8x5 inch original photograph, published in 1918. Good condition. $150
In England, women were welcomed to the (paid) workforce during the years of the First World War (1914-1918)—their employment in traditionally male positions enabled those they replaced to go out to the front and die for their country. Thus the women seen here in the News Photo Service Agency photograph (taken in 1918), working at spraying tar in the streets of London, were appreciated, and tolerated. For women in England the War blasted away the contrivances of formally scheduled employment: something like 12% of fall women in England were working as servants and house cleaners. Come the War, women were offered jobs of revolutionary stature in a wide range and variety of work. The Civil Service employment for women went from 33,000 in 1911 to 102,000 in 1921, and trade union membership rose 160% (357,000 in 1914 to 1,000,000 in 1918 (with men showing a 44% increase at the same time); for the most part, though, employers took advantage of the situation, and the women still generally earned less than half of the salary as comparable male workers did (or the men they replaced).
When the end of the War came, so did the appreciation for the women replacement workers—there was bitter feelings in the post-war period because of the weak British economy and a scarcity of jobs. So the women who took the jobs of men to help the country’s war effort and free up hundreds of thousands of men for war service became an atavistic action, “taking” the jobs of men who had gone out to fight for their country. This of course cost many women their jobs, but the damage had already been deeply done to the pre-1914 British world of the sexual politics of business-being-done, though it would take World War II to really ingrain the appearance of women in the workforce into the national psyche.
I've liked this photo for a long time, seeing things differently in it over the years. It struck me just yesterday that the woman in foreground-right--whose close-up reminds me too of a Madonna, a Mona Lisa of the Tars--looks like a Vermeer character from 400 years ago. Or at least the position of her body does.