The First World War provided an unprecedented opportunity for women to move into roles and occupations previously reserved for men. The creation of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps were very visible examples of women moving into new areas. It is estimated that approximately 1.5 million women joined the workforce during the First World War and just about every sector of the economy saw an influx of women to meet both the increased demand for labour and to fill the gaps left by men away in the armed forces.
In many respects the experience of 1914-18 led to momentous changes. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 enshrined the principle that individuals should not be disqualified from jobs on the grounds of gender. In addition, the Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised approximately 8.5 million women. However, while wartime pressures opened new doors many women still encountered discrimination at the workplace both during the war and in the immediate post war era. The school log books and local authority minutes at the Glamorgan Archives chronicle both the advances made by women in the teaching profession in this period and also the setbacks frequently encountered.
Schools were particularly hard hit by the loss of male teachers to the armed forces from August 1914 onwards. In response, local authorities were forced to relax the convention that, on marriage, women resigned from teaching posts in schools. However, as in the pre-war era, they were only employed where there were staff shortages and it was accepted that appointments were liable to be terminated at a month’s notice if suitable alternative candidates could be found.
An entry by the Head teacher of Dowlais Central, Richard Price, in the school log book for December 1915 provides just one of many examples of the precarious nature of work in school for married women in this period.
Mrs Margaret Davies, TCT, commenced duties on Monday December 6/15. Mrs Davies is a married lady and left her last appointment at Abermorlais Girls’ School in July 1907. Dowlais Central School, log book, EMT 9/6 p.37.
Mrs E Claudia George, TCT, commenced duties on Wed afternoon, 8 December. Mrs George is a married lady and left her last appointment as TCT at Tyllwyn School, Ebbw Vale at Xmas 1908. Dowlais Central School, log book, EMT 9/6 p.38.
Yet only 7 months later Richard Price confirmed that Claudia George and Margaret Davies, along with a Mrs Cummings, had ‘finished their duties at this school’ (Dowlais Central School, log book, EMT 9/6 p.50).
This was just the beginning of an ongoing round of employment and dismissal for Claudia and Margaret throughout the war. By October 1916 both had been re-employed (Dowlais Central School, log book, EMT 9/6, p.52). However, two months after the end of hostilities, on 31 January 1919, both women had ‘left the service of the Education Authority at this school on the afternoon of this day’ (Dowlais Central School, log book, EMT 9/6, p.86).
During the war the records of Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council confirm that there were frequently up to 40 married women teachers employed in schools in the borough. This included appointments to boys’ schools that would have been unheard of prior to 1914. However, the advice provided to the Borough Council Education Committee in July 1916 by Rhys Elias, Director of Education, underlined that, while the authority felt that it had little option but to employ married women in schools, there was a determination to end the appointments as soon as possible.
The committee agreed that notice be given to all married women teachers and to terminate their engagements at the end of the month of July 1916. Claudia George and Margaret Davies were, therefore, just 2 of 40 women that lost their jobs as a result of this decision. Their places were filled by students completing their College Course or Pupil and Student Teachers finishing their period of apprenticeship. (Merthyr Tydfil Borough, Education Committee minutes, BMT1/26 pp.602-3). This approach was followed throughout the war with married women employed to meet shortages on short term contracts that were terminated as soon as alternative candidates could be found.
In the post war period it is thought that many, and possibly as many as half, of the women employed during the war across all sectors of the economy left or lost their jobs. In particular, the Restoration of Pre-war Practices Act 1919 underlined the expectation that women employed during the war would give up their jobs to returning service personnel. In January 1919 the Merthyr Borough Council served warning to all married female teachers that their contracts were to be terminated.
The Director of Education reported that having regard to the probable early release from Military Service of a number of men teachers he had given notice to all married women (temporary) teachers now serving under the Authority to determine their engagement at the end of January, and that any further employment after that date would be subject to a week’s notice on either side. Merthyr Tydfil Borough, Education Committee, minute book no. 29, BMT1/29 p.183.
Once again Claudia George and Margaret Davies were casualties of the Authority’s decision. At subsequent meetings the Authority agreed to re-employ 28 male teaches on release from the Armed Forces in February and further 10 in April 1919 (Merthyr Tydfil Borough, Education Committee, minute book no. 29, BMT1/29 p.246 and p.474)
This might have been seen as surprising in the light of the provisions in the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 that removed restrictions on the appointment of women. In practice employers saw the Act as providing the opportunity to appoint women to previously all-male professions. However, it was not seen as establishing a right for women to be considered for employment on the same terms as men. This was graphically illustrated in the teaching profession in south Wales in 1923 when 58 married women teachers dismissed by the Rhondda Education Authority brought a case against the Council. In Price v Rhondda Urban District Council it was ruled that the Council had not violated the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act by dismissing the teachers. During this period the imposition by many local authorities of a formal marriage bar in the teaching profession was based on the belief that employers could, where they wished, continue to restrict employment to one sex.
The First World War led to new opportunities for many women in the teaching profession. Many schools could not have continued without the influx of married women and for the first time, in most areas of Wales, women were employed in boys’ schools. Set against this, in the post war period, in the limited circumstances where married women were able to secure employment in schools, their contracts were likely to be terminated with a month’s notice. The records for Dowlais Central confirm that, on 4 March 1919, there were 21 teachers employed at the school – 12 men and 9 unmarried women (Dowlais Central School, log book, EMT 9/6 p.91. The creation at the end of the First World War of the National Union of Women Teachers was, therefore, a potent symbol of the further battles that lay ahead to improve equality of opportunity.
Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer