How much impact did war have on social attitudes, 1939-c1950 in Britain?

6 June 2016

This essay will examine the central topic relating to the impact of the Second World War on British society in regardance to their social attitudes. Attention will be focused on the question of whether the experience of war on the Home Front led to an ‘impact’ on social attitudes and whether this was large, minute, short term or long term. The greatness of this war caused an impact and changed people’s viewpoints & social attitudes. One major change in social attitudes, was that of the attitudes towards women. During World War II many women took up jobs that had previously been considered only for men. Women worked in heavy industry and on the land, among other things. In the years from the outbreak of World War II until the early 1950s, many social changes took place that contributed towards the birth of the women’s liberation movement.

These social changes can be seen extremely clearly as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau show that from 1940 to its peak in 1950, the labor force participation (LFP) rate for all women increased by 24.3 percent [2]. It is an interesting statement on the social attitudes toward female labor that ‘the war did not inflate women’s wages. Employers would hire several women to replace one man. By 1939, a working woman’s weekly wage had returned to being half the male rate.’[3].Clearly social prejudices and the needs of employers were not so much against women working as against their entering new fields of employment and receiving higher wages.

These pieces of evidence show how World War 2 only had a minor impact on social attitudes towards women. Whilst on paper all women seemed free, there were still issues which made the major social attitude changes appear illusory. For instance, stereotypes of women had not completely changed, with ‘the home and childcare still seen as primarily women’s responsibility, however with the added expectation to work as well’. Even though, the employment of women could be argued as ‘still concentrated in low skill, low status occupations’, they were still finally able to join the workforce. As well, as the social attitudes to women being minor, they were also short term, as many were expected to give up their jobs to returned soldiers after the War. Whilst many were expected to give up their jobs to men after the war, social attitudes towards what women were capable of doing had been changed by the experience.

This fuelled women’s attempts to achieve better conditions and pay for themselves in the workforce, therefore the war had a major impact on the social attitudes of women themselves. Their mobilization was a critical social phenomenon of the war, giving many of them a sense of fulfilment they had not known in their peace-time lives. The war had given them the opportunity to finally work, and they weren’t willing to give it up. For instance, Edith Craig (a female journalist for ‘women vote’ in the 1940’s) was quoted to have said that ‘It was seeing Votes for Women sold in the street that made me feel that I wanted to make a difference for women, and I began joining societies right away.’[4]

This quote evidently shows that the war had an apparent effect on her social attitude to her own gender. The war brought on numerous women suffrage journals and pressure groups such as Votes for Women, Free Women, The Common Cause, Kensington Society and Independent WSPU [5]. All of these groups targeted the demolition of traditional female ideologies and stereotypes whilst increasing the social status of women all over Britain. These pieces of evidence show how world war two had a great impact on women’s social attitudes towards themselves, because the war gave them a ‘taster’ of what the emancipation of women felt like. The women of Britain had a completely new social outlook on themselves. By 1950, women began challenging ideas about what work they could do and what they were worth as workers and individuals in society. Another way that the war had an impact on social attitudes, was through the changed outlook towards the British government. Before world war two had begun, each family and individual was merely responsible for themself.

However due to the severity of the second world war, the British government was required to take on a more ‘active’ role within the day-to-day lives of citizens (through rationing, free school meals, evacuations and more) During the war, the British people had been given a ‘sample’ of what life would be like with a labor party as government, and they loved it. In the year 1940, a woman had written to The Times saying ‘the war has caused us to lift the stone and see what is crawling around underneath. Let’s make a promise that at the end of the war, we won’t just put the stone back’.[6] She is referencing to the impact that the war had on everybody. For the first time, the higher classed people of Britain were able to witness the poverty of many citizens (people that were malnourished, had lice, worn down clothing and ill) The British people now understood the benefits that the ‘labor’ government had on Britain, and this new social attitude was all brought on by the second world war.

The social attitudes of the British had evidently changed, and they were expecting as much aid and control from the government as possible. Furthermore, Richard Titmus (1940) was reported to have said ‘The mood of the people changed, and in sympathetic response, values changed as well. If dangers were to be shared, then resources should also be shared’ [7]. Basically, dramatic events on the home front served to reinforce the people for a more generous society, and a changed social attitude towards the government. All pieces of evidence point towards the great impact that war had on social attitudes towards the government. These attitudes changed, because the people of Britain believed they now deserved full care and support from the government. Their expectations had risen thus leading to the responsibilities of the government to rise.

In general, the war had an extremely large impact on social attitudes towards the government, since it went from being completely ‘Laissez Faire’ and absent to interactive and controlling. After the Second World War, British social attitudes towards poverty and class changed dramatically. Up until this point, poverty was viewed as though it were the poor persons fault and a problem which should not affect the upper classes. Their lack of honesty and tendency towards drinking and gambling were blamed for their poverty and this remained an unquestioned opinion until after World War two. These social attitudes slightly changed as a result of the war. For example, one of the first poverty investigations took place in London by Charles Booth, he found out that 30.7% of people were below his poverty line; below the adequate level for bare survival.

He showed that only 3% of the 30.7% below the poverty line were being helped by the poor law [8]. This was later published in 1942, making information available to those ignorant of the poverty surrounding them. The war had caused the high class and lower class citizens of Britain to merge and work together through tough times. This mix triggered curiosity (which led to investigations like Booth’s to take place) The war had caused the old contempt for those impoverished to fade and be replaced by a sense of responsibility to help, especially as it greatly affected the country as a whole. This new social attitude led to charities, soup kitchens and the NHS to be set up. It is of no surprise therefore that the changing social attitude to poverty forced liberal changes in the way poverty was handled from 1940.

The specimen mentioned unmistakably indicates that the war caused a slight and minor change in social attitudes towards poverty and class, because World War 2 enforced the two polar groups of society to join one another in the efforts to reach the same goal (to win the war) this therefore initiated only a slim change in social attitudes. Finally, it is extremely apparent that there was a great change in social attitudes towards the healthcare in Britain from 1939 to 1950. The main reason for this drastic change in attitude was because healthcare became completely free of charge which improved the lives and medical conditions of British citizens, especially the poor (since they couldn’t afford any healthcare before the war). It was very clear that medical needs were much larger and more serious after world war two, since German bombs hit major cities like London, thus leading to civilian casualties. To deal with this, the government had set up ‘the emergency medical service’ which basically provided healthcare to every British citizen, free of charge.

However, the people of Britain weren’t willing to let go of such an effective and helpful system. So the public demanded the continuation of the health service [9]. This definitely shows a big change in social attitudes, required medical needs, and because, before the war, there were no civilian casualties. In 1948, the National Health Service (NHS) was introduced by Aneurin Bevan. This new service used taxes to provide every British citizen with free healthcare and medical treatments [10]. This allowed everyone (including the poor) to afford and access essential medical needs which they couldn’t have done before world war two. The introduction of the NHS marks an enormous change in social attitudes because it shows the government and wealthy people became more aware of the conditions the poor were in.

In conclusion, I believe that there was an apparent change in attitudes due to the war. However some of these attitudes were only shirt term (especially attitudes towards women) since their new independence, power and careers were taken away as soon as the men arrived back home. Although the positive change in attitudes towards women was only temporary, I still believe the war strongly changed social attitudes in Britain. The war government changed its views & became a labor party, and finally the reason why people became aware of the poverty they hadn’t seen before, thus changing attitudes from selfish and unaware to selfless and thankful/grateful for the things they had. Overall, I believe the Second World War had a major impact on the social attitudes of the British.

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How much impact did war have on social attitudes, 1939-c1950 in Britain?. (2016, Jun 25). Retrieved August 7, 2020, from
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