of the war when large numbers of housewives began entered the political sphere to complain. Irene Lovelock, the founder of the British Housewives’ League, protested against the hardship of queuing and the government’s continuing involvement in society. Women opposed the government’s authority and began to publically protest against food restrictions. The British Pathe News on 16 July 1945, produced a short news film portraying women expostulating against the government policies. Importantly, the newsreel revealed that some women felt empowered to publicly protest against austerity. Food queues were the catalyst for some women in post-war Britain to seek a voice as housewives suffering from the government controls.

Food queues placed considerable strain on women’s already difficult daily lives on the home front, which sometimes led to behaviour that met with disapproval or was considered unpatriotic.  However, some ordinary housewives emerged more confident, prepared to publicly protest against government intervention in their lives and against austerity Britain. Arguably food queues helped some women to enter the political sphere and to question the government’s role in society.

References  from the BBC People’s War

  1. Bob Wells
  1. Joyce Bundis (
  2. E. M. Moore

Charlotte Sendall has recently completed a Masters Degree in Research at the University of Worcester.

Images taken from wikimedia commons.