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Women in the Second World War

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A procession of Women's Land Army floats on Queens Road in Reading.

During the twentieth century, the role of women began to change. A major catalyst in this social reform was the First and Second World Wars which provided opportunities for women to contribute to the war effort and be recognised for efforts outside of the home. The need for female participation was deemed necessary, as unprecedented numbers of men were called up, wounded and killed. The effort of women during the Second World War is recognised for its contribution to victory.

The war provided job opportunities for women whether this was replacing a man in an existing job after he had been conscripted to the army or entering the war manufacturing industries. Common roles for women included working in ammunitions factories and making uniforms for soldiers. They also transmitted radio broadcasts and interpreted aerial photographs taken by British spy planes over occupied Europe. In 1942, Britain had a labour shortage - an estimated 1.5 million people were needed for the armed forces, and an additional 775,000 for munitions work and other services.

Despite working, women were still expected to continue with their domestic duties. Many found the balance virtually impossible and were forced to give up labour. Propaganda was created by the government which aimed to coerce people into joining the labour force and 'do their bit' for the war effort. Women were the target audience. They were seen as a simple and cost efficient option as they were paid substantially less than men, despite filling the same skilled positions. Many Reading women gained experience and job opportunities during this period, providing a vital contribution to the war effort but also helping generate a national social shift in women’s rights. In May 1938 Lady Stella Reading formed the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence, that later became the Royal Voluntary Service. This was another way in which women could support the war effort by volunteering their time, skills and energy.

Women were also drafted into war work by the Ministry of Labour which included non-combatant jobs in the military, such as the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS or 'Wrens'), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF or 'Waffs') and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The role of the women in these military positions was to support their male counterparts from the Home Front. This included working with codes, deciphering and analysing data and information, plotting and planning as well as communication duties. Reading had local branches of these groups.

The Berkshire countryside provided further valuable opportunities for for women - in agricultural work. The Women's Land Army (WLA or 'Land Girls') was a civilian organisation designed to aid farmers who had lost male labour to the military. The government's initiative to grow more food on home soil could only be achieved if the labour was available.

After the Second World War, many women returned to the domestic life they occupied prior to 1939. Men came back and expected their jobs to be returned to them, whilst there was no longer much need for ammunition factories and other war manufacturing. Despite their wartime efforts, women who had served in the batteries as gunners and searchlight-operators were 'demoted' to secretaries and clerks, taking away any opportunity they may have had to capitalise on their training.

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