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Women in World War II

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Published: Tue, 18 Jul 2017

The changes that women underwent in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s would be felt by generations to come. Many women lives changed in many ways during World War II. Men went to war and went to work in factories in other parts of the country. With fewer men in the workforce, women had to fill more traditionally male jobs and had to pick up their husband’s responsibilities. Most women thought there place was to be in the home and to take care of the wounded soldiers. Their main responsibility was cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children, and looking her best. Women were not only asked to complete daily chores and responsibilities that were normally expected of them, instead they were asked to go to work during war time. So when the war broke out, and it was clear that America would not be able to win the war without the help of their women. The traditional housewives and mothers turned into wartime workers. During World War II, many women found that their roles, opportunities, and responsibilities expanded dramatically.

When World War II started, everyone agreed that workers were needed. They also agreed that having women work in the industries would be temporary. But the United States government had to overcome challenges to recruit women to the workforce. So the government decided to launch a propaganda campaign to sell the importance of the war effort and to lure women into working. When most men went off to fight, women were left to pick up the work the men left behind and forcing wives and mothers to keep life running smoothly. It was soon realized that, no matter how “untraditional” or “unfeminine” it was for a woman to work outside the home, it would have to be done. Women worked in all manner of production ranging from making ammunition to uniforms to aeroplanes. The hours they worked were long and some women had to move to where the factories were. Those who moved away were paid more. More than 1,000 women served as pilots associated with the US Air Force in the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) but were considered civil service workers, and weren’t recognized for their military service until the 1970s.(Lewis) Women became welders and riveters in the aircraft, shipbuilding, and ordnance industries, demonstrating their competence in what were male jobs. Women faced inequality while they went to work in industries. Management denied them equal status in the workplace. Women often encountered hostility from male coworkers and managers. Segregation by gender was common on the shop floor, and separate seniority lists were kept for men and women. They were also paid a lower wage than what I man would get paid. Even though women faced inequality they had jobs as mechanics, engineers, tank drivers, plumbers, building ships, and making bombs and aircraft parts during the war.

As women were the managers of the home, the shortage of domestic resources fell more heavily on women to provide. Women’s shopping and food preparation habits were affected by having to deal with stamps or other rationing methods, as well as the increased likelihood that she was working outside the home in addition to her homemaking responsibilities. Suddenly as a result of the war much of the supplies that a housewife used to complete her everyday chores were gone. A 1940’s housewife could not buy a staple like sugar at the grocery store, because the sugar cane supply was significantly diminshed. What sugar was left was vital to the war effort, because it makes molasses; molasses makes ethyl alcohol; and alcohol makes the powder which fires guns and serves as Torpedo fuel, dynamite, nitrocotton, and other chemicals desperately needed by the American military. The availability of this product to the American people was very limited and as a result it was considered a rationed item. Many worked in volunteer organizations connected with the war effort. Women were urged by organized propaganda campaigns to practice helping the economy by carrying groceries instead of using the car to preserve tire rubber for the war effort, to grow more of their family food in victory gardens, to sew and repair clothing rather than buying new clothes, raise money and contribute to war bonds, and give confidence of the war effort through sacrifice.

However, more than 59,000 American nurses served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.(Osborn) Nurses worked closer to the front lines than they ever had before. With establishment of the Army Medical Department during the war, nurses served under fire in field and evacuation hospitals, trains, and ships, and as flight nurses on medical transport planes. The skill and work of these nurses contributed to low injuries among American military forces in every part of the war. Only a small number of black nurses were accepted in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II because of the Quota System. It was imposed by the segregated army during the two years of the war which held down the number of black enrollments. The Army limited the number of black nurses in the Nurse Corps to 160.(Osborn) Army authorities argued that assignments available to black nurses were limited because they were only allowed to care for black troops in black wards or hospitals. American soldiers who received care but could not be helped either died from wounds or diseases. The Women’s Army Corps was successful because its mission, to aid the United States in time of war, was part of a larger national effort that required selfless sacrifice from all Americans. The war effort initiated vast economic and social changes, and indelibly altered the role of women in American society. 

As a result, when the United States entered the war, 12 million women were already working and by the end of the war, the number was up to 18 million due to the promoting of the fictional character “Rosie the Riveter” as the ideal worker: loyal, efficient, patriotic, and pretty. Women responded to the call to work differently depending on race, age, class, marital status, and number of children.(Gluck) Half of the women that took the jobs were minority or lower-class women who were already in the workforce. They switched from low paying jobs to higher factory paying jobs. But with the women they had, it was not enough they recruited women that were graduating from high school. The demands in the labor market were so severe that women with children under six took the jobs. They did not really want married women with young children even if they were needed because their husbands would not want them to work in factories or industries. They were known as homemakers, which stayed home and cared for the family. The government feared that the rise in working mothers would increase the rise in juvenile delinquency. Most women would quit their job if they were not happy with their pay, location, or environment. Unlike men, women suffered from double shift of work and caring for the family at home. Some working mothers had childcare problems and the public blamed them for the rise in juveniles’ behaviors. 90% of the mothers thought they could best serve the war effort by staying at home.(Hartmann) Women enjoyed working in male jobs but did not like the changes in men’s attitudes. The women faced harrasment, teasing, and unwanted advances. One of the reason that men resented women in the workplace was because, in the absence of a male majority, females demonstrated that they could survive without the domination and supervision of men. Men tried at every opportunity to return women to their proper place in the home and in society. Male employees were suspicious of women. Companies saw those women’s needs and desires on the job as secondary to men’s, so they were not taken seriously or given much attention. In addition, male employers denied women positions of power excluding them from the decision-making process of the company. Women wanted to be treated like the male workers and not given special consideration just because they are women. As time went on, more women entered the workforce and the attitude towards women changed. The employers praised them.

As in every war, some spies and resistance fighters were women. Besides the obvious ability of women to use sexual favors and blackmail to get secrets, the image of women’s purity and morality worked against suspicion of women.

The wonderful needs faced by the United States during World War II created numerous new social and economic opportunities for American women. Both society as a whole and the United States military found an increasing number of roles for women. As large numbers of women entered industry and many of the professions for the first time, the military service took men and women from small towns and large cities across America and transported them around the world. After the war, many women remained in the workforce but employers forced them back to lower-paying female jobs. Most women were laid off and told to go back their homes and take care of the families. Their wartime experiences broadened their lives as well as their expectations.


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