The home front

Exhibition - Kate Adie on the battles women fought to do their bit for the war effort

''And what sort of time do you call this?" That late-night (or very early morning) harrumph can be heard all over the land as exhausted 15-year-old girls flop across the threshold, their slightly glazed eyes puzzled by parental outrage. But it's only the teenier end of the teenage group that is treated in such a way by parents nowadays.

During research for Corsets to Camouflage, written to coincide with the exhibition "Women and War" at the Imperial War Museum in London, I interviewed numerous veterans of the Second World War - munitions workers, members of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), Land Army girls - nearly all of whom prefaced their recollections of the war effort with similar doorstep scenes. When I asked them about their families' response to their "joining up" or opting for "war work", they recounted the same well-remembered confrontations: fathers exploded, mothers scrunched up their pinnies and looked apprehensive, and younger brothers sniggered. Men had memories of the Great War, when the gossip and slurs about "women in uniform" were rife among the men serving in France ("Those ATS - they're officers' groundsheets"). Indeed, in 1917 there was an eagerly believed military myth that soldiers had been posted as guards outside "the WAAC [Women's Auxiliary Army Corps] Maternity Home".

In the early 1940s, as the government increased its trawl for volunteers to feed the war-production machine and laid plans for the wholesale conscription of women, the initial opposition these women encountered was not surprising, given their status at home. I frequently heard comments such as: "I couldn't go dancing - my dad would never allow that"; "I put my lipstick on in the street - after I went out"; "'In by eight o'clock tonight, my girl, or trouble'".

These were not 15-year-old girls; some were 18, some were well into their twenties, but they were still living at home. Half a century on, these women spoke acceptingly of their "strict upbringings" and of how "girls had no choice - dad ruled the roost".

Facing a group of media students recently, I asked them for their views on these limits to their grandmothers' behaviour. I was met with blank looks, followed by a few questions about whether these were unusual families - "religious or something" - or if the war had given fathers power to stop their daughters doing what they wanted. There was general disbelief that a 25-year-old woman should be made to do anything at all by her dad.

And yet to understand women's involvement in both world wars, it is vital to grasp their legal and social status at the time. Convention, prejudice, tradition and the law all combined to frustrate and proscribe the efforts of thousands of women who were desperate to contribute to the war effort. Even when the factories were sucking in workers to replace the men heading for the front lines in the Second World War, there was still a reluctance to recruit women. Winston Churchill hoped that "volunteers" - presumably older men, or those rejected as unfit for the armed services - would fill the gap. The minister for labour, Ernest Bevin, was equally unenthusiastic, telling Irene Ward MP that "women's part in the war effort would be a very limited one". How wrong they were.

One of the media students suggested that women should have just turned up at the recruiting depots and volunteered to fight. At this moment, I wished I had Dr Edith Summerskill MP, the redoubtable campaigner for women's rights during the war, beside me to convey just what it was like to find your country under attack - and to be ignored. According to press cuttings, Summerskill "was of the opinion that if invasion did come, it was stupid for more than half the adult population of the country not to know how to use a rifle". She was conscious that many women had applied to join the Home Guard, which, despite its Dad's Army reputation, had at least got its hands on a few ancient bits of weaponry. However, the Home Guard had no intention of being a Mum's Army, and women were rebuffed. But Summerskill was not easily deterred, and founded the Women's Home Defence League, intending that it should assist the Home Guard in catering, communication and first aid - and ensure that women got rifle training. Indeed, within a year, 20,000 women had learnt to use firearms and grenades.

The government remained uninterested, preferring to press ahead with the Home Guard Auxiliary, where women could drive, cook and undertake clerical work. Summerskill would have been able to explain why, at the height of the German bombing and with an invasion expected, the suggestion was that women should "fight them on the beaches" by wielding a few broom handles.

With some trepidation, I embarked on a description of the attitudes that prevented women from participating in armed defence: the conviction that women should avoid bearing arms at all costs; that they should be protected; and that it would be seen as a male shortcoming (verging on humiliation) if women had to be called upon to act "like men". There was more stupefaction from the students - eye-rolling from the girls and grins from the boys.

But unless we remember the prejudices women faced, we cannot fully appreciate their extraordinary wartime achievements. Despite the lack of encouragement and the fusty behaviour of officials who objected to women's presence in ship-yards, munitions factories and chemical works, women proved that, given the opportunity, they were more than capable of doing a man's job - work for which they were paid, at most, only two-thirds of men's wages.

In the armed services, nearly always in a supporting or auxiliary role, women nevertheless managed to acquire skills and experience in areas that had hitherto been barred to them: acetylene welding, flight mechanics, meteorology, radio operation, cipher work. And for those who were still at home, there was a growing feeling that coping with blackouts, rationing, bombing, voluntary work and fire-watches added up to a hefty contribution to the war effort.

The foundations were being laid for the determined surge towards equality in the latter half of the century: the daughters of the war heard what their mothers had done and did not wait to start pushing for change. Yet we can only celebrate the results if we remember the disapproval and opposition that grown women faced when they tried to "do their bit".

"Women and War" is at the Imperial War Museum, London SE1 (020 7416 5311; www.iwm.org.uk) until 27 February 2004

Kate Adie's accompanying book, Corsets to Camouflage: women and war, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20)