Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Doherty: Working Class Women's Contribution to the 'War Effort'
Working Class Women’s Contribution to the “War Effort”
The United States’ entrance into World War II called upon all American people—men and women, young and old-- to aid in the war effort. The war not only required men and women to work overseas, but take on new work on the home front as well. Once the number of military volunteers decreased and the draft was set in motion, the male population began to dwindle rather quickly. Women, mostly from the working class, were called upon to fill the positions of those men who had left for war. Before the war, the majority of women who worked were often young and single. Once the war began, however, women of all ages, both married and single flooded into the workplace. Contributing to the war effort was incredibly important to many women. According to the National WWII Museum of New Orleans, “not only did they give their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers to the war effort, they gave their time, energy, and some even gave their lives.” This paper will focus on the women who made up the wartime working class during the early 1940s and will detail their contributions to the war effort, their personal achievements, and the government’s treatment and recruitment of these women workers.
Initially, because of the common belief that women, especially married women, should not work in the industries that now required their labor, the government and individual companies had to find ways to make manual labor more acceptable for women. Propaganda, as it turned out, was the answer to this dilemma. Used most often to instill a sense of patriotism, war propaganda spread like wild fire throughout the United States. In a pamphlet distributed to the people of Mobile, Alabama by the War Manpower Commission, a commission given the task of recruiting more women into the workforce, the Commission attempted to frighten women into the workplace by evoking the image of Hitler and the threat he presented to the American people:
If Hitler came to Mobile, every woman would defend her home with a gun, a knife or her bare fingers…Hitler and his hordes will not come if women help to build ships, more ships to transport our men, tanks, planes and munitions to the battle lines on other Continents – or if women take other jobs directly aiding the war effort.3
One of the most famous icons to emerge from the propaganda of World War II was Rosie the Riveter, a woman wearing a work shirt and bandanna, flexing her bicep. Rosie the Riveter, along with her signature phrase “We Can Do It,” became a national symbol and the epitome of what an American woman factory worker looked like during the war.
The government’s emphasis on the necessity of women taking jobs to assist in the war effort was a complete contradiction to the idea of the “traditional female role”, or the belief that women were meant to remain within the domestic sphere.4 According to a pamphlet titled “Womanpower,” fifty four percent of husbands claimed they were opposed to the suggestion that their wives should take jobs. It was not just husbands who were unhappy with the idea of their wives entering the workforce, but in fact, the majority of the male population was displeased with it despite the general need for more workers. Some women were even accused of stealing jobs that rightfully belonged to men. “Womanpower” was actually geared towards both men and women. It even states, “the information campaigns must convince…the men that women are needed in war jobs,” as well as convince “the husbands that their wives (if they have no young children) should take war jobs.”6 Though men’s negative feelings towards women taking jobs in traditionally masculine industries remained, the existence of such government propaganda demonstrated that the prospect of a more equal working future between the genders was not so farfetched.
Despite the opposition of men, working women responded to the wartime labor shortage and the significant increase in wages that came along with it. Women streamed into the factories and shipyards, and worked in manufacturing jobs that had always been traditionally male occupations. Many performed physically hard labor, and a few women were even trained in what can be considered skilled labor. Comparable to the image of Rosie the Riveter, the majority of these women were proud to be aiding in the war effort and many women remember their time in the war plants fondly. Delana Jensen Close was one of the many women who worked in a war plant. Born in Utah, Close moved to California and began working at the Yuba Manufacturing Company building artillery pieces.7 She describes working with the manufacturing company during the war as “living in a special time and place. There was an energy in the air and in the people. We were wanted and needed and important to the war effort.”8 Close’s description of this sense of unity among the workers shows that the gender roles of the 1940s were not forgotten, but were at least set aside in order to benefit the war industry.
Because wages during World War II more than doubled that of what they had been, some women were able to save a fair amount of their income. Along with their savings and their purchasing of war bonds, these women prospered and a few were even able to purchase houses or start small businesses once the war ended. According to the National Archives of Atlanta, “these women had saved much of their wages since there was little to buy during the war. It was this money that helped serve as a down payment for a new home and helped launch the prosperity of the 1950s.”9 Donna Jean Harvey, who worked at several different factories throughout the war, was able to save enough of her wages to open a beauty salon after the war had ended.10 Being able to save enough to open a beauty salon or even for a down payment on a house was a huge accomplishment for a woman of the working class.
The influx of women into the workplace during World War II also introduced the possibility of gender equality and financial independence without the stigma of being a woman in a male dominated place of work. While many women continued to choose to marry at young ages, especially during the war, the higher wages presented by the manufacturing industry offered working class women the option of remaining unmarried and therefore not dependent upon spouses. It is unlikely that a young woman in the 1940s would choose independence because of the ever-present gender expectations, but even just having the opportunity seemed like an achievement. Gender equality remained an elusive goal, but during the war, as Delana Jensen Close implies, there was a sense of unity among all industrial workers. The effects were not immediate, but these women paved the way for future generations of working women.
Unfortunately for the women of the working class, once the war had ended they were expected to forfeit their new jobs and higher wages to the men returning home in a process historians have called “reconversion.” Because the women who worked in manufacturing during World War II had been deemed as only essential to the war effort, they were often laid off and encouraged to either enter more acceptable female occupations, like teaching or secretarial work, or to resume more conventional roles for women, like mothers and homemakers. These women may have returned to more “traditional” roles, but for a short time they had succeeded in breaking the social norms, which would lead to greater triumphs in the future. According to archived American Documents at Glasgow University,
Despite postwar setbacks, women continued to enter the work force during the 1940s and 1950s, especially in traditionally female jobs, working as production line operatives or in the clerical, teaching, or health fields. Most important, the wartime work experience of women demonstrated that they were capable of an expanded role in society, which stimulated the feminist movement of the 1950s.11
Those women who did not give up their jobs after the war, were frowned upon by the majority of the American people. In critics’ eyes, manufacturing jobs rightly belonged to men, and any woman who remained was taking labor opportunities away from men who where better suited to the work.
As a result of World War II, women were able to break into traditionally masculine industries such as the aircraft manufacturing industry. The government’s attempt to bring more women into the workforce resulted in a somewhat softened attitude towards women laborers for the duration of the war. The labor opportunities working class women enjoyed during the war opened a whole world of possibilities, and proved to them that “when given a chance, women were capable of performing in the work place as well as men.”12 Even though the women who entered the manufacturing industry during this period were merely the temporary solution to the labor shortage caused by the war, their brief but important introduction to the labor force proved that they were capable of doing much more than what was conventionally expected of them.
The National WWII Museum of New Orleans, "American Women in World War II: On the Home Front and Beyond,” Women in WWII at a Glance, http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/ww2-history/at-a-glance/women-in-ww2.html.
National Archives at Atlanta, "Women in the Work Force during World War II," World War II, http://www.archives.gov/atlanta/education/resources-by-state/wwii-women.html.
33 War Manpower Commission, "War Manpower job flyer promoting women to register for War Jobs, 1942,” World War II, National Archive at Atlanta, http://www.archives.gov/atlanta/education/resources-by-state/wwii-women.html.
44 National Archives at Glasgow University, "Women in Industry During World War II," America in the 1930s and 1940s, http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/CAS/HISTORY/AmericaLevel2/Women/women.htm.
National Archives at Atlanta, “Women in the Work Force during World War II."
66 National Archives at Atlanta, "Womanpower,” World War II, http://www.archives.gov/atlanta/education/resources-by-state/wwii-women.html.
77 Delana Jensen Close, “Delana Jensen Close,” Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II. National Park Services, http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/delana.htm
88 Delana Jensen Close, “Delana Jensen Close.”
99 National Archives of Atlanta, "Women in the Work Force during World War II."
1010 Donna Jean Harvey, “Donna Jean Harvey,” Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II. National Park Services, http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/donna.htm
1111 National Archives at Glasgow University, "Women in Industry During World War II,"
1212 National Archives at Glasgow University, "Women in Industry During World War II,"