With their husbands away in the services many women desperate for more money were forced to accept low wages and bad conditions, there was no alternative. The control of employment orders of 1939 and 1943 directed women into engineering, shipyards, Royal Ordinance factories and hospitals, wherever labour extra labour was required.
The only exemptions were if a women was pregnant or had children under fourteen and in some circumstances had large family responsibilities. Early on women had volunteered for war work but after April 1941 they had to register for work. Now women aged sixteen to forty-nine not fully employed to their best personal advantage could be compulsory directed into full-time employment.
After December 1941 women without children could be conscripted under the National Services Act for the armed forces. Those already in essential jobs, nursing, the land army or factory work, were naturally exempt. By 1943 eighty per cent of married women and ninety per cent of single women with children over fourteen were working.
The munitions and aircraft producing factories needed the majority of the new female labour. The Dunkirk evacuation had left a lot of military equipment behind which had to be replaced. With the threat of invasion, output in the factories doubled, and in many cases a normal working day became eleven hours, with night shift as well.
In September 1942 Clement Atlee declared "the work that women are performing in munitions factories has to be seen to be believed. Precision engineering which a few years ago would have made a skilled turners hair stand on end, is now being performed with dead accuracy by girls who have no industrial experience!"
By 1943 fifty seven per cent of factory workers were female. Women of all trades between twenty and thirty could be directed after short training courses to factories. Suddenly shop assistants, typists, dressmakers and the like found themselves welding, shipbuilding, unloading at the docks and railway work to mention just a few.
Housebound women and elderly relatives assembled small parts for aeroplanes or guns at home, and by 1943 the deaf, blind and elderly were given work that they could do. While women were doing a man's work, their pay sadly lagged well behind that of men doing the same job. Even in engineering most were paid seventy five per cent or less than that of their male colleagues.