Women In Wwii Essay, Research Paper
World War II marked a retreat from the existing notions of women’s capabilities and proper roles. With the men gone at war, women had to take over the work force. Government propaganda encouraged women to do their patriotic duty by leaving their homes and entering the workplace. At the wartime peak in July 1944, 19 million women were employed. This was an increase of 47% over the level in March of 1940. For the first time, married women outnumbered single women in the work force. Women over thirty-five made up 60% of the increase in the labor force. Girls between 14 and 19 added another 17.3% to the total (Anderson 4). Women took over the common jobs of building ships and planes, becoming lumberjacks, train conductors, steelworkers, and drill press operators (Rappaport 224). Patriotism was only one of the many motivations for women to sign up for work. Economic necessity, the excitement and challenge of work, the need to cope with the loneliness and anxiety caused by having their husbands and sons overseas, a disaffection from housework, a desire for more social independence, the sense of purpose accompanying productive work, and other such personal considerations complemented the desire to help in the war effort. Seattle City bus driver, Josephine Bucklin said, “‘ We do feel we’re doing something concrete for the war effort. Besides, it’s thrilling work, and exciting, and something women have never been allowed to do before”‘(Anderson 26-28).
Not only did the war bring large numbers of newcomers to the labor force, it also provided a wonderful opportunity for upward mobility for millions of women who had previous work experience. The wartime system of labor priorities enabled women to escape the low-paying female – dominated fields of domestic and personal service. Women could now obtain jobs in the burgeoning war industries or in the government. Between 1940 and 1944, the number of women employed in manufacturing increased 141 percent, while those in domestic service declined by 20 percent (de Pauw 144). Wartime imperatives were therefore undermining the sex – segregated labor market and the ideas that preserved it. This got rid of a long impediment to economic advancement for women. Some long – standing iniquities were also disappearing. In 1942 the National War Labor Board established an equal pay principle when it decided that same rates should be paid to women when the work they did was the same as the work done by men. Union contracts containing inequitable pay were allowed to remain in force. Pay scales for jobs traditionally performed by women were presumed to be acceptable and pay differentials were allowed in some cases. Despite these loopholes, some firms did pay women equally, and the differences between men and women’s average earnings slightly narrowed during the war years. This was primarily because of the increased demand for women in the workplace (5-6).
Much prejudice existed in the workplace against women, though. Many employers persisted in discriminatory practices, even in the face of unmet labor requirements. Many still refused to hire women. The belief that men should be the primary breadwinners in the family was especially significant in limiting women’s job opportunities as long as unemployed men were still available to fill labor needs. In January 1942, the Seattle Times editorialized against any immediate hiring of women, because “‘it is fairly obvious that the chance of a man to get a job may be delayed if a woman gets it first.’” A letter to the Seattle Star supported this position, adding, “‘ I don’t want my wife to take a man’s job as long as I am still able to work for our living.”‘ Another letter said, “‘ I never let my wife work, and I know she is a far sweeter woman than many women who have been coarsened by having to get out in the business world. I say, let’s keep the women out of the industry and out of the war.”‘ Hampered by these conventional attitudes, women found their competitive disadvantages in the labor market further increased because most of the job openings were in employment classifications traditionally reserved to men (23-25).
The critical labor shortage created by the war did not mean all discriminatory barriers had been broken down. Discrimination against black women proved to be one of the most unyielding. Even employers who were willing to hire black men and white women refused to change their practices to include black women. Employment officials continued to refer black women for service jobs. Many war plants which refused to hire them, employed them for only limited kinds of work, and/or segregated them on the job. Employers believed and feared that the entrance of blacks would provoke resistance on the part of white workers. Despite the persistence of discrimination, urban work opportunities improved considerably during the war years for blacks (Rooke 33-35).
Problems had arisen from the vastly growing numbers of females in the work force. Many people had problems with the idea of working mothers. Public resistance to the idea of working mothers held down the labor force participation rate of women from age 25 to age 34. Paul Mcnutt stated, “‘no women responsible for the care of young children should be encouraged or compelled to seek employment which deprives their children of essential care until all other sources of supply are exhausted.”‘ Even in major war production areas, where labor shortage was most severe and the increases of female employment was even greater than the national average, the number of working mothers was surprisingly low (Anderson 3-4). The drastic increase in the number of women in the work force, especially those with family responsibilities, focused national attention on the special problems faced by women workers ( de Pauw122).
This prompted some public programs designed to assist them. The most important and controversial of these was the federally subsidized child care system which began under the provisions of the Lanham Act. Although at its peak the program cared for 130,000 children in 3,000 centers, it did not begin to meet the need created by the vast employment of mothers. If the child care system was inadequate, other programs to provide community services to women workers were nonexistent for practical reasons. Eleanor Straub had said, “the federal government never created a policy to deal with the mobilization of large numbers of women, relying instead on a mosaic of experiments, make – shifts, and temporary expedients” (Anderson 6-7). The changes in women’s roles created a considerable amount of anxiety about the stability and durability of the family. Working mothers were blamed for a rising divorce rate, child neglect, an increasing rate of juvenile delinquency, and many more problems that were brought along with their newly acquired independence (Norton 224-225). The failure of the federal government to deal with its implications of the increased employment of women reflected its perception of the war as a temporary, emergency situation from which significant changes were neither expected nor wanted. Many of the changes created by the war became permanent fixtures once the nation had readjusted to peacetime living, though (Degler 420).
Another problem with the war was the unbalanced ratio of women to men. Men became a scarce and valued commodity for many young women. The growing popularity of going steady among teenagers, the rise in teenage marriages, and the revisions of standards of sexual conduct among younger women were all cultural expressions of this wartime phenomenon. In a marriage – oriented but male – scarce society, getting and retaining male attention and approval became an even greater preoccupation for many girls and women than it had been before the war. The desperation of many women to find a man was displayed in their outrageous attempts. For example, Seattle served as a servicemen’s center. Because the large number of military personnel in the area offered a solution to the male shortage in the resident population, the area became a magnet for young girls seeking relationships. They were often runaways who had arrived penniless. Marriage thus remained an important focus for women’s aspirations during the war years, despite the demographic and labor force changes that were occurring (Coles28-22).
The long – awaited American victory was finally accomplished in August 1945. People took to the streets in celebration, but the stresses of returning to peacetime living hampered their joys. The imperatives of wartime had created vast changes in American Society. With the dismantling of the war machine came the very real possibility of limited job opportunities and a substantial decline in the standard of living for many Americans. The postwar period was especially important for women, who had experienced vast changes in their daily lives as a consequence of the war. The position of women in the postwar economy was further undermined by the widespread belief that working women would quietly and willingly withdraw from the labor force to make way for male job seekers. Irene Murphy, Secretary of the Detroit Day Care Committee, said “‘Americans continue to cling to the fantasy that women can always be dispossessed of their jobs – that they don’t need to work”‘ Some women had planned to quit the work force once the war was over, and had only worked for patriotic reasons. A survey by the Women’s Bureau revealed, though, that 75 percent of the women employed in 1944-1945 planned to continue working (Anderson 159-164).
Despite the temporary gains of the war years, women’s status within the labor force was not much better than it had been before the war. Employers reestablished prewar employment barriers. Returning veterans, who had risked their lives for their country, felt entitled to once more be employed at their old jobs. Trade unions agreed. Women were fired or demoted to poorer – paying jobs that were simpler and required little skill. Women were forced to move back to their previous jobs of nursing, office work, teaching, and social work (Rappaport 230). Women who voluntarily left their jobs in the postwar period received approbation from the press because they had made more room for males (Anderson 172).
In conclusion, the greater emphasis on family life in the postwar era could also be considered a part of the legacy of the war experience. The disruptions of family life during the war, including the deferral of marriage, and childbearing, had caused family life to be more highly valued. Despite the changes brought by war, conventional attitudes regarding the role of women within the family retained their appeal. The gap between normal expectations and actual behavior had considerably widened during the years of the war. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, the women of postwar America were, “‘torn between the past and the future”‘ (178).
Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women. Greenwood Press, Boston. 1981.
Rappaport, Doreen. American Women Their Lives in Their Own Words. HarperCollins
De Pauw, Linda. Founding Mothers. Houghton Mifflin, New York. 1993.
Rooke, Patrick. Women’s Rights. Wayland, London. 1989.
Coles, Robert. Women of Crisis II. Delacorte Press, New York. 1994.