Women on the Home Front as Agents of Change During World War II
Kelly Wild, Chris Wild, Jennifer Goring
The famous Rosie the Riveter image is more than just a colorful decorative piece. It is an image that represents a major win in the ongoing, uphill battle for women against a male-dominated working society. It is an image of independence. It is an image that will forever be a part of our history representing how women helped win a war and set the stage for women in the workforce.
In December of 1941 Japanese forces attacked pearl harbor, drawing the United States into World War II. With U.S. involvement in the war, hundreds of thousands of Americans joined the war effort overseas, leaving their duties and responsibilities on the home front vacant. As a result, American women played a vital role in U.S. wartime economy, continuing the work abandoned by men, in performing the new work of defense production. Consequently, women experienced vast changes in their daily lives. Changes that would last well beyond their time. The wartime economy created a number of jobs which women had never done before, jobs which gave women the economic freedom and independence they had never previously enjoyed under the restraints of a traditional male-dominated society. As Winona Espinosa, a riveter and bus driver during the war years states, "…the war really created opportunities for women. It was the first time we got a chance to show that we could do a lot of things that only men had done before." (1) Despite these temporary gains, the status of women in the labor force after the war was really no better than it had been before. However, many of the women who had actively participated in the war effort emerged from their experiences with increased self-confidence and self-reliance, with pride.
With the large numbers of young men entering the armed forces during World War II, a severe labor shortage was created on the United States home front. This shortage rapidly brought women into the labor force. In the early stages of the war, however, women were among the last hired. It was only when it was realized that the number on available male workers was becoming exhausted, that employers were forced to abandon some of their discriminatory policies, and the demand for women workers increased. (2) As a result, many recruitment efforts were made to encourage women to enter into the labor force.
Women were motivated to work for "primarily financial and patriotic" reasons. (3) Many women had no choice but to go to work when their husbands were away at the battles overseas. They worked in order to survive. They provided the primary source of income. Industrial work provided more money than had any other job women previously held. Work may also have been appealing these post Depression years, when work had been so scarce. This was an opportunity to earn more money than a woman traditionally had ever earned. Also, women may have seen this as a way to help the United States win the war. This would be very important because it would help to bring their beloved men home to them as quickly as possible.
Women became a significant part of the labor force, taking jobs that had traditionally been performed by men. "For the first time ever larger numbers of women were taking jobs as welders, riveters, security guards, cab drivers, and in a variety of other hitherto male occupations." (4) Women became a pivotal force in aircraft plants, lumber mills, shipyards, and many other industries. "At the wartime peak in July 1944, 19 million women were employed, an increase of 47 percent over the March 1940 level." (5) Of all the women employed in March of 1944, "61 percent had been working the week before Pearl Harbor , 17 percent had been students, unemployed, too young or unable to work, and only 22 percent had been housewives." (6) Despite the opening of new job categories to women, the war did not eliminate segregation by sex in the work force. Work tended to be categorized by sex, and women were placed in jobs that required less physical ability than those which required heavier and more skilled work. Eventually, though, this trend tended to disappear, as the war progressed and the demand for more employees increased.
In addition to segregation by sex in the workplace, women were also segregated by race. Discrimination against black women was unyielding. "The reason most commonly given by employers for the retention of discriminatory practices was the fear that the introduction of black women into their operations might provoke resistance on the part of white workers." (7) Employers were more willing to hire black men and white women than they were to hire black women. In many cases, black women were not considered a serious source of labor until shortages of white women and black men developed. Thus the relative position of black women in American society remained the same despite the upward mobility experienced by some during the war.
Nonwhite women were not the only women who were faced with discrimination during this time. Older women also faced discrimination in the work force. Several jobs were limited to women under a certain age. "Because they believed that women over forty could not stand the work as well as younger women, Boeing officials limited the number of older women hired. In addition to employment discrimination, older women faced unequal opportunities for advancement once they were on the job at Boeing." (8) Married women without young children were becoming more commonplace and accepted in the wartime labor force. Thus, the labor recruitment campaign focused on housewives, since they did not normally consider themselves a part of the labor supply. The reason for this was that it was believed that everyone would "go back to their preferred positions after the war." (9) Their work was to be temporary.
The introduction of women into jobs previously held exclusively by males created a number of adverse reactions and responses by men. Some believed that the addition of women into the labor force was necessary and unavoidable at this time, and accepted it. Others did not accept this. Many felt that women could not perform the duties required of them as well as men could, whereas others felt that the introduction of women into these fields would result in a breakdown of society. Marital discord would result as wives reacted jealously to their husbands working so closely with women. It was feared that the female workers would prove to be a distraction to the men. "Such responses revealed the inability of the men to perceive women outside the roles of housewife and sex object." (10) As a result, discrimination against women continued. Successful attempts were made to exclude women from obtaining certain jobs. Women were faced with sexual hostility as they took on industrial jobs for the first time. As Adele Erenberg , a machinist, recalls: "It took, I think, two weeks before anyone even talked to me. The discrimination was indescribable. They wanted to kill me." (11)
Taking on these industrial jobs also created other problems for women workers as well. Women were require to spend long hours on the job. For many women, factory work was not their only responsibility. Many also had the responsibility of taking care of their families. This dual responsibility created hardships upon these women. As a result, there was high absenteeism among females employees. In addition, women were paid significantly less that their male counterparts. Women were considered cheap labor. The unions did nothing to remedy this. Instead, the unions considered the long-term needs of men to take precedence over those of women.
Despite the increased employment of women during the war years, industry retained its male bias. Whereas women were encouraged to be strong and competent during the work hours of each day, they were also told to be "feminine", to be weak an attractive and dependent on men during their free time. These were very contradictory images, and the working woman found herself gaining no improvement in her absolute status once the war came to an end.
Both during and after the war, traditional patriarchal attitudes were stressed. The wives and mothers who were taking jobs for the first time were seen as disrupting traditional family values. Thus, the traditional family organization was emphasized at the expense of the growing independence of women. Women began to display assertiveness and independence once they entered the work force, and during this time there was a rise in the number of divorces. (12) Overall, there was hostility displayed toward women in the labor force. It went against every aspect of the patriarchal system which had been in place for so long.
Women were also subject to hardships as working mothers. In response to the growing need for female employees, the government implemented a federal child care program. However, qualifying for federal funds was extremely difficult, and many could not afford the public system. In addition, whereas public care for school aged children was partially accomplished, the need for child care services was hardly met for children under two years old. (13) The federal child care program served only a minority of those it had intended to: nursery schools were scarce, overcrowded, and expensive. Many women relied on their neighbors or relatives to care for their children in their absence, or even worked alternation shifts from those of their husbands so that their children would not be left alone. And in some instances, children were left to care for themselves while both of their parents were away at work. Child care was a major problem for working mothers.
When the war came to an end, it was assumed that working women would quietly and willingly withdraw from the labor force to make way for the men who would be seeking employment in their jobs once they returned home. Plants closed or were converted to peacetime work, and employment preference was to be given to the returning veterans. Many women gladly and willingly accepted this, and delighted at returning home to their families. However, many also strongly opposed this return to a male dominated society. They had enjoyed their independence, and had proven to themselves and to society that they could handle the hardships of being a member of the labor force. Because of this, many experienced frustration at not to being allowed continue. Women were the first ones to be laid-off from industrial employment with postwar reconversion . Their status in the labor force was no better than it had been before the war. "Although improvements were made in some areas, women remained a cheap labor force to be kept in reserve in anticipation of future needs and to be otherwise discriminated against in hiring, pay, and promotion." (14) In the postwar years, women shifted from high-paying industrial work to low-skilled, low paying "women’s" jobs, such as clerical and sales work.
The experiences that women had during the war years were different from any they had encountered prior to involvement in industrial employment. Many saw this as a temporary situation and welcomed the time when they would be able to return to the ways they had lived before. Joyce Taylor Holloway, a Naval Shipyard employee in Vallejo ,California , recalls her last day of work: "As I remember, it was around Labor Day that they signed the surrender on the Missouri , and that was my last day. I couldn’t get out of that job fast enough. Actually, I think 70 percent of the women were delighted to get out of slacks and bandannas." (15) Vi Kirstine Vrooman , a riveter at the Boeing Company in Seattle ,Washington , also expressed her relief at the conclusion of the war and the end of her career in defense: "I didn’t have any problems about it at all. It was like you were holding your job for your husband, maybe he was sick or something. We were supposed to go home and get married and have babies. I’ve talked to some people and find that there was some resentment among the women, but the women I worked with all felt this is the way it is: the guys are coming back and the women went back to jobs as little secretaries and nurses. It was different for me, of course. I was younger than most. And riveting and welding weren’t exactly the kind of jobs that women would stay on in, anyway. Not what women would ordinarily do." (16) It is clear from the words of these women that they were content to live in traditional patriarchal system. The conventional attitudes regarding the role of women in the family retained their appeal to these women, and many others like them.
On the other hand, many women didn’t intend to return to the lifestyle which they had once been so accustomed to. Their efforts in the war gave them a sense of independence and accomplishment. For example, in a 1984 interview, Inez Sauer, the Chief Clerk in a toolroom says that "before the war my life was bridge and golf clubs and children… I had always been in a shell; I’d always been protected. But at Boeing I found a freedom and an independence I had never known. After the war I could never go back to playing bridge again, being a clubwoman and listening to a lot of inanities when I knew there were things you could use your mind for. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up." (17) Edith Sokol , a daycare director in Cleveland, expresses her pleasure at her newfound freedom in a letter written to her husband, stationed overseas during the war: "I’m twice as independent as I used to be and top it off, I sometimes think I’ve become ‘hard as nails’…more and more I’ve been living as I want to…I do as I damn please." (18) Frankie Cooper, a Crane Operator, also adds to this sense of self-accomplishment and self-worth. In a 1984 interview, she proclaims that "…the women were different in World War II: they didn’t want to go back home, and many of them haven’t. And if they did go back home, they never forgot, and they told their daughters, ‘You don’t have to be just a homemaker. You can be anything you want to be.’ And so we’ve got this new generation of women." (19)
Throughout the period of World War II, women were faced with extreme discrimination as they entered into and became productive members of America ’s wartime economy. This war became a major turning point for women. It was at this time that the idea that a woman could not perform her household duties if she participated in outside employment became intensified. Society reacted to this by embracing and encouraging patriarchy. Domesticity became the postwar theme. An exaggerated emphasis was placed on family life and the traditional "feminine" roles of wife and mother. The importance of maternal care for children was stressed strongly. "After the war Dr. Benjamin Spock and others joined the ranks of those popularizing the idea that the healthy physical and emotional development of a child required a maternal involvement so thoroughgoing that it precluded any significant outside activities, including paid employment." (20) The traditional beliefs and practices of a male-dominated society were enforced. Women were to remain subordinate to and dependent upon men, to stay within the limitations of a patriarchal family.
Despite the harsh rejection of the new roles women were seeking through employment outside the home, many women gained a tremendous amount as a result of their efforts during the war. They learned that they no longer needed to rely on their husbands to be prosperous and content individuals. They could do this on their own. Through their active participation in the war labor force, they earned a new sense of self-confidence, independence, and freedom. They face the discrimination against them head-on. They didn’t give up. They were determined, and many realized that they could do more with their lives than just being wives and mothers. For many, this was the beginning of their emancipation as women. It is for this reason that the role of women during World War II on the United States home front played such a pivotal role in American society.
(1)Interviews by Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell, and Steven Schechter, "Rosie the Riveter Remembers, " American Heritage 35 (2) 1984, p.96.
(2)Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), pp. 26-27.
(3)Christy Wise and Nancy Baker Wise, A Mouthful of Rivets: Women at Work in World War II (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994), p.2.
(4) Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 32.
(6)Sherrie A Kossoudji and Laura J. Dresser, "Working Class Rosies: Women Industrial Workers during World War II," Journal of Economic History 52(2) 1992, p.433.
(7) Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 37.
(9) Sherrie A Kossoudji and Laura J. Dresser, "Working Class Rosies: Women Industrial Workers during World War II," Journal of Economic History 52(2) 1992, p.432.
(10) Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 45.
(11) Interviews by Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell, and Steven Schechter, "Rosie the Riveter Remembers, " American Heritage 35 (2) 1984, p.100.
(12)Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), pp. 82-83.
(13) Ibid., p.138.
(14) Ibid., p.173.
(15) Christy Wise and Nancy Baker Wise, A Mouthful of Rivets: Women at Work in World War II (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994), p. 190.
(16) Ibid., p.196.
(17)Interviews by Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell, and Steven Schechter, "Rosie the Riveter Remembers, " American Heritage 35 (2) 1984, pp. 96-97.
(18)Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, eds., Since You Went Away: World War II Letters From American Women on the Home Front (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 157.
(19) Interviews by Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell, and Steven Schechter, "Rosie the Riveter Remembers, " American Heritage 35 (2) 1984, p. 103.
(20) Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 177.