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From Sex-war to Factory Floor: Theatrical Depictions of Women’s Work during the First World War

  • Sos Eltis
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Abstract

Women’s labour during the First World War underwent a period of extraordinary change, while the theatrical representation of women’s work during the conflict was largely characterized by continuity, reaching back to genres and tropes of previous decades and reflecting the radically altered landscape only tangentially. The vast demand for armaments and transport vehicles, the blockades on imported goods which required an increase in domestic food production, and the millions of jobs left vacant by soldiers at the Front, all combined to necessitate the recruitment of women into a wide range of new occupations. The Women’s War Procession in London in July 1916 celebrated the full range of women’s war-time occupations, including station masters, porters, navvies and dock labourers, bus drivers, sheep dippers, coalmine pithead workers, doctors, and, of course, munition workers, including the so-called ‘canary girls’, their skin dyed deep yellow for life from contact with TNT.1 At the end of the war, Helen Fraser, a suffragist who became a government spokesperson for war-time recruitment of women, recorded that 1,250,000 women had directly replaced men in industry, 1,000,000 had been employed in munitions, 83,000 in government departments, and a further 258,300 women had been full- or part-time workers on the land.2

Keywords

Woman Worker British Library Factory Floor Ambulance Driver Domestic Food Production 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Helen Fraser, Women and War Work (New York: G. Arnold Shaw, 1918), 20–1.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    See Sheila Stowell, A Stage of Their Own: Feminist Playwrights of the Suffrage Era (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004);Google Scholar
  3. Sos Eltis, Acts of Desire: Women and Sex on Stage, 1800–1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 5.
    See Peter Buitenhuis, Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914–1933 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1987), chap. 2.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    See David Mitchell, Women on the Warpath: the Story of the Women of the First World War (London: Jonathan Cape, 1966), 39–80, for further details.Google Scholar
  6. 10.
    F. Tennyson Jesse and H. M. Harwood, Billeted (London: Samuel French, 1920) , I, 24; II, 36.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Gladys Davidson, Britannia’s Revue (London: Samuel French, 1916), 7.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Quoted in Jane Potter, ‘Hidden Drama by British Women: Pageants and Sketches from the Great War’, in Claire M. Tylee (ed.) Women, the First World War and the Dramatic Imagination: International Essays 1914–1999 (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press: 2000), 105–20 (109–10).Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    Lechmere Worrall and J. E. Harold Terry, The Man Who Stayed at Home (London: Samuel French, 1916), I, 24. First performed at Royalty Theatre, London, 10 Dec. 1914. Transferred to Apollo Theatre, London, 20 March 1916.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    E. Temple Thurston, The Cost (London: Chapman and Hall, 1914), I, 34.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Reader’s report from the Archbishop of Canterbury, quoted in Dominic Shellard and Steve Nicholson, with Miriam Handley, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets …: A History of British Theatre Censorship (London: British Library, 2004), 76. For pacifist polemic on women as ‘breeding-machines’ for war,Google Scholar
  12. see Marion Craig Wentworth’s American play War Brides (1914), in Claire Tylee and Elaine Turner, eds., War Plays by Women: An International Anthology (London: Routledge, 1999), 13–26.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Gwen John, Luck of War (London & Glasgow: Gowans and Gray, 1922), 17–18. First produced Kingsway Theatre, London by the Pioneer Players, 13 May 1917.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    Edward Knoblauch, A War Committee in A War Committee and The Little Silver Ring (Samuel French: London, 1915), 7, 9–10. Knoblauch later Anglicized his surname to Knoblock.Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    H. F. Maltby, Petticoats, British Library, Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, 1917/5.Google Scholar
  16. 27.
    Gertrude Jennings, Poached Eggs and Pearls, British Library, Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, 1916/28, 11.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    For further details see Gordon Williams, British Theatre in the Great War: A Revaluation (London: Continuum, 2003), 103–4.Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    Roy Devereux and J. C. de Chassaigne, Love and War, British Library, Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, 1917/5, 12.Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    J. M. Barrie, A Strange Play, British Library, Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, 1917/4, sc.6, 2.Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    Barrie, The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, in The Plays of J. M. Barrie (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930), 811.Google Scholar
  21. 34.
    John Galsworthy, The Foundations, in The Plays of John Galsworthy (London: Duckworth, 1929), III, 510.Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Heartbreak House (1919), in The Bodley Head Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with their Prefaces, Volume V (London: Bodley Head, 1972), 147.Google Scholar
  23. 38.
    See Jesse and Harwood’s Billeted and Alfred Sutro’s Great Redding Street Burglary (1915) for such claims.Google Scholar
  24. 39.
    Herbert Tremaine, The Handmaidens of Death (London: C. W. Daniel, 1919), 24–6.Google Scholar
  25. 41.
    See also Maggie B. Gale, West End Women: Women and the London Stage, 1918–1962 (Routledge: London, 1996), ch. 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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