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Women's Employment

The First World War gave many women the opportunity to enter trades and professions that were previously closed to them. Lilian Barker, a teacher who had previously run an innovative youth club in Paddington, was appointed Superintendent of women workers at the Woolwich Arsenal in 1916. She oversaw the welfare and work of 30,000 women munitions workers.  

Women working on a production line making shells.
Women workers gauge the thickness of the heads of shells at Woolwich Arsenal. This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford © Imperial War Museum

Lilian had grown up in Kentish Town, and lived with her partner Florence Francis for 40 years until the end of their lives. 

A group of female munitions workers seated use primitive remote handling equipment to work with TNT explosives at Woolwich Arsenal. They are being supervised by Lillian Barker (standing on left)
A group of female munitions workers use primitive remote handling equipment to work with TNT explosives at Woolwich Arsenal. They are being supervised by Lillian Barker (left) © IWM (Q 27889)

She was appointed Governor of the first Girls’ Borstal in Aylesbury in 1923, where she developed her progressive ideas on women’s prison reform.  One of her duties was to guide the girls away from over-intense friendships. In 1935 she was appointed an assistant commissioner of the prison service.

Institutions and uniforms

Suffragette Mary Allen took a leading role during the First World War in creating the (independent) Women’s Police Service. Like the voluntary women’s auxiliary corps, these services gave women the chance to take on masculine responsibilities and work, including wearing military-style uniform, and working with vehicles.

Allen and another WPS officer were deployed in 1914 to police a controversial curfew on civilian women around Belton Park military camp in Grantham. Although the WPS was disbanded after the war, it did pave the way for women to be recruited into the regular constabulary.

Mary Allen lived with another WPS leader, Margaret Damer Dawson in Chelsea, London and at ‘Danehill’, Lympne, in Kent. In the 1920s and 30s she became increasingly involved in fascist politics.

Two women in long coats and caps of police uniform.
Commandant Margaret Damer Dawson and Subcommandant Mary Allen of the Women's Police Service (formerly the Women's Police Volunteers and later the Women's Auxiliary Service) © IWM (Q 108495)

Joe Carstairs and X Garage

Marion Barbara ‘Betty’ (or ‘Joe’) Carstairs was an heiress and speedboat racer known in the 1920s as the ‘fastest woman on water’. Carstairs was a butch lesbian, and was known for her dashing male attire, cigars, and love affairs with sexually ambiguous stars including Tallulah Bankhead. ‘I was never a little girl,’ Carstairs said, ‘I came out of the womb queer.’

Portrait of Joe Carstairs wearing a beret, scarf and overcoat and smoking a cigarette.
Joe Carstairs was a well-known speedboat racer in the 1920s. In 1920, Carstairs opened 'X Garage' in Kensington, London. It was a fashionable chauffeur service with an all-woman staff who had been demobilized from wartime service in the Women's Legion Mechanical Transport Section © National Portrait Gallery

She was an ambulance driver on the French front lines in the First World War when she shared a flat with Dolly Wilde, lesbian niece of Oscar Wilde. In 1920, Carstairs opened ‘X Garage’ in Cornwall Gardens, Kensington, London. It was a fashionable chauffeur service with an all-woman staff who had been demobilized from wartime service in the Women’s Legion Mechanical Transport Section.

Portrait photo of Dorothy (Dolly) Wilde.
Dorothy (Dolly) Wilde, niece of Oscar Wilde who shared a flat with Joe Carstairs © Public Domain

X Garage drivers chauffeured actresses to parties around London, and offered touring holidays around England and even Europe. They lived above the garage, and confused clients with the novel masculinity and sexual indeterminacy of the female drivers. By 1928 X Garage was closed and Carstairs had taken up speedboat racing, where she would make her name.

Women teachers

Women teachers standing on stone steps leading up to a large door, carrying placards calling for equality.
Postcard of members of the NUWT London Unit demonstrating for equal pay (1918) © UCL Institute of Education, Newsam Library and Archives

Lesbian teachers were in a tricky position from the interwar years on. Women in middle-class professions could live together without censure, protected by their respectable status and gender. But increasing anxiety about homosexuality in schools for much of the 20th century meant that spinster teachers were sometimes attacked as being lesbians or unwomanly.

Portrait of Miss Agnes Dawson
Portrait of Miss Agnes Dawson, Member of the Central Council 1914-1937 of the NUWT (circa 1937) © UCL Institute of Education, Newsam Library and Archives

Many teachers had significant same-sex partners in their lives. Agnes Dawson (1873-1953), a leading activist feminist teacher was personally attacked for allegedly describing marriage as legalised prostitution. Dawson was a successful head teacher of schools in Camberwell and Walworth, London, a leader of the National Union of Women Teachers and later, a member of the London County Council.

Women standing in a row across a street wearing placards demanding equality for women teachers.
Postcard of NUWT women with equal pay placards (1914) © UCL Institute of Education, Newsam Library and Archives

Dawson lived with her partner Anne Deborah Munns at the Dawson family home, 5 Borland Road, Peckham Rye. The only evidence Dawson left of this relationship was at its end. She wrote to a friend and fellow activist in 1952:

You will I know be sorry to learn that I have lost my pal and partner. Miss Munns (Munnsie to me) died on Tuesday last. We had lived together for the past 27 years.

Agnes Dawson
5 Borland Road, front of house and pavement.
Agnes Dawson lived at 5 Borland Road, Peckham Rye, with her partner Anne Deborah Munns ('Munnsie'). They lived together for 27 years, until Munnsie's death in 1952 © Alison Oram
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Women's Employment Photo Gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Balck and white photo of people celebrating Agnes Dawson's 60th birthday
  • Postcard of women with equal pay placards
  • Photograph of women holding placards at NUWT equal pay demonstration
  • Photograph of a people gathered in demonstration by the NUWT London Unit

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