Women Strikers in Britain and France during the First World War

In our latest blog, Professor Alison Fell from the University of Leeds highlights the involvement of women in strikes during 1917 and 1918.

Bordeaux_[femmes_roulant_des_tonneaux]_[...]Agence_Rol_btv1b69528189The new economic and industrial conditions during the war saw significant industrial action on the home front among both male and female war workers, especially in 1917 and 1918. A significant percentage of these strikes not only involved female workers, but were also led by women. These female strike leaders acted as spokespeople for other workers and negotiated with factory owners, politicians and the mediators who were commissioned by the government in both France and Britain as arbitrators. In France, the majority of strikes involving and led by women workers, especially in May-June 1917, tended not to be triggered by union actions, but were spontaneous affairs, as illustrated by the following report of a 1918 strike:

At about 5 o’clock today, a certain number of women workers at the Arsenal [.] gathered together to demand an increase in salary of a franc a day [.] The workers stopped work and protested inside the factory, trying to call out support from other workers. [.] They refused to start work again, and about 200 of them went into the streets singing the Internationale, the Marseillaise, and the ‘Pinard’.

French female strikers employed the strategy of d├ębauchage, or leaving work with the intention of encouraging other workers to join the strike, before forming strike committees if the strikes went on for longer than a couple of days. The songs and slogans deployed by the women often played on the rhetoric of the ‘double sacrifice’, in which women presented themselves as both workers and the female dependents of mobilised men. In strikes such as this one, there was a need for women to act as spokespeople to put their complaints to both management, to government arbitration, and to male union representatives. The strikes were therefore an invaluable training ground for a handful of women who went on to have political careers in the interwar years.

Originally posted on the 25th July, 2016