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World War II: A Turning Point For Women?


A woman’s place in American society, at home or in the public marketplace, has fluctuated and changed considerably over the past few hundred years. Today, women make up nearly 50% of the labor force, meaning that it is likely that more than 78 million women will be working by 2018. These women work a huge variety of jobs, including being doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, factory workers, and small business owners. Further, over half of the population of college students and college degree holders are women. These numbers, when compared to those of the early to mid-20th century, are staggering. Only 5.1 million women worked in 1900 and 18.4 in 1950. Beyond the increase in the number of women working, the kinds of work those women are performing has changed dramatically. Before World War II women primarily worked as secretaries, teachers, nurses, and bookkeepers. Few, if any, worked in high-paying companies and professional jobs. Historians have wondered and asked if there was a time in history that marked the increase in the numbers of working women and many have found the answer to be World War II. In a time of need, American women were able to change their entire lives to take up the duties of workers, and in doing so, take up the duties of a people with the entire country dependent on them (Department for professional employees, professional women: vital statistics).
In 1900, women accounted for only 18% of the labor force (5.1 million women), and the women who did work were mainly from poorer families who needed the extra income. It was deemed “unfashionable” for middle-class or wealthy women to work outside of the home; their duty was strictly to their family. And it was the mark of a middle-class family if the wife stayed home and did not work. It was not only men who believed women should not enter the workforce: the majority of women believed their place was at home as well, not out in the world earning degrees or becoming financially independent. This all changed when the United States entered World War II in 1941.
As men prepared to leave for active duty, the citizens of America wondered about the state of the country at home: how would the economy hold up? Who would work the jobs that had been held by the men who went off to war? Who would supply the demands of the army? The answer lay in plain sight. A cry for help rang across the country and women from all classes, all races, and all places in life answered. Women responded quickly, and by 1943, 17 million women worked in the labor force and helped with the war effort. These women excelled at their jobs and as the months went by, more and more women, ranging from their early teens to their late 60s, joined the effort, which was led by “Rosie the Riveter”, a tough, beautiful, and independent character created to not only entice women to help but also to show them just how capable they really were. Although some women were paid even five times as much as they were before the war because they now worked men’s jobs, in general they were paid less than men, earning about 75% of a man’s wages for the same job. Although this was noticed and noted, women continued to work hard, taking every type of job imaginable, including joining newly created women’s branches in the army, navy, and air force (Department for professional employees, professional women: vital statistics).

The women of America kept the country running and supplied the army during the entirety of the war and many of them learned of their worth and their capabilities through their newfound duties. Yet, when the war ended, and their husbands, brothers, and fathers returned from overseas, these women were told to give up their jobs and take their place back at home. Men did not understand the incredible changes that occurred for many women while they were away. A large number of these women worked tirelessly to not only keep their positions in the labor force but also to continue to promote the education and working equality for women after the war. This is why some historians, including Julia Kirk Blackwelder, truly believe that World War II was a critical turning point in the history of women in the workforce. Although there are many who believe this, there are also other opinions, and those are made clear through numerous articles written during and after the war.

In 1942, Click Magazine ran an article titled “What Kind of Women Are the WAAC’S?”, which was part of the first wave of newspapers publishing pieces on the women working in World War II. The WAAC was a newly created branch in the army called the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. This article was written right around the time that the WAAC was created and it was intended to show the eagerness of women in joining in the war effort. Click Magazine answered the question of what kind of women are the WAAC’S by interviewing several women who had been accepted into the corps. The article begins, saying “They’re career women. . . housewives. . . professionals. . . factory hands. . . debutantes. They’ve taught school, modelled, supported themselves as secretaries, salesgirls, mechanics. Single and married, white and colored. . . they’ve enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps with a common purpose--to get behind America’s fighting men and help them win a lasting peace!” (Click Magazine 18). The piece continues, addressing the fact that the creation of this new corps was met humor and doubt regarding the ability of female recruits. Click tries to reveal through various interviews that these women are “...capable, serious of purpose, and eager to prove that a woman’s place, in wartime, is where her country needs her” (Click Magazine 18). Each of the interviewees was portrayed as being excited and extremely happy to know that they were going to be able to be a part of the war effort. The WAAC allowed women to take the non-combatant jobs of soldiers, which freed more men up for active service. The article states that the WAAC “...realizes full-well its responsibility and has dedicated itself to the idea that the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, given the chance, will prove itself equal to the opportunity.” (Click Magazine 18). Although this article seems to be fully behind the idea of women working, enlisting, and helping the war movement in whatever way they could, it is also important to note one of the beginning sentences in this piece. The writer states that a woman knows her place is working to help her country, in the wartime. This is critical because it reveals that although the magazine and its readers believed women’s efforts in support of the war were wonderful, it was not considered a turning point for women in the labor force until years later. These changes were coming about simply because of the war, and after the war women would be expected to return to their previous lives. This was a common theme found in the opinion of some, including many of the popular magazines of the time and prominent figures, such as Eleanor Roosevelt: that women were doing their duty perfectly and this was a great show of a female capabilities, yet once it was all over they would head back to their place in the household (Click Magazine 18).

Just a year later, a shift could be seen in the way women workers were viewed. Yes, it was still surprising and new for the majority of the population to see women working but it had changed into something that was recognized by everyone as crucial to the economy. A newspaper article, written by Stephen Longstreet, in 1943, titled “You’re in the Army, Mrs. Jones”, helped those who were either not working or who were not helping in the war effort realize just how difficult the jobs women had begun to work at were. The article is written about Longstreet’s experience of working for one week in an airplane plant. Longstreet was amazed by the sheer size of the plant, which contained thousands of planes that were being “wired, riveted, bolted, and welded” by the plants various workers. On his first day of work, Longstreet was led down the plants aisles, being taught the different duties of the workers. He commented on these workers, writing of the women, older men, young girls, and young boys who worked incredibly hard to make each plane ready to fight a war. As the article continues, Longstreet described the difficulty of the work he was doing. He says how incredibly taxing the hours of welding were and talks about the sheer physical strength it would take to do these jobs daily. After some time of working on a particular plane he is too tired to continue and writes that “...a slim little girl with a well-fitting uniform-took my bag of slivers and went on with my work.” (Pic Magazine 2). The article continues and although he does not always single out the women workers, it is his words on the majority of the employees that are telling. By clumping every man, woman, and child together he is unconsciously showing the world the equal places of the workers and the strength of the women who were able to do a job a man could not. He talks of the workers one purpose: to supply their country with planes that worked, saying “They watched neither the slogans, flags, banners, nor clocks. This was the first earnest mass effort I had found in America that was not for gain, not for personal glory. These workers wanted planes to work on. Nothing else seemed to matter.” (Pic Magazine 2). Although this article was not a piece focusing on the women in the labor force, or addressing the question about a turning point for women in the workforce, it was able to portray how the population was still enthusiastic and understanding of the essential need for women workers.

In 1946, Think Magazine printed a series of articles on the women who had been a part of the war effort, including the women of the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. These articles give high praise to the women who worked tirelessly for their country. The piece on the women of the U.S. Navy starts by letting the world know just how crucial this group was: they had released enough men from non-combatant jobs to man all of the landing crafts during the invasion of Saipan and D-Day. The article remembers that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had previously personally saluted the contributions made by this group, which was an honor many women had never dreamed of. At the end of the war, Think Magazine states that there were 87,000 women in the Navy. 87,000 women who left home or quit another job to work as clerks, radiomen, bookkeepers, aerographer's mates, accountants, switchboard operators, assembly line workers, plane repairmen, and mechanics. Most of these were jobs which previously had never been done by a woman. Furthermore these women not only did the jobs they were needed to do, they were also proud of them. They wore their uniforms and officer rankings everywhere and proudly spoke of the efforts of their organization. The fact that Think Magazine includes this shows that although the war had ended, and the women of the U.S. Navy were no longer needed in the minds of many, these women had found their self worth in their duties, and many of them were not ready to give that up. This shows a turning point for women on working and being independent. Before it had seemed that lives may just return to what they were when the war had ended, but thousands of women, those who worked in the war effort, or those who simply had begun their first job, had changed. They now knew the pride and accomplishment that could come from hard work and many did not want to lose that (Think Magazine 1).

Alice Kessler-Harris wrote a book on working women in the United States in 1983 titled Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. This book includes a chapter called “Making History Working for Victory”, in which she voices her opinion on what War War II did for women in the labor force. The chapter begins with this essential question “Was this to be a breakthrough?-a turning point that would signal the end of discrimination against women in the labor market? It certainly looked like it.” (Kessler-Harris 273). Kessler-Harris remarks on the similarities between World War II and the first World War and how they both opened many doors to women and allowed women to show their capabilities. Kessler-Harris writes of the historians who believed World War II marked a time of change for women, including Chester Gregory, William Chafe, Lisa Anderson, and Sheila Tobias. She then writes her own opinion: that although this was true to some extent “...viewing the war this way places too much weight on the role of a single unpredictable event in altering women’s behavior. And, whereas women came to the first war out of a lengthy period of struggle for minimal wages and working conditions, they entered the second from a depression-fostered certainty of their economic importance.” (Kessler-Harris 274). She continues, stating that women had already begun to change their working patterns some time before the war. Although the war opened up new possibilities to women, it did not relieve the tensions surrounding working women, instead it “...cast a different light on them”. (Kessler-Harris 274). Kessler-Harris writes that the difference came in a changed perspective: that the depression had made women apologize for their work, saying they were doing it just to preserve their families, whereas the war allowed women to focus on their positive contributions to the labor force. She also points out, unlike other texts which are quick to say women instantly flocked to the labor force, that it wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor, in early 1942, that women began to work. It wasn’t until mid-1942 that the War Manpower Commission started to campaign to recruit women into the labor force. This was when Rosie the Riveter first appeared. Kessler-Harris brings light to another misconception: that although “women responded to these appeals in large number...it was not with the kind of unthinking enthusiasm that the statistics seem to demonstrate.” (Kessler-Harris 276). She states that three-quarters of the women who joined the working world had actually worked before the war, something that other historians seem to glaze over in their eagerness to show the increase in the number of women in the workforce. By breaking down the statistics she actually states that the increase in working women was only 43% during the war, a number much lower than other statistics have shown. She also notes the drop of 19% in women workers after the war ended. Kessler-Harris writes that she believes that although there was an increase in women workers, this was simply a continuing pattern of more women joining the workforce, which had begun years before the war. She continues however by relaying the fact that there was a major positive change for the position of black women workers during and following the war.

Kessler-Harris continues her explanation of why she believes the war may not have been the major turning point for women workers that many others thought it was by pointing out two other pieces of evidence that suggest that the change in numbers of women working happened merely out of emergency rather than a complete shift in attitude. She states that the first piece of evidence is the fact that when the war ended many women simply left their positions. Her other piece of evidence is that women faced hardship in the workplace every day, with the constant reminder that they were supposed to return home after the war and that they were supposed to keep to their traditional roles. This led into women’s unequal pay and the confusion surrounding company policies and women’s representation in the unions. She also notes that the struggle women went through everyday while working and running a household was hardly acknowledged or lightened by their employers, making it difficult for many women to continue to work after the war. Unable to find adequate child care or a way to keep their homes clean proved to be a deciding point for many women who returned home when the war ended. In conclusion, Kessler-Harris states that “Questions the war had brought to the fore-like equal pay, child care, and community services for wage-earning women-lost immediacy as women faced the reality of poorly paid jobs or none at all.” (Kessler-Harris 295). She also shines light on the fact that although there were many women who wanted to continue to work and work for equal opportunities there were others who eagerly awaited the time they could return home. Some of these women who wanted to return home felt that attitudes toward working women had not changed. Kessler-Harris states that, contrary to popular belief, the fact that many women could do the jobs previously worked by men did not mean that attitudes toward working women changed. All of these factors, Kessler-Harris writes, point to the answer that World War II was less of a milestone for working women than some believe. Instead, she says, the milestone for working women came later: “If the entry of women into war work was a response to opportunity, the continuing rise in their work force participation after demobilization reflects a response to increasing economic demands on the family.” (Kessler-Harris 299).

In 1997, Julia Kirk Blackwelder wrote a book titled Now Hiring about the feminization of work in the U.S. from 1900 to 1995. She focused two chapters of this book on women in World War II and women in the 1950’s. Unlike Alice Kessler-Harris, Blackwelder’s words point to a shift in opinions, showing that in just around ten years time a prominent historian had a completely different take on World War II, believing that it was the milestone for working women. Blackwelder writes of the call to women during the beginning of World War II and how, across the entire country, women answered their nation's cry. Blackwelder builds on the idea set down by Think Magazine years earlier: that the experience of working during World War II “...proved the most profound experience of their lives.” (Blackwelder 122). Unlike the previous articles, which could not predict the future, Now Hiring is able to relate just what happened for women after the war. And Blackwelder clearly states that she believes that this was a major turning point for women in the labor force and for women in general. “Women’s wages reached unprecedented levels, although the gender gap in pay persisted. Some of women’s wartime employment advances proved temporary, but the war so profoundly altered labor demands and women’s expectations that women entered the workforce in even greater numbers after the war.” (Blackwelder 122). Blackwelder is able to show that the assumption that women would simply return home after the war was wrong. Instead, more women continued to enter the workforce, proving just how much they wanted to continue to be independent. This article also points out the difference in married working women. The U.S.’s public opposition to married women working had to change when every single woman was needed, and after a short time, people even began to applaud the efforts of married women who had joined the labor force. The article continues and Blackwelder writes of the gender and racial barriers which slowly deteriorated during the war as well (Blackwelder 122).
The critical section of this article, however, is about how the war experience changed women and changed the postwar time. “Even though the war failed to narrow the gender gap in wages and many working women looked forward to full-time homemaking at war’s end, women’s war work changed the occupational structure permanently, and it changed women’s assessment of their own abilities.” (Blackwelder 133). Blackwelder’s statement cements the opinion of some during the 90s: that although the war did not change everything for women who wished to work, it was a turning point for public opinion and it was a catalyst for thousands of women who realized that they wished to work. This is backed by a survey done between 1944 and 1945 by the Women’s Bureau, which found that 75% of women intended to keep working after the war had ended. She is also quick to point out however, that although women were being praised for their willingness to work, there were many organizations who “...warned of the perils facing the nation’s children as their mothers went off to work.” (Blackwelder 134).
This followed the trend that began to pop up in magazines and was preached by prominent figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, towards the end of the war: instead of Rosie the Riveter on every storefront, people now saw advertisements emphasizing that women would soon return home. Blackwelder also notes that although there were many who believed women would return back home there were also people who had seen what women could do and realized just how valuable their contributions were. This really shows that, although we are able to look back and see the advances made by women in the workforce, this was a time of confusion for both men and women. This confusion was amplified by the fact that even when women were able to keep their jobs after the war, they were met with unequal pay and felt insecure in their positions. Despite these problems by “...1947 the female labor force had resumed growing, and the work rates of married women in 1947 exceeded those of 1944.” In conclusion, Blackwell states that the war did change women, “For both black and white women, the war had opened doors to new expectations and new job possibilities.” (Blackwelder 143).

These articles and these historians show the shifts in opinions on what impact World War II had for women in the workforce. From the early articles on these women to the differing opinions of two historians in the late 19th century we can see just how varied the ideas were and are surrounding the impact of this war for working women. During the time of the war, women were praised for their contributions yet they were also made aware of the fact that it was assumed everything would go back to how it was once the war ended. It is within the statistics and in the opinions of some historians, including Julia Blackwelder that we can see how wrong they were. Today, women make up half of the working force in America. It was the strength and the courage of the women who began to work and continued to pursue work after the war that allowed this statistic to come to fruition. The answer to the question of whether or not World War II was a turning point for working women has changed throughout the years yet Julia Kirk Blackwelder’s final words of her chapter sum up the more prevalent opinion on this matter: “In the actions and in the controversy that they provoked, the working wife and the working mother of the first half of the century paved the way for those who came after. Women workers in World War II played an especially significant role in shifting womens status because they cracked occupational barriers and because they attracted widespread attention from public, press, and government while on the job.” (Blackwelder 146). Today, it is more common to hear about World War II as a positive turning point for women in labor and as we look about our ever evolving world and see the wonderful improvements for women in general it is not hard to agree with the idea that this war made a great impact on the lives of women in America.


Bibliography:

Blackwelder, Julia. Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900-1995. Texas A and M University Press, 1997.

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

Longstreet, Stephen. “You’re In The Army, Mrs. Jones.” Pic Magazine, 16 February 1943, 1-3.

“What kind of Women are the WAAC’S?” Click Magazine, November 1942, 18-23.

“Women’s Reserve, U.S. Navy.” Think Magazine, 1946, 1.



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