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Why we should remember the housewives of the First World War, by Professor Karen Hunt

As our high streets become covered in poppies, we should ask ourselves who we are being asked to commemorate. Despite four years of television programmes, exhibitions, art installations and local history projects, we still seem to find it easier to focus on the trenches rather than the home front; on men rather than women; and among the women, on munition workers and VADs rather than housewives. The stories we tell have hardly changed despite the large amount of money put into commemoration through the Heritage Lottery Fund, large scale projects like the BBC’s WW1 at Home and the various World War One Engagement Centres, as well as the many academic studies by historians revising our understanding of how the war was experienced across Britain and the world.  In the end it is the ‘mud and blood’ narrative that seems to trump every other story. We would have a better understanding of Britain’s experience of the world’s first ‘total war’ if we widened our focus on who and what we commemorate. One way to do this is to focus on women on Britain’s first home front.

During the Great War about 1.66 million women entered the workforce, swelling the number of women workers to over 6 million. These new workers were significant and represent major changes in individual lives and households across the war. These women undertook traditional women’s work, new wartime jobs, and, less often, took over ‘for the duration’ what had been men’s jobs. It is the last group, whether munition workers or tram conductors, who have garnered most attention in commemorative activity.

There was another larger group of women who are often overlooked. Census data reveals a sizeable group of women who were not in paid employment. Many of them were housewives, with the responsibility for running their household however substantial or inadequate the income brought in by husbands or children. Not every woman lived in a family household but whether she was a lodger, lived alone or in a shared female household, it was almost always a woman who bore the responsibilities of a housewife. How many women are we talking about, and how do they compare to the number of women in the wartime workforce? Adding together the numbers of non-working females over 10/12 years old with those of married and widowed women workers, both of whom would have had to run households as well as working, gives about 10.63 million possible housewives in England and Wales for 1911 and 11.75 million by 1921. Even deducting the numbers of women who officially entered the workforce for the duration, there were considerably more housewives than women war workers; and, of course, even single women workers had to feed themselves and attend to domestic labour or find someone to do it for them, hence the importance of hostels for newly-recruited women munition workers. What happens if we try to put these housewives back into the stories of the Great War?

The housewife had a crucial role in successfully prosecuting this new kind of warfare where food became a weapon.  Economic blockades were used systematically by both sides. The purpose was to starve out the enemy, particularly civilians by undermining their morale: the thinking was that hunger would drive the population to demand an end to the war. In turn this would have a catastrophic effect on military morale. Soldiers fighting to defend their homes and families might mutiny or desert if they knew of suffering at home.

Without understanding this aspect of the world’s first experience of modern war we miss the significant role that civilian morale and its interdependence with military morale has for warfare. This all begins with the mundane and relentless task of feeding oneself and one’s household as rising prices, poor distribution and even dearth of basic foods and fuel made shopping and cooking an exhausting struggle for those whose responsibility this had always been: women, specifically housewives. Everyday life, specifically the getting of food, was crucial to the winning or losing of a ‘total war’. That was why the wartime poster urged ‘The Kitchen is the Key to Victory’. This was a battle in which in which the nation’s survival depended on the housewife’s actions: how she dealt with rocketing food prices and widespread shortages mattered not just to her own family but to the home front as a whole.

Exploring everyday life on the diverse home fronts of the Great War gives us a new way of understanding the war itself. We should put the housewife back into the stories we tell of the Great War and include her in what we commemorate.

Karen Hunt is Professor Emerita at the University of Keele. A longer version of this post can be found here:

For more on Karen Hunt’s research, see:

‘A Heroine at Home: The Housewife on the First World War Home Front’ in M. Andrews & J. Lomas (eds), The Home Front in Britain (Palgrave, 2014)

‘Gender & Everyday Life’ in S.R. Grayzel & T.M. Proctor (eds), Gender & the Great War (OUP, 2017)

Staffordshire’s War (Amberley, 2017).