Women

Women

WRNS. Chrissie Kerr and, middle, Edith Smith with her CPO father. Shetland Museum.
Women motor vehicle drivers began to be more usual

The 1911 census showed Shetland as a society with a female majority  - 15,322 out of 27,911 Shetlanders were female - exceeding the male total by 2,733. It was one of the UK's largest differences between the sexes, although not as extreme as it had been. One reason for this was the maritime economy where men worked away from home for extended periods. This same economy also had a punishing attrition rate among men. Emigration, a powerful force in Shetland society by this time, was male led.

Female employment, outwith homemaking, was in agriculture, hosiery, fish processing – especially herring gutting – and service. The war failed to initiate dramatic changes in this pattern. Shetland didn’t have munitions industries that could suddenly absorb a cohort of female labour. The main fishing industry didn’t lend itself to substituting women for men, and couldn’t operate to its full extent anyway. Women already had an agricultural role in a society where so many men were away. During the extensive wartime absence of able-bodied males, women further intensified their work in crofting.

Women also took up the voluntary and organisational roles traditionally expected of them – volunteer helpers for emergencies, needlework guilds, comforts for the troops. Some were able to enter traditional male worlds. White collar work proved feasible, and female employees appeared to substitute men in banks and clerical occupations. Women motor vehicle drivers began to be more usual.

A small group of women took a more direct part in the war. The largest single body were nurses, serving in France and elsewhere. A few joined the fledgling female military services, and found new challenges there. We’re fortunate that some of those women recorded their experiences.

Several Shetland women lost more than one member of their family through enemy action. These women were powerful symbols of the burdens of grief, service, and loss. Some were asked to unveil the Shetland War Memorial. In the end Mrs Janet Hardy, Girlsta, who had lost three sons in the war, did so on the 6th of January, 1924.