In learning about the workforce requirements of total war, specifically the debate in the House of Commons about conscripting women to work on the land and in munitions factories in March 1941 Britain during World War Two, I saw a quote which gave me pause.
Agnes Hardie MP was arguing that “it has been a tradition for generations that war is a man’s job and women have the bearing and raising of children and should be exempt from war“. I bet that comes up a lot in the gender studies modules of Peace Studies degrees. (Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 376 (1941–1942), Parliamentary Debates November 12–December 19, 1941, Debate on Maximum National Effort 2/12 (1941), col. 1,079.)
While one side argued in the Woman-Power Debate that female war work was heroic and liberating, this was countered with concerns that increasing state management of women’s lives threatened to undermine both family life and femininity. Agnes Hardie argued that mothers were “doing a far more important job for the future generations…than filling shells with which to kill some other mother’s son” (Hansard, vol. 370 (March–April 1941), Woman-Power Debate, cols 351–3).
As King Baudouin I of Belgium said: “It takes 20 years or more of peace to make a man; it takes only 20 seconds of war to destroy him”.
Note for later: I wonder if the Bill to conscript women permitted the the right to conscientious objection, like the Miltary Service Act 1916 did for men? I think it may have been the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, but there’s also “In December 1941 Parliament passed a second National Service Act. It widened the scope of conscription still further by making all unmarried women and all childless widows between the ages of 20 and 30 liable to call-up.” If so, I think it permitted them the right to object to military service, but does that include filling shells? They did, however, get the choice whether to work in factories or on the land.