World War II – Shaking the old prejudices about gender roles

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

Woman flexing bicep.

“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.

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.

Minority experience

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?

Wider Reading


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8 thoughts on “World War II – Shaking the old prejudices about gender roles

  1. WW2 had the biggest impact on women’s lives. The empty factories needing filling and women rose to the challenge. For the first time women were considered as strong and independent and totally different to the old stereotype. Women from all backgrounds came together to help in the war effort and provide for their families at the same time. Many women couldn’t balance working as well as looking after their children and when asked for help they were faced with rejection and confusion. However, away from the challenges faced, these women provided the groundwork for a new role of women in society.

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  2. Even though women gained lots of opportunities within the work force and education during WW2, when the war ended their husbands and men in general expected their life to return as it was pre-war. Therefore, women were fired and expected to go back to been the “stereotypical” women for example looking after their children and staying at home. Despite WW2 not causing a instant change on the role of women in society it definitely promoted women to become more feminist and fight for more freedom in the future, therefore the war had a long term impact on women. For example the women’s liberation movement began in the 1960’s and organisations like NOW (national organisation for women) was set up which encouraged women to speak up about their life at home and also encourage them to vote with their own opinions and not their husbands opinions.

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  3. Women during the war had an opportunity to work and do the jobs which were only available to men and they worked longer hours and for more money due to the Lanham Act which was extended to childcare in 1941 in order to allow the women to attend work. However this new way of life was short lived for women as when men returned some women lost their jobs, and some still kept theirs, not only did the men return from the war, so did the unequal wages. Some women however still made the most of their opportunities from the war by studying for highly skilled jobs, as restrictions had been lifted during the war and not enforced again. As the initial pressure to give up their jobs was having an impact the divorce rate rose, showing a shift in women’s attitudes, as now they didn’t want to return to their typical roles, they wanted to carry on working and gaining their independence. As a result of this, the number of women in the workplace rose again with 42% of women working showing that women were ignoring the pressure to stay at home.

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  4. Despite the fact that women gained more opportunities in the workforce and education during the war, when the war ended many husbands expected things to go back to normal and therefore for many women there lives did not change in the short term. However in the long run women developed a greater want for freedoms and no longer wanted to return to the home after the war and seeing what their lives could be like therefore leading to the women’s liberation movement – this is shown through the increase in divorces after the war and women became more dissatisfied with being housewives and being in the traditional roles.

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  5. WW2 had the biggest effect on the lives of women throughout the whole time period. It lead to social attitudes being completely reformed (eg on 13% of people against female employment) and directly led to the advances in equality scene mid-century. Furthermore, the resulting economic prosperity changed the lives of women for both the better and the worse, with ghettos being formed in inner-cities, and the suburban lifestyle creating unprecedented prosperity, but also dissatisfaction as shown in ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan.

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  6. The war did have an impact on the life of women because it gave them a chance to work whilst the men went off into the war. Women took part in jobs that was different to their stereotypical ‘housewife’ job such as they worked as ambulance drivers or in canteens. But there was issues because it meant that the women struggled with childcare and also there was still discrimination against minorities such as whites found it difficult to work with the black people and they could only attend to black injured soldiers. After the war the lifestyle mainly changed because women was fired to make way for the returning men. However a positive was some women did return quickly back to work.

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