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Drastic Change In Women Across The Country History Essay

The United States' entrance into World War II in 1941 instigated a drastic change in the lives of women across the country. Men were being drafted into the military and were forced to leave their jobs and homes, thus providing women the greatest opportunity to exit the "woman's sphere" of working in the home and enter non-traditional positions. Throughout the country, women flocked to factory jobs that were occupied by men before the war; they also entered the armed forces in small numbers and volunteered as nurses to aid military men on the warfront. Not only did this war affect women of the particular time, but it set in motion revolutionary events that would influence the opportunities of women through future generations.

The effects of the Second World War upon women were first observed in the nursing field. The constant need to recruit women into the Army and Navy Nurse Corps was a major dilemma throughout the course of the war. In the book American Women and WWII, author Doris Weatherford states that "by 1944, the nation needed 66,000 nurses for the military and almost 300,000 for civilian duty" (16). The demand exceeded the supply by 100,000 nurses. How would the U.S. federal government go about lessening the shortage when nurses had never been in this high of a demand during previous wars?

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At the time, women had to pay for their own education before they could become a volunteer nurse in the military, and nursing was largely accepted as a low-paying job if chosen as a career path. The Bolton Act was finally passed in May of 1943 as a way to support women with financial aid for nursing school, which would prospectively increase women's interest in becoming a nurse. It helped improve the numbers to some extent, but the programs under the bill for recruitment proved unproductive. Recruiters' had difficulties persuading each woman that becoming a nurse was the best decision she could make for her future family and finances and for the war effort. Even though the bill provided women a free education, it was evident that they could earn a striking income in the industrial field rather than spend unnecessary time to become educated as a volunteer nurse without gaining a paycheck. Despite recruiting efforts not being successful, the recruitment of nurses expressed the beginnings of the call for women to exit the long-accepted Victorian idealism and carry out the stipulations required for the U.S. to win the war.

Nurses were the only group of women close to the front lines of battle; therefore, authorities decided they needed more training to prepare for the trials to come. Training centers were set up in areas such as Arizona to simulate the heat they might encounter in other areas of the world. Conditions at these Army and Navy Nurse Corps training facilities were extremely rigorous (Darnton SM18). Officials wanted to prevent what had happened in 1941 when the Army Nurse Corps in Manila witnessed a tremendous amount of anguish as Japanese forces took over this area. Each of these women had to take care of 200 to 300 wounded at a time. The food and supplies had to be rationed because of the dire circumstances of an approaching enemy. Eventually, many of the nurses were even taken as prisoners of war into Japanese war camps in early 1942. These prisoners were not freed until 1945. Life as a nurse in the military took courage, stamina and bravery; the women at this time did not disappoint but proved themselves able to handle the hardships that came with the devastation of war.

During this crucial war, women played an important role in the actual military service itself as they joined women's organizations for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. However, many people had great misgivings about them becoming a part of the United States armed forces, especially at a time when the "woman's sphere" was regarded to be the soul position for the female gender. Even though women would not be involved in direct combat, people questioned whether or not they could handle the physical stress involved in warfare or that they might be pampered. Despite this view, women proved to be mentally strong and able to handle the pressures placed upon them while simultaneously helping bolster the morale of the soldiers.

Women proved their worth in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, an organization originally established in 1942 to replace the volunteers at mobile aircraft warning stations. The volunteers at the stations would help alert and protect the allied forces from enemy planes. Women were thought to be more attentive and faster performing this work compared to men. Also, women had clearer radio voices as opposed to men's voices that often sounded garbled. Eventually, the WAAC jobs "grew to 401 of the Army's 625 occupational categories" (Weatherford 63). Women were found to be efficient with other jobs as well, such as reconnaissance photography, because they had excellent observation and could see details. The WAAC lasted from 1942 to 1943 and was replaced and renamed in 1943 by the Women's Army Corps. The women of the WACs learned many important skills that they could take with them and incorporate back into civilian life. Whereas before the war they were seen as influential within their own communities, they could now see themselves as important on a global scale working towards the war effort. The training they received would eventually prove to be valuable in the future by qualifying them for executive and leadership positions throughout the country.

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The Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), an organization for the Navy, was considered a slightly more elite group of the military who had to be well-educated prior to acceptance. These women were required to have degrees that would apply to their duties as a WAVE and were consequently put into positions of authority. They were often placed in responsibility of personnel records and decisions made in that area. For example, Captain Winifred Quick Collins (1911-1999) held a degree in Business Administration from the University of Southern California and attended a management training program at Harvard/ Radcliffe. She was encouraged to join the military by a colleague and observed firsthand the obstacles women had to overcome in the military and how the navy eventually came to rely on women as in integral part of the system. In her book, More Than a Uniform, she states, "the new job made many more demands of me than I had experienced at either of my previous personnel positions. The responsibilities were greater and my deadline was shorter. It was like accelerating in a quantum leap from five miles per hour to a hundred miles per hour" (53 Collins). Even so, her seemingly anxious perspective about the rigid demands did not deter her from performing her absolute best, a more than satisfactory job well done. Eventually, through her strong organizational ability, Winifred Collins achieved the highest honor a woman could receive in the Navy at the time, that of Captain.

Another especially significant role women played during WWII was found on the home front. As briefly mentioned before, if women were not joining the military or volunteering as nurses, all over the country they were playing a vital role in producing supplies for the armed forces and taking over jobs that men had left open after heading for battle. "Rosie the Riveter" was established as a symbolic figure representing industrial working women and was also used in two well-known poster advertisements, one by J. Howard Miller and the other by Norman Rockwell. The significance of women working in factories was not only the fact that they had the opportunity to fill in for positions previously held by men, but women often proved to be more competent than men in specific tasks within industrial production. Women were superior in a variety of areas; however, as one would expect, their physical strength was their main hindrance to factory work.

In particular, plant managers discovered the significance of women in how their small fingers were well-suited for arranging the intricate components involved in the construction of military equipment, including the tiny parts used to make voltmeters and tachometers. In Adams article, "Women in Democracy's Arsenal," he includes a fact of scientific research from a fifteen-year test by Professor Johnson O'Connor, director of Human Engineering Laboratory at Stevens Institute. His findings were that women are better at finger dexterity, observation, number memory, accounting and clerical work. However, he rated women inferior to men in one area: visualization and being able to see things in three dimensions (Adams SM29). Not only were women more suitable than men for many jobs, they also took their work seriously. They took into account that if any part of a machine was not built to perfection, it could cost a soldier his life. Adams states, "On their skill and fidelity the life of many a pilot will hang, for to them is entrusted the vitally important work of covering the wings and control surfaces of every plane that is built there" (SM10). Therefore, the women in these plants performed each and every task to their greatest potential.

Although women proved more than capable during the entire war effort, many worried about what would happen after the war was over. Would women want to remain in the field in which they had been working and compete with men for jobs? At the beginning of the war, most women would have said that they would be happy to go back to life as usual (307 Weatherford). However, as the war came to a close, many women had changed their mind and expressed a financial need to continue working in order to provide for their families. Unfortunately, many women lost their jobs upon the return of men from war, including widows with a family to support. The Ford plant in Highland Park, Michigan, let go of 200 women workers who subsequently formed a protest and held signs that said to "stop discrimination because of sex" (Lewis 248). Now that the war was over, it seemed women were downgraded with little chance that they would ever gain the same pay as men.

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The economy after WWII gradually evolved from one that was manufacturing oriented into one that was more service oriented. Because of this, it became apparent that many jobs were a natural fit for women rather than men. Therefore, women eventually gained access into fields such as bookkeeping, bank telling and other white-collar jobs although not always at the higher pay they had been getting during the war. However, women learned something about themselves during their struggle for equality in the workforce during WWII. They learned of their strength and capability in completing important tasks while at the same time gaining pride in their accomplishments. Although it would be many years to come before women saw true equality in gaining jobs and receiving equal pay with men, women proved to themselves and others that they could accomplish great things during war which would carry on into the future. Eventually, in 2002 women would gain the military honors they so rightly deserved for their service during WWII.

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