When war broke out in 1914 it was still early days for the higher education of women. During the War, some departments saw an increase in female students as male students enlisted. Women researchers, especially those engaged in scientific research, found new opportunities in government war work. Others, including the wives of lecturers, were engaged in charity work and in supporting women whose sons and husbands were at the front.
In stepping in to replace male colleagues, the First World War offered some opportunities for women’s career advancement. It was more possible for women than before the War to gain teaching experience or to engage in postgraduate research work. Women with scientific training were particularly in demand, and several were employed in industrial laboratories. Some of these women were given leadership roles, which were to form the basis of future successful scientific careers. For example, a former Leeds student, May Sybil Burr (née Leslie), who had graduated from Leeds in 1906 became the chemist in charge of the munitions factory in Liverpool in 1916. After the Armistice, she was awarded a Doctorate by the University of Leeds for her research on explosives, which had included confidential wartime investigations. After marrying a fellow chemist, she returned to Leeds to work as a lecturer, working on the chemistry of synthetic dyes until her death in 1937.
The University was also involved in training thousands of women workers who worked in industry during the War years. The Faculty of Technology, for example, held classes at Central Technical School, Cockburn High School and other schools throughout Leeds to train women to take up semi-skilled positions in munitions factories. Women were also taught farm work by the Agricultural Department at the University’s experimental farm at Garforth. It was recognised early that the War would bring about a shortage in skilled agricultural labour, and farmers were often reluctant to take on untrained women to replace enlisted or conscripted men. The University was central to the expansion of the government scheme to increase the skills of female agricultural labourers via the Women’s War Agricultural Committees. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Women’s Land Army.
Of course, not all women at the University were working women. Wives of university staff, like family members of serving men more generally, grouped together to offer support and companionship in the anxious wait for news. A letter from Marion E Priestley (the wife of the Professor of Botany) to Madame Barbier (the wife of the Professor of French), evokes the mutual support these women offered each other. It reads:
“Some of the wives of members of the University Staff are trying to send small parcels to those members of the University who are serving at the Front. We want to do this to show them that they are often in our thoughts, and that though they are no longer at the University they were not forgotten. […]
I hope that you are keeping well now and that you have good and constant news of your husband. Things seem to be very quiet just now in France, do they not? I am glad to say I still receive good news of my husband. He is still at Havre where he has been for the last three months. Part of the time he is still employed in censor work but he is now working also at the Head Quarters of the Base doing Cipher work.
I hope it will not be very much longer now before they come home again.”
With thanks to Professor Alison Fell