“After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor the young men of America poured out of the factories and offices to line up at the recruiting offices. The young women of America lined up at the factories and arsenals to fill the traditional male jobs left vacant by those who went off to fight.”
The wartime’s manufacturing production demands during World War II dramatically changed the role of women in American society. They quickly moved from a basic homemaking role to take on the kinds of factory jobs previously held almost exclusively by men. This initiated a fundamental shift in the society’s attitude toward women working outside of the home, a shift that continues to this day.
Before the war began, there was no “Rosie the Riveter”; the vast majority of women were either housewives or employed in “typical” female jobs, such as teachers, nurses, policewomen, waitresses and cashiers. While there were some exceptions, they were uncommon; women had generally been expected to stay home, raise children and do housework. Once World War II broke out, however, the lack of men left a large gap in the labor force, leaving women the only ones able to fill the roles.
Role of Women: Pre-World War II
The rights of women in American society have undergone enormous change from the early days of the settling of America by Europeans when women were considered the property first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Students of the history of women’s rights point to Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book "The Vindication of the Rights of Women" as the first clear argument for equality of the sexes.
In the course of the 19th century, many women, prominent among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, argued and agitated for full inclusion of women in the governing of the United States. One of the great consequences was the ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
However, this right to vote did little to change the role of the average woman in public or family life.
The typical jobs that women held before the war were mainly comprised of nurses, teachers, office workers, policewomen, clerks, waitress, maids, stewardesses, cashiers and, of course, housewives. Many states had laws that restricted the jobs women held and the number of hours they were permitted to work. Most industrial jobs, both in management and in the factory, were held by men. Men were considered the breadwinners of the family, and the woman’s primary roles were wife, mother and homemaker.
Women in Literature and the
Women’s roles as portrayed in literature and mass media give insight into their lives. Prior to World War II, most women that the media portrayed were shown as being either in “typical” female occupations (nearly half of them) or as not having a job at all (nearly a third). Less than one-fifth of fictional women in stories were portrayed as having “men’s jobs” such as business executives, factory workers, police officers, psychologists and such.
The Demands of War
The war changed the role of women particularly because they were needed to take on the roles that men had held. Women made rockets, bombs, bullets, cannons, tanks, boats, planes, guns, trucks and more. Other roles included bagging gunpowder, manufacturing artillery shells and other explosives, spray painting, welding, working with chemicals, driving trucks, testing weapons, ferrying bombers and aircrafts and repairing vehicles.
Call of Men to Military
Because most men were away fighting the war, there was now a significant gap in the labor force. A high level of industrial production was essential to the war effort, and many women joined the workforce to fill the jobs.
Manufacturing Needs During the
Labor shortages began to become a problem in fields such as the skilled metal trades, steel production, shipping and aircraft and ammunition assembly. However, women were able and willing to take on the tasks. For women, the jobs were not only more stimulating than the traditional occupations, but the wages they earned were higher.
Women in Manufacturing Roles
Not only did the war provide new opportunities for women in the industrial workforce, it also provided an impetus for women to re-evaluate their rights and roles. In a sense, the war reignited feminism: “The war not only paved the way for homemakers to take on outside jobs but laid down important bases for emergence of the second wave of feminism.
Women in Literature and the Mass
Media During the War
By 1943, portrayal of women in media had changed, especially since so many women had joined the war effort. More than a fourth of women now were shown as doing “men’s work,” and the number of women in traditional roles had dropped to 33 percent. In 1945, before the war had ended, the numbers were at a peak, with women shown in men’s roles reaching almost fifty percent. Only one-fifth of women were still depicted in their typical roles, compared to the pre-war 44 percent.
Rosie the Riveter
One image that captured much of this shift in women’s roles was “Rosie the Riveter.” Rosie the Riveter was based on a real person—two, in fact. The woman who inspired the 1942 song about Rosie the Riveters was a New York philanthropist named Rosalind P. Walter. However, the famous images of the “Rosie the Riveter” woman seen in the numerous posters, ads and other art forms was a woman named Rose Monroe. She wasn’t just a poster girl who posed for the images, though; Monroe was working as a real-life riveter, building B-29 and B-24 airplanes at a Michigan factory.
Lena Goff, a 95-year-old local nursing home resident, was typical of women who were able to advance as a result of the war effort. I interviewed her about life during the war, and she said, “They took all the women and found out that they could get the job done just as well as men.”
Goff herself worked as a machinist and quality control inspector at munitions plants along the Mississippi River. She delights in recalling how many of the male machinists tried to “snow her” about the quality of their work, until she stepped in and ran their machining equipment even more skillfully than they were able to. From that point on, she was respected and obeyed.
Goff, though probably an extraordinary person under any circumstances, illustrates the grudging acceptance—and the success—of women in the workforce during the war.
“The ‘Rosie the Riveter’ movement is credited with helping push the number of working women to 20,000,000 during four years of war, a 57 percent jump from 1940. About 300,000 women were employed in the War Department alone in November 1943.”
Return of the Men
When the war ended in 1945, thousands of men returned to their hometowns, and to the workforce. Still seen as the “breadwinners” of their families, they replaced many of the women that had been pulled into the workforce. Additionally, many of the munitions-based jobs that women had held simply ended when the war ended.
The G.I. Bill
After World War I, when veterans returned home, a recession ensued, leaving millions of people unemployed and homeless. Twice as many would return home from World War II, and so the American Legion proposed a “G.I. bill.” The idea was to provide soldiers with jobs and education when they returned home.
The bill proved a
great success, leading not only to changes in college education itself, but also
to changes in who could be educated. College no longer belonged exclusively to
the upper class, but opened up to women and minorities as well. Additionally the
bill resulted in a huge housing boom and the emergence of a large middle class.
Women Return to Their Roles at Home
“When G.I. Joe came marching home, most women returned to domestic roles.” Not all women, however, were happy about returning to their roles as housewives and mothers; many had enjoyed both the freedom and the responsibility of working in industry, but they were largely forced out by the return of the men.
The “Baby Boom”
Of course, not all women in the workforce during the war were married or mothers, but the return home of the men resulted in a sudden jump in marriages and children. The children born in the period of time after the war’s end became known as “Baby Boomers,” and this contributed to the return of women to the role of wife, mother and homemaker.
Women in Literature and the Mass Media After the War
Because of the return of men to the workforce and the subsequent return of women to the home, literature and mass media modified their portrayal of fictional women. The fictional women who were shown in men’s jobs dropped to just 13 percent. Seventeen percent of the women appeared back in the normal female roles, but now 58 percent were shown as having no job.
In Betty Friedan's “The Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963, Friedan attempted to explain what had become of the working-class women after the war was over. She said that the image of the post-war women was “young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies and home.”
The notion of “Rosie the Riveter” was gone since the war was over, women having been made to return to their homes.
The Role of Women Today
The Two-Career Family
Since the 1970s, many families have moved to a two-career model where both husband and wife provide income for the family. Responsibilities for raising the children are sometimes shared, and sometimes handed over to child care facilities. Laws restricting the kinds of jobs and number of hours that women could work have been repealed, and legally at least, women are eligible for any job (with the exception of some military combat roles) for which men are eligible.
The “Glass Ceiling”
One complaint of many women’s rights activists is that women continue to not be paid at an equal rate for the same (or similar) jobs that men hold. Additionally, it has been said that there is a “glass ceiling” which prevents women from rising to the upper levels of management in corporations. This seems to be more true in traditional manufacturing companies and service industries, and less true in new industries and service companies, such as computer manufacturers and software developers.
Although there is continuing debate on the availability of opportunities for women and the need for laws to enforce their rights to opportunities, it is clear that this is an area where equality is not yet a reality.
Before World War II, most everyone, from employers to the government, held to a belief that there were basically two categories of jobs when it came to women: those that women were suited to, and those that they were not suited to. Part of the reason was simple prejudice; throughout history, men were almost always the aggressive, heavy-labor workers, and women were the subservient housewives and mothers. Some people, however, simply felt that women were, for various reasons, not capable of the tasks found in “manly” occupations. When the men marched off to war, though, women everywhere decided it was time to take a stand and prove that they could do anything men could do.
Shortly after the war began, posters featuring women began to appear; there was a new image of women, and it took the form of “Rosie the Riveter,” a woman whose picture symbolized the women’s wartime workforce. Women chose to take on men’s roles for a few reasons: for one thing, there was a large gap in the labor force, and there had to be someone around to produce the tools for combat. There was more to it than that, however; they jumped at the chance to be able to prove themselves capable. Additionally, many women found higher pay, better hours, and the labor was stimulating.
Once the war was won, the men came back home. In post-war years, “the percentage of women working in heavy industry dropped to its pre-war level while women working jobs normally held by men also found themselves being laid-off as well.” Many women were laid off; others simply left their jobs to go home. Rosie the Riveter, the icon created by the mass media to look powerful and rugged, was gone. In fact, images, advertisements and posters were now appearing with plain, domestic-looking women. The same propaganda-style ads and posters that had convinced women to go to war, were now being used to try to convince women to want domestic roles again.
The “Rosie the Riveter” movement itself did not have much of a direct impact on women’s roles, or at least not for some time. In recent years, however, many women have used the movement to help their case against unequal employment. Women have more rights than before, and progress has been made against job discrimination and inequality. Problems such as the “glass ceiling” still exist in the workplace, but women have turned to previous women’s suffrage and women’s liberation movements for encouragement and support, seeing that many females of the past have made a difference for the rights of women. As for Rosie herself, the image faded with the aftermath of the war, but she made a lasting impression. Women dealt with many conflicts and challenges during their first experience in the heavy labor industry. “But they continued to work. And through their efforts, support for the soldiers never lagged and they contributed to the victory in the war to end all wars.’ And they changed the workplace forever.”
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