Labour History Review

A New Perspective on Women Workers in the Second World War: The Industrial Diary of Kathleen Church-Bliss and Elsie Whiteman

Labour History Review (2003), 68, (2), 217–234.

Abstract

This article is based on the experiences of two women who gave up a comfortable life in the Surrey countryside to work in an aircraft component factory during the Second World War. Kathleen Church-Bliss and Elsie Whiteman wrote an extensive dairy during their time at Morrison's in Croydon. This article aims to shed light on a hitherto neglected group; the older woman worker, and in particular, the older single woman. The Church-Bliss diary reveals how dilution arrangements in Britain during the Second World War were made to ensure that women working in previously male preserves were prevented from achieving any sort of equality with male workers in the same part of the production process. The diary also provides a detailed and intimate account of the way in which the wartime circumstances helped to bring about welfare improvements inside the factory, which was in turn assisted by the creation of a works council.

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P. Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War, Production and Patriarchy in Conflict, London, Croom Helm, 1984. Also, H. Smith, ‘The Effect of the War on the Status of Women’, in H. Smith, (ed.), War and Social Change, British Society in the Second World War, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1986, argued that the war did not significantly alter the status of women. Before this A. Marwick made a variety of statements about the impact of the war on women, most of which were optimistic. See, for example, A. Marwick, ‘People's War and Top People's Peace? British Society and the Second World War’, in A. Sked and C. Cook, (eds), Crisis and Controversy, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1976, p. 162. I wish to express my thanks to the anonymous reader of this article for Labour History Review, whose detailed and constructive criticism was a great help in producing the final draft. Women Workers in the Second World War, Production and Patriarchy in Conflict Google Scholar

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138,717 women joined the AEU in 1943, J. Jeffreys, The Story, pp. 214 and 260. By the end of 1944 women members represented fifteen per cent of the total membership. According to Wightman, More Than, p. 143, despite the apparent radicalism of the AEU towards women workers, the general unions were in fact better advocates of improved women's pay as the AEU remained primarily committed to protecting wage rates for its skilled men. There is no sign that Kathleen and Elsie were aware of this. Google Scholar

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For details of the national picture see Inman, Labour, pp. 376-92. This is also covered in Croucher, Engineers, pp. 151-63. Google Scholar

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Croucher, Engineers, p. 262. Google Scholar

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Sheridan, Ambivalent Memories, pp. 36-7. Google Scholar

Summerfield, Reconstructing Women's, pp. 253-7. Google Scholar

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Author details

Bruley, Sue