Women In WW2

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 Publishers.

1990. 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.