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American Women During World War II.

America’s entry into World War II posed opportunities for American women domestically, yet paradoxically heightened fears in the polity about the exact role that women should adopt during wartime. A central issue that dominated women’s lives during this period was how to combine the private sphere of the home, with the new demands of the war economy in the public sphere. Women made significant gains in the military, the war economy and in some cases, in terms of political influence. Yet these gains were misleading for policy makers utilised the female workforce for short-term gains during war, with a long-term goal of seeing women return to the domestic sphere and reinforcing traditional gender roles. Significantly also, American women encountered different experiences of life during World War II since factors such as ethnicity and class largely shaped how women responded to, or were affected by the Second World War.

Owing to the critical demand for labour, employers during the war helped to break down traditional gender roles by recruiting women to traditionally male jobs. Government, industry and the media all encouraged women to serve their patriotic duty by taking a job. Throughout the war however, policy makers sent out ambiguous messages to women about what their proper role in American society was. The motive behind this ambiguity rested in the fact that the government feared that the long-term consequences of women in the workplace, since gender roles could permanently be disrupted if women became reluctant to return to the domestic sphere when men returned from war. Many governmental agencies aimed to hinder sweeping changes for American women during the war- particular attention was placed on women in the military. Business associations largely worked independently from the polity, and tensions emerged when women’s organisations highlighted the discriminiatory practices of employers. Unions were also a highly important source of oppression to American women, for men feared that women would gain too much power if…Gender AND WORK BOOK. Moreover, the social and political fear of women in the workplace was largely confusing anyway, for women had worked outside the home in huge numbers ever since the Depression.

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And yet, after Pearl Harbor , the government issued non-discriminatory directives to recruit women into the workforce since by 1942 , only 29 percent of America’s fifty-two million women had jobs. Thus, the War Manpower Commission ( WMC ) was established to actively recruit women so that in the beginning of 1943 the shortage of workers had toppled many sex, race, and age barriers. By 1944 , married women constituted the majority of the female workforce at 72.2 percent, and the issue of married women at work revealed the contradictions of womanpower. At the heart of this dilemma was the fear in the polity that women would become too attached to their new found economic independence, since women were told by industry on the one hand that (the) American homemaker…has the strength and ability to take her place in a vital War industry; yet through the government backed WMC women were told through pamphlets that : Even in a national emergency as critical as this, the welfare of our children must be of paramount importance… Implicit in these war messages was the notion that women were contributing to the war economy out of duty to their children and/or their male loved ones fighting in the war. Therefore , in the immediate economic crisis created by World War II , government and industry had little option but to actively seek female employment, although in the long-term, the government, through its propaganda messages, revealed its long-term aim of seeing women return to their natural domain in the home.

Many women reconciled this tension by arguing that work outside the home satisfied family needs by providing financial security. Work outside the home was also appealing because it provided emotional bonding between women whose loved ones were fighting abroad. Yet although the war raised living standards, women’s long-term position in the workplace was not guaranteed. When women came to plants they faced hostility from male co-workers, and cases of sexual harassment at work were commonplace. Women who worked in factories for example , presented a challenge to gender roles, and male dominance in the workplace seemed to be under threat. To counter this, personnel managers typically taught women to be neat and trim and well put together. It helps their morale…(and) our prestige too. Fearing that women would find intrinsic value in work on a more permanent basis , employers, with the backing of the Labor Department and the WMC , put forth propaganda campaigns that emphasised how women’s work in the war economy was only temporary.

To further this view, industrialists were unsympathetic to child care issues, for although they were forced to employ women out of a shortage of labour, they still held patriarchal views. One industrialist stated: Experience has shown that the surest and quickest way to disrupt a family…is to take the mother out of the home. This is an interesting point, especially since women represented 72.2 percent of the female workforce. The patriarchal views of some employers overrode the need to employ women for the sake of the war effort, and although most industrialists employed women, they expressed their disapproval towards female entry in war plants on other ways. For example, job segregation by sex was explicitly acknowledged for jobs were formally labelled male and female. The two largest electrical firms, GE and Westinghouse, continued this practice until the end of the war.

The Women’s Bureau responded to stating that it made sense to cater for a huge pool of the workforce by implementing child care facilities, and throughout the war, childcare facilities were woefully inadequate. Government policy conveniently endorsed a Children’s Bureau report which linked child care to juvenile delinquency. The report implied that paid working women were to blame for the slower mental development, social ineptness, (and) weakened initiative (of children). It can be argued that government agencies were genuinely concerned about the detrimental effects of women’s work outside the home on children. In 1943 Congress passed the Lanham Act which desginated funds for childcare facilities.

This argument holds little credibility when examining the extent of government propaganda. 1944 was an important shift in media’s tone towards childcare, no longer was Rosie the Riveter praised for her patriotic qualities … Preparing women for their post-war return to domesticity, 1944 advertisements increasingly dramatised the unhappy plight of the children of war workers. By the end of the war, only one in ten women enjoyed the benefits of childcare. The government’s commitment to women in work was very weak. When the Allied victory in Europe seemed imminent, the tone of government sponsored advertisements changed in tone and content. Business also seized the opportunity to portray women as a threat to the American familt – the deeper motive for this was to secure men’s jobs who would imminently return from Europe. The Armco Manufacturing Company released an ad in 1944 stating: Some jubiliant day mother will stay home again, doing the job she likes best- making a home for you and daddy. Government and industry continued their inslaught on the worknig mother for the same motive: to ensure that the transition from female-male work patterns would be smooth once the war was over.

Yet women responded to such sexism at work by advocating women’s rights at work through unionisation. Women soon became alienated by many trade unions that tolerated job discrimination and wage inequalities. Women often confronted difficulties with attending union meetings, for their home duties absorbed much fo their spare time. This gave powerful union members, such as the President of the United Autoworkers Association , to voice comments like We have never advocated women taking a very active part (in unions) unchallenged. Manufacturers customarily placed women in the lowest-paying jobs and paid them less for the performance of work traditionally done by men. In Michigan for example, state law guaranteed women equal pay for similar work, but the statue was so vague that it was virtually unenforceable. Labour organisations like the NWTUL failed to mount a sustained campiagn for equal pay because employers proved adept in maintaining the sexual pay differential by such means as giving titles to similar jobs or by changing job classifications from skilled to semi-skilled.

Yet the sheer number of women working in the war economy worked to women’s advantage for by 1944 women constituted more than 22 percent of trade union membership. Indicating the level of importance that the female workforce had reached, in 1944 the President fo the United Auto Workers ( UAW), Walter Reuther, pledged to give special consideration to seniority, safety standards, maternity leave practices, and other problems relating to the employment of women. Unionism then, was a central way in which women pushed for equal rights in the workplace, and some trade unions like the UAW addressed women’s needs.

Still, a contradiction emerged during the war for although women were actively recruited by industry and praised by government and media campaigns, women had very little opportunity to influence policy that directly affected their lives. From the heights of national policy it was men who made the decisions, something which suggested that politics was a male domain. Organisations which did have prominence such as the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL), suffered from their inability to embrace the myriad of women in the war economy – their white middle class dominance meant that working class and black women felt alienated by the League’s politics. Race and class were important obstacles to a strong political voice for women during the war, for national women’s groups were plagued by class elitism. In this sense many paid working women felt that their interests were not being represented for even the President of the NWTUL conceded that higher salaried women too often allow their concern over the special discriminations against women in their group to obscure the more fundamental problem which millions of working men and women face.

Although race and class divided American women during the war , women found consensus in the fact that direct representation in Washington was the key to securing the political needs of American women. Organisations like the League of Women Voters (LWV) focused more on the needs of professional women than the needs of working class or black women , to reinforce the view that middle class women dominated wartime politics more than any other group. The wartime shortage of men made women valuable campaign workers and as activists it has been asserted that this was quickened when the need for womanpower during World War II increased the importance of women’s public roles. The Second World War then , can be seen as a turning point for women in terms of political influence, although the downside to this was that privileged, professional women gained more from the political process than working class or minority women did.

Yet although minority women responded to the issues of gender inequality at work, the future role for women after the war was problematic. Marriage soared during the war years for many men hoped that marriage would defer conscription to the war. This alone suggests that women’s roles as wives and mothers were still dominant during the war because the nation witnessed a 25 percent rise in the population aged five and under. The popularity of marriage and the traditional gender roles that marriage carried, was exploited during the war. For example, the Office of War Information, established in the summer of 1942, worked closely with the media. President Roosevelt soon denied the OWI was being used for propaganda , yet only months after the OWI was formed, wartime propaganda began to likened women’s war work to domestic chores. These trends serve to reinforce the view that the government’s immediate role for women was to serve their country by, in the words of one media campaign doing a man’s job so that he may fight to help finish this war sooner.

One of the most significant departures from traditional gender roles was the enlistment of women in the armed services. From 1941 onwards, military minds in Washington stonewalled anyone who had the temerity to suggest that women should be in the military. Politicians in typical gerrymandering fashion, made flimsy promises of considering an auxiliary of sorts while secretly trying to figure out how to stop American women’s potential influence in the military . Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill on May 28th , 1941 to establish a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and the bill eventually succeeded because there was no hint of full status for women. The actions taken by the government reflected their reluctance to create long-term trends for female participation in the military after the war.

When WAAC was formed in 1942, women faced difficulties with their male superiors, for as General George Marshall later reflected, women in the military encountered: a great reluctance of army officers generally, particularly those in high control, to the interjection of a female organization. The recruitment of women in the military was based more on the general wartime strategy of maximum utilization of manpower, technology and industrial capacity , rather than any genuine attempts to advance women’s rights in American society. Neither did military reform undermine the ongoing racism that black women faced, for black nurses served in segregated military camps during the war.

Conflict surfaced as to the exact role that women were to undertake in the military. Women’s corps undermined conventional wisdom about a woman’s natural role. Thus, propaganda played a large role in limiting the significance of women in the military for war films emphasised that the army needed women’s delicate hands and required women in hospital work because there is a need in a man for comfort and attention that only a woman can fill. After World War II returning servicewomen did not recieve a hero’s welcome in the way that men did, and unlike men, women were denied veterans preference after the war. This evidence would seem to give credence to the contention that the government was responsive to women’s demands during the war because every citizen was perceived as valuable in the war effort, but that once the war ended and men returned, traditional gender views were re-established.

One group of American women used the change in attitudes towards women for their own social and personal gain, namely lesbian women. At a time when women were portrayed by media and government advertisements as vital to the functioning of America, love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. Military service became an social network for lesbians – rarely were lesbians discharged on the grounds of engaging in same-sex relationships. To support this argument , one lesbian woman states that the appeal of life in WAAC was due to the indifference that military officers expressed towards lesbianism, for: There were no problems and we wanted to keep it that way. We all knew that if we were discreet we wouldn’t get caught.

Indeed , lesbians were valued by the military for their perceived strength in service. After the war, there occurred a less formal transition for lesbians in the military, i.e. from the ranks, but this was coupled with the persecution of lesbian women. The public perception of the lesbian as sick and a threat to innocent women in the years after the war, confirmed the need for secrecy. Ironically however, the military contributed to the establishment of a larger lesbian subculture when it became less lenient in its policy towards homosexuals once the war was over. Thousands of lesbians were loaded on queer ships and sent with undesirable discharges to the nearest US port. Therefore, unlike most American women, lesbians consolidated the social advances they gained during the war by creating lesbian subcultures in areas like New York, or by staying in the closet and remaining in military service.

Black women often experienced continuity with the past during the war because racism was just as prevalent during the years 1941-1945 as it had been in earlier decades. Jobs in wartime offices, stores and factories proved elusive to black women, even after the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (1941). This new federal agency , was designed to reverse the years of racial discrimination that black Americans had endured since emancipation in 1865 – the implications for black women were therefore promising. The results of the Commission were fair at best, for although the government hired black female clerical workers, these women were confined to segregated offices and were promoted six times fewer than whites with similar efficiency ratings. Even when black women proved discrimination the FECP could only recommend withdrawal of war contracts for the offending employer, an unlikely measure because maximum, uninterrupted war productivity was top priority. These findings are not surprising considering that The War Department did not extend its relaxed attitude towards female employment to black women either. The Department openly stated that they needed competent, white female help at all levels whereas emphasising the fact that we do not employ colored at the same time.

The Fair Employment Commission also failed in tackling companies’ discrimination. For instance , in Detroit , Sears Roebuck lowered barriers enough to hire black women in the stock departments, but would not hire blacks in sales, where they would be seen in public. Therefore, owing to the reality of job discrimination, black women often took the lowest-paid and most hazardous jobs during the war , or were re-employed in the domestic service jobs that they had lost during the Depression. However, the hostility that black women encountered at work led to the politicisation of many black women during the war. in 1943 Mary McLeod Bethune of the National Youth Administration won a promise from defence plants to hire black women united in other campaigns such as the NWTUL’s campaign to end lynching and racial harassment in the workplace , and in 1942 nationwide protests amongst black women’s groups forced many employers to reconsider their employment practices. It is relevant to add that for many black women, the conversion from domestic service to factory work marked a welcome shift in job prospects, for black women were entering a white dominated employment field.

Ultimately however, such challenges to racial injustice did little to alter racial attitudes during the war. Cities across the US continued to devalue black women’s work in a way as to suggest that black women’s concerns were of little importance to policy makers. For example , a black woman at the Edgewood Arsenal earned $18 per week whereas her white counterparts earned on average twice this amount despite working fewer hours. It was only after the war that black women’s prospects improved because the momentum for social change was gaining strength. In the late forties, black women had finally begun to gain access to better jobs, since in the late forties the number of black women in low-paying jobs had fell by 15 percent by 1950.

The end of the war further refutes the view that women made substantive gains from the Second World War. When war production ended , many women quit their jobs. Women’s net gains during the war were negligible for although the shift to clerical jobs continued after the war, very few women occupied skilled craft jobs. The Women’s Bureau concluded that: Only a few women have been allowed to continue in the newer fields of employment, and thus continue to use skills learned during the war. It is true that women’s employment underwent visible change during the war and the absence of men allowed women to expand their influence in a variety of educational and civic ways.

However, underscoring this potential long-term change were government backed media campaigns which sought to restrict women’s public activities and possible long-term goals. Mobilisation propaganda as well as the attractions of jobs induced young women to give priority to immediate employment, so that despite the greater educational opportunities created by the absence of men, women’s college enrollments actually declined during the war. Social welfare and child-care experts called upon women to pay closer attention to their maternal responsibility, and this demonstrated the government’s eventual desire to see women return to the domestic sphere once the war was over. Post-war purges of women from men’s jobs was strengthened by male workers and unionists, who colluded in the expulsion of women from the auto and electrical industries. Therefore, similar to American politicians, unionists’ loyalties ultimately resided with men. By April 1947 the prewar employment pattern had been re-established and most employed women were clerical workers, operatives, domestics, and service workers . A sad truth powerfully emerged after the war: there had been no revolution in attitudes, women faced the reality that the series of measures introduced during the war were done so grudgingly in the face of national emergency.

Rosalind Rosenberg , Divided Lives : American Women In The Twentieth Century , Hill & Wang , New York , 1992.

Susan M. Hartmann , The Home Front And Beyond – American Women In The 1940s , Twayne Publishers , Boston , 1982.

Alice Kessler-Harris , Out To Work: A History of Wage Earning Women in the United States , New York , Oxford University Press , 1982.

D’Ann Campbell , Women at War with America: Patriotic Lives in a Patriotic Era , Cambridge , Harvard University Press , 1984.

Karen Anderson , Wartime Women : Sex Roles , Family Relations , And the Status of Women During World War II , Greenwood Press , Connecticut , 1981.

Leila J. Rupp , Mobilizing Women for War : German and American Propaganda , Princeton , Princeton University Press , 1978.

Lillian Faderman , Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers – A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America , New York , Penguin , 1991.

Sherna Berger Gluck , Rosie the Rivieter Revisited: Women , The War , and Social Change , ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
Ruth Milkman , Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II , Urbana , University of Illinois Press , 1987.

Maureen Honey , Creating Rosie the Riveter : Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II , Amherst , The University of Massachusetts Press , 1984.

Mary Beth Norton Ed. , Major Problems in American Women’s History , Lexington MA, D.C. Heath & Company , 1989.


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