I’ve been working on a short story about women munitions workers during WWI and so have been reading up on this topic. Women munitions workers were especially prevalent in European countries like the UK, France and Germany because of the loss of male factory workers and these countries long-term need for artillery shells. Estimates for the number of shells fired during WWI range from about 1.2 billion to 8 billion! In the buildup for the Battle of the Somme as just one example, the British fired 1.5 million shells at the German trenches. That’s in just a few days.
The women munitions workers worked long hours (typically 12 hours/day, six days a week) under noisy, dusty, and hazardous conditions. Many women were exposed to toxic chemicals like TNT (trinitrotoluene). TNT was initially developed in the 1800s and used as a yellow dye. Later, it was found to be a good explosive. Because of its yellow dye properties, it turned the women workers a bright yellow, including their hair and skin. They were often called canary girls because of it. That was on the outside though. On the inside, it caused headaches, dizziness, anemia, spleen enlargement, and liver problems among other things. There were also reports of yellow babies being born from mothers who worked with these explosives. In the UK about 400 women died as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals. Others had debilitating illness for the rest of their livers. Due to the illness and deaths of women workers in the early years of the war, some safety precautions were implemented. For example, they would rotate women out of these jobs regularly to avoid them getting prolonged exposure to the chemicals.
But the jobs were dangerous. No doubt about it. Worker safety wasn’t job number 1. And women were generally paid much lower than what the men were paid, sometimes half of what they earned. Yet, it was still higher pay than what these women would have made in service, agricultural, and textile jobs which is why many of them left those jobs. Contrary to popular ideas, most of the women in the munitions plants were already working women. They had been maids or workers in textile or other factories. In Germany, for example, because of the British Blockade, there was a huge shortage of cotton. It was limited for use in military uniforms. That left thousands of textile workers (mostly women) out of work. Since they needed money and the munitions factories needed workers, they transitioned over to those jobs.
While women worked long and dangerous hours, some local businessmen tried to price gouge the women on rents. This happened in Glasgow, Scotland in 1915. But the working women fought back with a rent strike. It resulted in the British Parliament passing a Rent Restrictions Act which set rents for the remainder of the war at pre-war levels. Working women also used their numbers to combat food shortages and price gouging in Germany too. They also called for the end of the war. If they would have had their way, the war would have ended at least two years earlier than it did.