Taste of Freedom for Women in World War II: Informative Essay

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At a time when sexism was pervasive, when the role of a woman was clearly defined, society, specifically American 1930s culture, needed a push for progression. This prayer was answered in arguably the only way it could have been -- a catalytic war. The bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7th, 1941, leading the U.S. into WWII, and would change the course of history; specifically equality in the workplace, and the shift of women’s roles from primarily domestic to increasingly occupational, forever.

In 1940, the national census of the labor force reported that about 80% of males were employed, compared to roughly 30% of females. With age twenty being the peak for women, it can be inferred that after marriage, most stopped working. “In those days as soon as a woman married, she lost her job,” explained Josephine Carson in an interview about her life during the war. Women were less valued and less prioritized when it came to job openings, and it was believed that they were inferior to men when it came to working abilities. “At the end of the 1930s, prospects for improving women's economic status appeared bleak indeed. The Great Depression had fostered a wave of reaction against any change in women's traditional role.” While many women did work, most of them being young and unmarried, widows, or divorced, their jobs mainly consisted of clerical work, jobs of low status, and low pay.

This all changed at the start of the war when men were drafted, consequently leading to jobs being left vacant. “Initially, employers had been reluctant to hire women to participate in government training programs for defense work. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of 1941, however, the way was cleared for a massive expansion of the female labor force.” Women were expected to step up to fill men’s roles, but they were scared. “War and full employment was incredibly liberating for women, but represented a deep and provocative change in their traditional roles.” Pushback came from employers, husbands, and women themselves, but the media* (OWI, pg 51) persisted in its persuasion: veering to ads containing slogans such as “Remember: Every woman who takes a job hastens the day of victory for american arms -- and peace.”, and “The more women at work the sooner we’ll win”. These pamphlets, posters, and booklets often contained statistics about women entering the labor force, coupled with empowering text meant to persuade women that they could successfully fill what men were left absent. When media didn’t work, celebrity pressure was used on occasion. As Katherine O'Grady recalls: “At the mill, the government used to send out all the Purple Heart soldiers to talk to us and tell us that we couldn't take time off, and pushed all this patriotism on us. One particular day I had the day off and they went to my house. I wasn't home. It would have been embarrassing to have a soldier with a Purple Heart asking why I wasn't at work.”.

Regardless of the government’s need and desire for workers, the general public would not, or possibly could not change their mindsets. When women were employed in traditionally male jobs, they were often accused of ‘stealing’ them from men, and the role of the father as the provider of the house became a commonly used argument for male priority in the workplace. This was a big problem at the start of the war when the necessity of workers had not quite set in yet and not all men had been drafted. Discrimination occurred heavily with married women, where it was believed that only one salary was necessary to provide for a household. As stated before, hirers also thought females to be inferior. “Many employers refused to hire women. According to the men in charge, women did not have the physical strength, mechanical ability, and emotional stability to do high-paying skilled factory jobs. In addition, employers said, the presence of women would distract men.” To add even more to the pushback of women entering the workplace, harassment from male coworkers or bosses was a familiar sight. As Carson recounts, “We had the head of circulation who bothered every single one of us. And when we went to the head of the library he just said that we were all imagining this -- that we were just frustrated, hungry females and that it was our fault. We knew we wouldn't get anywhere going to the head of the library, so we worked out a system in which we warned each other that this man was coming.” Male testimonies were almost always believed over females, so when it came to controversial matters or occurrences, their voices were often dismissed when compared to men. This harassment was coupled with a much lower pay rate than men, regardless of the WMC’s newly passed “equal pay for equal work”. These issues occurred before, during, and after the war, but have lessened since that time.

Despite the suddenness of the media shift and the countless factors that had been halting females from being successful in the workforce before, many women began to get on board. “[They] responded to the appeals for a variety of reasons. Josephine von Miklos quit her job as a fashion designer to work in the munitions factory because she wanted to “pitch in and fight, too.” Shirley Hackett had to “make more money because I was on my own...so I applied for a job at a war plant.” Nell Conley got a job in a shipyard because “I had a good friend who was going to go there, and we decided, why not? We both had to work, we both had children, so we became welders, and if I may say so...good ones.” “Rosie the Riveter”: the name of a song, became the nation's emblem of woman power during the war, with recordings called “soundies” of the catchy tune being played in many public places throughout the course of the war. This was just one more tactic used by the government to persuade through the media. Manly as Rosie’s image may seem, however, it was in truth one of “female strength and purposefulness, with no sacrifice of the amenities of vanity.”. “Patriotism...was presented in ways that reinforced women’s traditional images and roles...women workers at the navy yard were told to be “feminine and ladylike, even though you are filling a man’s shoes.” At Boeing Aircraft, the Women’s Recreational Activity Council offered courses in proper dress, makeup, poise, and personality to help women workers maintain their “FQ” (Femininity Quotient).” Women were encouraged to enter the workforce, but what is important to note is that the media’s enthusiasm was not born out of true respect; rather, necessity. “Uncle Sam needed warm bodies to further the war effort, and America's women were a plentiful source. And, thanks to a patriotic public relations campaign, they were an enthusiastic source too.”

The female population was optimistic, and so was the government.“Public attitudes began to change. Instead of frowning on women who worked, now the government and the mass media embarked on an all-out effort to encourage women to take jobs.” Women rushed to fulfill this duty, whether it be due to pressures from the media, patriotism, or pride in their newly-recognized ability to work. Patriotism ran rampant in every aspect of the war, and the workforce was no exception. Most soldiers volunteered before they were drafted, and likewise, many women flocked to participate in efforts to help them, whether it be making and rolling bandages, building parts, or sewing blankets. Women were thriving, performing excellent tasks that had previously been withheld from them. “Adams presented ..findings of ways women surpass men, including powers of observation, number memory, accounting skills, and finger dexterity.” Studies like this one were conducted numerous times throughout the war, with many of them being facilitated by the government in order to produce statistics and facts that would prove to women their worth in jobs. In fact, the OWI and WMC went as far as ordering employers to hire women, when in 1943 “They distributed a booklet, “You’re going to Employ Women.” ...According to the booklet, “In some respects, women workers are superior to men. Properly hired, properly trained, and properly handled, new women employees are splendidly efficient workers. The desire of a new woman worker to help win the war-to shorten it even by a minute--gives her an enthusiasm that more than offsets industrial inexperience.”

The first to report for duty were those not involved in the home, and although many came, by 1943, the industry was still desperately in need of workers. In fact, “Four million new workers would be needed...to maintain full production.” With most young, old, widowed, and divorced women already employed, the next step was to convince housewives to join the force, as they were the last resource that hadn’t yet been tapped into. The movement for their support was achieved through massive initiatives. The first occurred in 1943 when the “Women in Necessary Service” campaign was launched by the WMC/OWI, and the second in 1944 when the WMC, OWI, and U.S. War Department conducted the “Women in War'' campaign. War jobs were compared to tasks completed regularly in the home, such as lines shown in Glamour Girl ‘43 which suggested that “instead of cutting lythe lines of a dress, this woman cuts the pattern of aircraft's parts. Instead of baking cake, this woman is cooking gears to reduce the tension in the gears after use...a lathe holds no more terror than a sewing machine”. Because of these skillful media tactics, women; even housewives, felt it was their duty to join the workforce. After some time, they made their way up the ranks and came to work excited to face stimulating challenges. “While necessity required the employment of millions of new female workers, the mass media cooperated by praising women who went to war.” As Naomi Craig said, “Women did change. They had gotten the feeling of their own money. Making it themselves. Not asking anybody how to spend it,'. It is important to recognize that this push from the media was the spark igniting the fire of modern-day female empowerment, which was not started by women, but rather and ironically, by those who would come to oppose it later.

Just as suddenly as the war had started, however, it was over. At the peak of progression in the workplace, women were met by the men who had previously held their jobs, and the vast majority of them quit or were laid off. “If Rosie expected recognition and reward for her wartime efforts in the form of continued employment and opened doors, she was sadly mistaken”. Females who were valued so highly for their abilities to do what men did were not anymore, and just as quickly as the media had swept to encourage women, it flipped back to its previous ways, portraying them as nice, and lovely, but more than anything, meant for the home. “The multitude of such ads, concerned only with the pursuit of softer skin, success cooking, and other domestic tasks, and a cleaner wash, belied the active, ground-breaking roles women had enjoyed only a short time ago during the war.”. Men wanted their jobs back, and society thirsted for its status quo. The change would not happen yet, not because women weren’t capable, but because society wasn’t ready for a shift that jarring. As journalist historian Marion Marzolf explains it, “the wartime lesson that women could do anything had contained an unspoken but powerful disclaimer--' in an emergency.'”. This phrase: “In an emergency”, sums up society’s view of women in the workforce quite well at the time preceding and directly after WWII. However, the female sex would not accept this. After tasting the sweet freedom of equality and then having it ripped away from them, they wouldn’t go down quietly.

“In college, we were taught that we should be able to handle both a career and a family. We knew it would be difficult, but we thought we had the brains to work it out, the brains and the energy and the expertise. So I think this was rather a blow after the war ended. I think that women after the war did not want to go home. They wanted a career. They worked during the war outside their homes and then in many cases they were fired and they had to go back home because the boys were coming back. They wanted jobs for men. I think we were trying to work for economic fairness and social acceptance of women in the workforce. And, of course, the women said, 'We were okay during the war effort. We're not now?'”

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This woman’s complaints and opinions were far from rare at that time. They were frustrated that after proving themselves so diligently, none of it mattered in the push for progression. “The patriotic journalists who had lured Rosie into riveting for victory are now pictured. her yearning for a cozy 15 tottage, a kitchen apron, and a baby. With the closing of war industries and the return of job-hungry GIs, women were told to go home, whether they wanted to or not. Just two months after the end of World War II, 800,000 women had been fired 16 by aircraft companies.” The door was shut, but the woman refused to stop knocking. Despite research and statistics showing that the majority of women did, in fact, return home, an impact was steaming underneath the surface, as it is found that “surveys conducted toward the end of the war demonstrated that 75 to 90 percent of female workers hoped to remain in their jobs after the end of the war”. This desire to stay in the workforce was the main cause of progression in the workforce in later years.

One of the most prominent speeches of the time occurring after the war was by Fannie Hurst, who spoke openly about women being forced out of the workforce. “Overnight, over Pearl-Harbor-Night, as it were, a transition in design-of-living for American women, has been sharply made. The challenge that we have to face now becomes not how to win the fort, but having won it, how to hold it”. It is clear through her words, that women were prepared to fight for what they wanted. There were activists, feminists, and women who were prepared to do something in order to keep their place and progress forward, regardless of how much their efforts would actually do. “Now we have come to a crossroads and are face to face with the most realistic moment in our long history. What do we want and how are we going to set about getting it? Those are concrete factual considerations. Let’s not fool ourselves. We need more functional power in government, education, and industry. We need more woman-push, organization, and capacity to work together.” Women were not well represented anywhere, which is why Hurst described in her speech the shortage of power and influence owned by women. But even though this reality may have been accepted before WWII, it was much less appealing in the years following. “After the war things changed because women found out they could go out and they could survive. They could really do it on their own. That's where I think women's lib really started.” However, as noted previously, statistics prove that most women went home after the war. Their children’s generation are known today as “baby boomers” which alludes to the fact that WWII must not have changed women’s roles at all.

Other evidence begs to differ. As ___ puts it: “[Rosie the Riveter’s] success was not lost on these next generations. Rosie's daughters watched her go off to work with a lunch pail and a smile and watched her come home with a paycheck and interesting stories. Those daughters, whose horizons had been broadened by that experience, went off to college and learned and earned more than their MRS. degrees. They used their education to make tiny inroads in corporate America, but, I am sad to say, they were kept on the back roads. Rosie's granddaughters, however, have been quickly filling the freeways, and many are merging into the fast lanes.” This quote explains the progression caused by the catalyst of WWII very well. It was not the fact that women were invited into the workplace for a time and then told to stay that is why women belong there now. Because they weren’t told to stay. They were forced to leave. Rather, it was their determination to come back, to make sure their daughters and granddaughters could feel the excitement and purposefulness that they were able to taste during WWII that motivated the progression from the home to the workplace. “They saw what their grandmothers and mothers did, put their own special spin on it, and carried those legacies and their talents right into today's executive suite, an environment that has been evolving for them since the 1940s. Whether or not they will be more effective executives than their predecessors is, I think, to miss the point. The point is that women will be running businesses, thanks to Rosie, thanks to time, and thanks to their own abilities.” About 1/3 of women were working outside the home by 1950, with half of that number being married. World War Two was not the only catalyst in progressing women into the workforce. But, it was a big factor.

We knew from the first that we were resented,

By the continued aloofness which the men presented…

It’s tough, we know, but we are game,

We’ll fight no end to make a name.

Remarks and opinions just egg us on

To win a place where we rightfully belong.

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Taste of Freedom for Women in World War II: Informative Essay. (2023, August 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/taste-of-freedom-for-women-in-world-war-ii-informative-essay/
“Taste of Freedom for Women in World War II: Informative Essay.” Edubirdie, 29 Aug. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/taste-of-freedom-for-women-in-world-war-ii-informative-essay/
Taste of Freedom for Women in World War II: Informative Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/taste-of-freedom-for-women-in-world-war-ii-informative-essay/> [Accessed 18 Apr. 2024].
Taste of Freedom for Women in World War II: Informative Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Aug 29 [cited 2024 Apr 18]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/taste-of-freedom-for-women-in-world-war-ii-informative-essay/
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