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In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War there were nearly 5,900,000 women working in Britain, out of a total female population of 23,700,000. The most common job was Domestic Service. About 1,500,000 women worked as Domestic Servants. About 900,000 women also worked in Textiles and another 500,000 in the Sweated Trades. Women were normally paid two-thirds of a man's wage, or even less, and were rarely promoted above men. Domestic Service Domestic service employed about one person in every eight and was one of the few jobs that employed women in large numbers. Domestic servants often worked in very bad conditions and it was almost impossible for them to do anything about them. They lived in the attics of houses and worked very long hours as cleaners, cooks or chambermaids. The pay was often very low, sometimes only 5 or 10 pounds a year and they often only got one half day a week, or even a month, off. Servants who 'lived out' (in their own homes) were higher paid. Domestic service attracted so many young girls because the school leaving age was 12 and many went straight into service. pay was very low because there were so many girls looking for work,. It was also a job, which did not require a high level of education. Most of the work was manual. This description of domestic service was written in 1906. When I was about fourteen years of age I went to service for about eighteen months and I did not like it at all because you was on from morning to night and you never did know when you was done and you never did get your meals in peace for you are up and down all the time, you only get half a day a week and you never get very large wages in service. You never know when you are going to get a good place.

Textiles Textiles was a major employer of woman as it had been since the Industrial Revolution. Women could supervise the spinning and weaving machines as effectively as men, but men filled most of the posts of overseers. Here pay for women was much lower than for men. Working in a textile factory was extremely hard as this account shows. Being in a mill was like being in a prison, and it had the further disadvantage that one was being slowly melted away. In my first two years my weight remained the same, although I grew a couple of inches. Most of us developed speed, the work made us human whippets, but we lacked weight and strength. One day was like another. It was throb, throb, throb.

The sweated trades The sweated trades also employed large numbers of women, perhaps almost a million. Most workers in the old industries worked with machinery. The worst examples of the sweated industries were clothing and dressmaking, where workers often worked in workshops in the houses of their employers. Conditions could be dreadful and the pay very low. Many other workers worked at home and were paid piece rates. They made jewellery, painted led soldiers or addressed envelopes. Most of these workers were women. They needed to earn money, but had to look after their children, so they were an easy target for the owners of sweatshops. There were laws to stop this happening, but they were very difficult to enforce. The worst conditions were in very small workshops, often in the house of the employer. It was almost impossible to check on every workshop. The workers could not afford to complain or they would lose their jobs and it was almost impossible to set up trade unions because the numbers in each workshop were so small. It was often not difficult for women to get work, but they had to put up with the worst conditions and the lowest pay, usually about two-thirds of a man's, or even less. Average pay rates per hour for men and women in 1906 Men Women Cotton workers £1.47 93p Shoemakers £1.43 65p Bakers £1.45 63p Printers £1.84 61p Women's education It was also very difficult for women to be promoted. Many people simply thought that women were less capable than men. One reason for this was that women were often not as well educated as men. Before 1876 education had not been compulsory and it was not free until 1880. Some families educated their sons, but not their daughters. It was assumed that women would get married and have children. In 1902 the school leaving age was raised to twelve, but this only extended elementary (primary) education for a further two years. Staying at school after twelve either meant paying, or winning a scholarship. Once again, parents would sometimes pay for a son, but not for a daughter. Even if a girl won a scholarship, parents would often refuse to allow her to take it up because they would lose her earnings. As a result, only 10% of children attended school after the age of twelve and only 10% of those children were girls. This meant that only about 2% of girls received secondary education. It was difficult for women to do much to change the situation. They had fewer rights than men and could not vote. There were no laws to protect women against discrimination. Women in the professions There were, by 1914, women working in almost all of the professions. Women had been able to become doctors since the 1870s and could qualify for degrees at some universities, but there was considerable resistance to their employment. The First World War was to be the first real opportunity for many highly qualified women.

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Q: What were the employment opportunities for women in Britain in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War?
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