Women Opposing Conscription in Britain during the Second World War

By Elena (Lane) Deamant

This article is an extended version of the article that first appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of the Peace and Justice News.

In April 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, British women were conscripted for the first time into industrial work for the war effort. Lacking sufficient volunteers in the army, Churchill’s government enacted a policy called the Registration for Employment Orders, which required women aged 19-40 (later raised to 18-50) to register their information and accept work placement when and where they were ordered to (Broad, 2005, p.48), such as nursing, agriculture and food distribution, or factory work (Nicholson, 2007, p.412). Several million women thus found themselves compelled to participate in war-related work, further constricted by the fact that there was no legal way for women to register as conscientious objectors (COs) under the Employment Orders. This denial was tied to a masculine understanding of conscientious objection as opposition only to military combat, leaving army registrars and tribunals unable and unwilling to understand why women might object to ‘civilian’ work on the homefront. Yet some women persisted in defying the government orders on where to work – they did not want to be forced into supporting war, even indirectly. In total, 272 women who were conscripted under the Employment Orders were prosecuted for refusing to register or serve their ‘civilian’ duties, with 214 of those women serving time in prison (Ibid.). These women were not officially recorded in the count of British COs from the Second World War, but their actions furthered the same cause and they considered themselves to be acting against the war under their own conscience.

Second World War Recruitment poster. Source: Wikimedia Commons

National Service recruitment poster. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Despite enforcing the Employment Orders policy, the UK’s accelerating demand for munitions and auxiliary services left the country with a significant labour shortage (Broad, p.48). In December 1941 the government issued the National Service Act, which called up single women aged 20-30 to register and eventually serve in either the Civil Defense or volunteer for the armed forces (Ibid.). In contrast with the Employment Orders, women who were conscripted under the National Service Act were allowed the right to conscientious objection because this work was deemed ‘military service.’ and 911 women were eventually granted CO status by tribunals (Nicholson, 2007, p.416). The vast majority of these women volunteered for alternative forms of service, like operating the Friends Ambulance Unit, as a part of their ‘conditional’ exemption (Ibid., p.420). They accepted their conditional CO status because they recognized the immense harm that the war was generating and so they felt that there was important work to be done for their communities including jobs in hospitals, social services, and teaching (Ibid., p.418). The fact that many women COs continued to engage in non-violent work throughout the war also indicates a shift in understanding, especially after the fall of France, that potential solutions like negotiated peace would not work against Nazi fascism (Rempel, 1978, p.1213).

Additionally, conscientious objectors and pacifists like Vera Brittain contributed greatly to alleviating the overwhelming humanitarian need that was springing up around the world. The Peace Pledge Union, chaired at the time by Brittain, led a campaign to end the Allied blockade in German-occupied countries, like Belgium and Greece, as it was causing a devastating famine (Rempel, 1978, p.1225). From 1941 on, Vera Brittain was also the lead for a committee to end the practice of night bombing in Germany. Brittain’s practical pacifism was driven not only by her opposition to violent destruction but her psychological insights which correctly predicted that German war enthusiasm and motivation was being strengthened by carpet bomb attacks rather than weakened (Ibid., p.1226). As Brittain’s actions help demonstrate, being a CO did not mean passivity or inaction in response to totalitarianism.

Vera Brittain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As for the position of Scottish women during WWII, there are not as many records. It is known that out of the 62,000 British COs about 1,000 were women, but the number of women COs included in the roughly 6,000 registered Scottish COs is unclear (Edinburgh University, 2019).

There was some strong resistance in Scotland to the Employment Order-mandated work in war production factories. Political activist Lindsey German has described the jobs that Scottish women were assigned to do as being “hard and exploitative” due to the long hours, poor working conditions, and low pay compared to men who also worked in the munitions factories (2013, p.62). In 1943, thousands of Glaswegian women workers struck for a week at a Rolls Royce plant (producing engines for war aircraft) over demands for equal pay, eventually gaining a pay increase but not wage parity (Ibid., p.63). The SNP also drew attention during the war to frustrations by Scottish women who were being forced to transfer to work in England when they did not want to move (Mitchell, 2014, p.97).

Politically, the three Glasgow MPs from the small, radical socialist Independent Labour Party (ILP) were among the few in all of Parliament who continually uplifted the rights of citizens to refuse being drafted into the war effort (Rempel, 1978, p.1216). For example, leaders of the ILP wrote letters of support to Glaswegian CO applicants, which were highly convincing pieces of evidence in the eyes of tribunal officials (Nicholson, 2007, p.421). A faction of the SNP also argued against the war based on their opposition to Scottish conscription by the British state, but the party did publicly support the war to avoid political alienation (Wilson, 2017, p.35).

Public opinion in the UK about COs was marked with inconsistencies and hypocrisy. For example, the people who served on military tribunals did not even attempt to hide their bias in making decisions for the CO registry. Tribunals had an overtly favorable outlook for women who were Quakers, commenting that their religion’s tradition of pacifism and alternative social work set them apart from other women’s ‘synthetic consciences’ (Nicholson, 2007, p.419). Conversely, women who were Jehovah’s Witnesses reported having their religious work insulted and denigrated by tribunal officials – Dorothy Reeve was called “rot and rubbish” and a “useless woman” by a judge in her tribunal hearing, a hostility that other religious women experienced too (Ibid.). Jehovah’s Witnesses were often denied the unconditional objection they were seeking on religious grounds, and this bias was worsened by the fact that the central UK government did not officially recognize them as a religious denomination. Thus the voluntary work and religious associations that a woman had when appearing before a tribunal could significantly impact the outcome, demonstrating the subjectivity of such decisions and revealing one of the numerous ways in which women were excluded from obtaining an official ruling of conscientious objection.

Driver from the Friends Ambulance Unit, a common alternative work assignment for conscientious objectors from the Society of Friends (Quakers). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, there was tension between the values that Britain proclaimed compared with how they were implemented in practice. The political rhetoric in Britain was, at least on paper, relatively open and tolerant about COs. Compared with France and Germany, where COs were not legally allowed, Churchill’s declaration that the rights of COs were“ well-known and… a definite part of British policy” (Cain, 1970, p.288) seemed to indicate a strong verbal acceptance for dissent. This was not necessarily reflected in the actual treatment of women who objected outside the legal framework rather than within, despite their conscientious actions. Irish pacifist Kathleen Lonsdale and English objector Ivy Watson were both imprisoned for refusing to comply with the Employment Orders legislation (and thus not legally recognized as COs). They attested to the poor conditions that women in jail for political charges faced during wartime. Watson described how they received only one small bar of soap per month, inadequate clothes and blankets for the harsh cold, no toilet paper, and mental abuse like being denied visitors (Bales, WRI, 2010).

Consider now the position of the more than seven million British women, or 46% of the population of women aged 14-59, who were fully conscripted or volunteered into the war effort by the end of 1943 (Smith, 1984, p.934). The work they had taken up en masse during WWII was still collectively considered “men’s jobs,” meaning that women were seen as mere place holders. When the war ended, women were either expected to return to their dictated place in the home (Harris, BBC, 2011), or to be relegated once more to poorly paid and under-supported traditional positions such as cleaning or secretarial work (Striking Women, n.d.). State-run nurseries that had allowed women with young children to work during the war were shut down, which further reduced the choices that women could make about their working arrangements. Even though there was large economic growth in the post-war period, and the employment rate of women increased slightly, for the majority of women the nature of their work had not drastically changed.

Second World War poster. Rosie the Riveter. Source: wikimedia commons

Rosie the Riveter – feminist icon for women’s work during the war… but what happened when the war was over? Source: Wikimedia Commons

The contributions made by British women who worked during WWII were not recognized in popular culture until the second wave of feminism rose up in the UK in the 1960s and 70s, when war stories were used to bring about public sympathy to the cause for equal pay and employment. This raises questions: How much of modern feminism is tied to war? What does it mean for compulsory entry into the 1940s war industry, a state-imposed restriction on the autonomy of women, to be heralded as a turning point for women’s empowerment? Why was a war-induced absence of men necessary for women to gain access to higher levels of work, like mechanics and engineering, and what does this mean for the future of women in the workforce? COs from WWII remind us to always consider the position of women, the circumstances and systems that have the power to give or take away a woman’s choice, and the ensuing moral questions that are produced from such considerations.


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German, L. (2013). How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women (pp. 41-73). Pluto Press.

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Mitchell, J. (2014). The Scottish Question. University of Edinburgh.

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Rempel, R. (1978). The Dilemmas of British Pacifists During World War II. The Journal Of Modern History, 50(4), 1213-1229.

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Striking Women. (n.d.). Women and Work: Post World War II: 1946-1970. Accessed at striking-women.org.

Wilson, T. (2017). Stronger for Scotland: The Rise of the Modern Scottish Nationalist Movement (Honors). Union College, NY.