The Impact of World War II on the Role of Women
Written by Rehana Akudi
8th January 2020
The Second World War required new roles for women with the aim of freeing men in the country to go out to fight for democracy. In the first six months after Pearl Harbour, 750,000 women applied for jobs in defence plants, but only 80,000 were hired. Why was this the case? Male factory managers argued that women were not able to operate machines, but the shortage of male workers would force them to re-think their traditional views. Over the next two years, six million women were added to the workforce. Between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the US workforce increased from 27% to nearly 37%, and by 1945 nearly one out of every four married woman n worked outside the home.
World War II changed both the type of work women took part in and the volume at which they did it. Women had volunteered in large numbers for the Office of Civilian Defence (OCD), which provided air-raid wardens and ambulance drivers as well as many other services. Others joined the Red Cross and more than one million volunteered at United Service Organisations (USO) canteens, where servicemen came for entertainment and company. Those who joined the Women’s Air force Service Pilots (WASPs) flew planes from the factories to military bases.
Working women, especially mothers, faced great challenges during World War II. To try tackle the difficult dual role of being both a working woman and mother, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband Franklin D Roosevelt to approve the first US government childcare facilities under the Community Facilities Act of 1942. Eventually, seven centres, servicing 105,000 children, were built to provide additional support to lessen the worries of childcare.
Rosie the Riveter
“We can do it!” This was the famous slogan for the iconic American poster featuring the bandana wearing Rosie the Riveter. A favourite wartime symbol, Rosie was tough yet feminine. She became a marketing tool to advertise to women across the country. There was the patriotic need for women to enter the workforce and work at the munitions factories to produce tanks, ships, planes and other materials for the war effort. By 1944, women made up 40% of the workers in aircraft plants. The hard working women had called themselves “Rosies.” Her real counterparts performed so well in jobs once thought unsuitable for women by men and so, the attitudes about what a women’s role was and how she should be was slowly altering.
Photograph of four white women pilots from the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots division.
Women’s Airforce Service Pilots flew planes from factories to military bases. Here, Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leave their plane, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” in Ohio.
Black women had served in the war effort as well, though the Navy did not allow black women into its ranks until 1944. As the American military was still segregated for black men for the majority of the time during World War II, African American women served in black-only units. Black nurses were only permitted to attend to black soldiers. Often, black women struggled to find jobs in the defence industry, and found that white women were often unwilling to work next to them and when they did, demanded for segregation. Although factory work allowed black women to escape low-paid labour as domestic servants for a time and earn better wages, most were fired after the war and forced to resume work as maids and cooks for white families.
End of the War
Both world wars had provided a glimpse albeit brief into another kind of life. Women’s efforts on the home front were only short term The call for women working in jobs was only meant to be temporary, and it was expected that women left their jobs after the war ended and when men returned home. The women who did stay in the workforce continued to be paid less than their male peers and were usually demoted. Additionally, women were encouraged to give up their wartime jobs and turn them over to returning veterans.
Returning to the Crib and Kitchen?
The war has severely disrupted family life. The divorce rate doubled and delinquency rates amongst teenagers rose. Some women after the war took advantages of the opportunities that had been provided during the war years to study law, medicine and engineering. The post-war baby boom meant married woman were to return to the role of the traditional housewife. Actress Debbie Reynolds exclaimed in the 1955 hit film The Tender Trap,
“A career is just fine, but it’s no substitute for marriage!”
It became difficult for women to maintain a job and it was considered that the woman’s place was in the home.
However, women’s participation in the work force returned quickly. By 1950, banks employed more women than men. By 1960, approximately 35% women were working, with 60% of those women being married. This had increased by 1970, with 42% of women working, and 63% of those were married. By 1973, polls demonstrated that only 35% of Americans disapproved of women working. Many women recognised their own potential and experienced first hand the advantages that work could bring.
Consider: How accurate is it to say that the Second World War had a relatively limited impact on women’s role in American society? Had the Second World War solidified the notion that women were in the workforce to stay?