Women and World War II

By: Olivia Hernandez 

During World War II, for the first time in American history, the majority of women occupied jobs outside of the household. Thousands of women began contributing to the war effort, holding new positions in factories and steel mills, or rather the kinds of jobs men traditionally filled. On a national scale, newsstands in the U.S. were filled with propaganda promoting the image of Rosie the Riveter, a strong female worker, in order to empower and mobilize the female population. It is conventionally believed that the augmented female presence in the workforce during World War II catalyzed a cultural shift after the war that highlighted the capabilities of women and opened new doors for the female demographic in terms of gender equality. However, while it is true that women’s economic opportunities increased, it is clear that women were only pushed into the workforce in order to compensate for the absence of servicemen, and that both during and after the war, women were treated unequally in terms of wage. In fact, the mass mobilization of women during World War II resulted in the opposite effect, in that after the war, women were pushed back into their predetermined societal roles as housewives more than ever, thus proving that no true ideological shift occurred.

World War II was a period of great change, suddenly at the dawn of global turmoil, each American was tasked with finding their own unique way to contribute to the war effort. In the spirit of being patriotic, some on the Homefront planted Victory Gardens while a large portion of the female population joined the workforce, taking jobs that were “previously forbidden to the ‘weaker sex’”, giving them the opportunity to extend their influence outside of the nuclear family. Naturally, because so many men were enlisted, there was a significant rise in economic opportunity for women. In fact, statistics show that the amount of women in the workforce increased from “10.8 million in March, 1941, to more than 18 million in August, 1944.”  

While it is clear that women’s economic opportunities increased, one must consider that it did not exactly result in a prevailing societal change. Furthermore, the rise of numbers was not a sort of cultural revolution, but rather a ploy by the US to fill the vacant jobs and produce materials for warfare. Proof of this can be observed in the spread of propaganda. Ironically, while conventional reasoning assumes that pictures of Rosie the Riveter were spread for the sake of female empowerment, under further inspection, it is clear that the propaganda only served to encourage women to enter the workforce in order to compensate for the labor shortage. In truth, the propaganda itself, while has been adopted today by many feminist organizations was not linked to feminism at the time. Nonetheless, while it is certainly possible that the propaganda empowered some, one must realize that it was spread as a tactic to recruit women into the workforce in order to support the United States economically during wartime.  

Likewise, one can conclude that the United States was only after economic gain rather than supporting gender equality when looking at the establishing and shutting down of day care centers. For example, across the country, day care centers were established in recognition of the fact that in order to encourage women to join the workforce, the government would need to accommodate for a mother’s familial needs. It is important to note that “[a care center’s] sole purpose was to help recruit women into the labor force” and that “such care was not designed to give women greater independence, but merely to free women to leave home and produce war material”. Furthermore, when the war was over, all the care centers were shut down, “women were to leave their ‘temporary’ jobs, return home, and resume their ‘real’ jobs as mothers and wives”. This mentality proves the lack of concrete societal change.  

Interestingly, even though companies throughout the United States encouraged women to occupy the workforce, they resisted offering them equal pay and even tried to find loopholes out of doing so. Throughout American history, equal pay for men and women has always been a topic of controversy. Many argued that women did not and could not work the skilled jobs that men did, and therefore should not receive equal remuneration. However, the overt injustice of unequal pay became more obvious as women started doing the same skilled jobs men held just as efficiently. As a result, new governmental policies were put in place, encouraging equal-pay-for-equal-work, however, employers found ways around this rule by “designating activities as ‘women’s’ or ‘men’s’ work”. As a result, “women continued to be shut out of ‘men’s’ work [and] women rarely [had] the opportunity to find ‘equal’ work again”. This reiterates the fact that “the change was not ideology”, but rather the need for a new source of cheap labour.

Lastly, if a true ideological shift occurred regarding women’s roles in society, surely after the war one would have seen a lasting effect. However, “just as the onset of war brought a great swelling in the number of women active in the labor force, so the winding down meant a decline in the number of women working”. Statistics show that “from June to September, 1945, one out of every four women in United States factories lost her job”. This was of course due to the fact that men came home from the war in search for their abandoned jobs. If a women still wanted to work, she was pushed into the less desirable jobs and was seen as a “cheap, unprotected laborers”. For the most part however, women were forced to return back to their predetermined societal roles as housewives. Soon the tough and hardworking depictions of wartime women were replaced with the expectation that a women should be a feminine housewife who took care of the household and pleased her husband.

Further proof that the ideology did not shift with the mobilization of millions of women during World War II can be seen in the reaction to working women during the post war era. For instance, during the post war world,  when a women wanted to have an occupation, many famous writers of the time “critiqued women who wished to pursue a career, referring to them as “unlovely women”... [who are] “suffering from penis envy,” “ridden with guilt complexes,” or just plain “man-hating”. This sort of publicity was projected throughout the time, ultimately pushing a woman's influence back into the nuclear family. Consequently, “as soon as the war was over, the ‘working woman’ ceased to exist... being replaced by ‘the bride’.

While it would seem that women’s significant involvement in the contribution to the war effort would have altered the cultural view of women’s societal, it is clear that they were only viewed as displaced homemakers during the war and that in the post war world they would have to face ridicule if they wished to defy the stereotypical image of an American housewife. Therefore, despite proving that they were just as capable as men during the war, their presence in the workforce, while may have empowered some at the time, was not meant to be a social revolution, but simply means for the United States army make production ends meet, resulting in no lasting societal change.