Women's Role in World War 2 Essay

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Table of contents

  1. To what extent did America’s Participation in WWII Affect the Role of Women in Society?
  2. At the Home Front
  3. The War Effort
  4. On the War Front
  5. Limited Progress
  6. Conclusion
  7. Works Cited

To what extent did America’s Participation in WWII Affect the Role of Women in Society?

The following investigation examines the question: To what extent did America’s participation in WWII affect the role of women in society? The investigation focuses on the effects of US involvement in the war at both the homefront and waterfront regarding the changing position of women in society.

The public’s attitudes about the war and about women can be observed in publications of the time aimed toward American citizens. One such primary source is cited in the investigation: a World War Two propaganda poster entitled “She's a WOW Woman Ordnance Worker Keep 'em shooting!”. The purpose of the poster was to promote the recruitment of women for WAAC to allow free men from their jobs so they could join the troops. The image was illustrated by Adolph Treidler and sponsored by the United States Army Ordnance Department. Being that it was created and published in Washington, D.C. by the U.S. Government Printing Office, the poster reflects an attitude that the government was advertising to the public, but it does not necessarily tell historians that the public accepted the idea.

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The second source to be evaluated is the excerpt of a documentary called “Impact of World War II on the U.S. Economy and Workforce”. It originates from 'Iowa's WWII Stories,' Iowa Public Television, which was directed by David J. Miller and published in 2006. The origin of this source may strengthen it because the publication date is more recent, meaning there could be more new interpretations and information. It was intended for educational use, to inform and explain the events of history to the public. A possible limitation of this source is its relevance to the topic. It does discuss the impact of World War II on women in the workforce, but only briefly. This does not negate the value of the information provided, but it is clearly not the main idea in the documentary.

World War Two is known as the largest and deadliest war in history. United States' participation in the war persuaded its outcome, but the war also had significant impacts on the nation; Among the most momentous of these are changes in the role and status of women. Through World War II, women were given new opportunities to take part in the workforce and war effort at the home front as well as at the war front. Still, both during and after the war, progression for women was limited.

At the Home Front

World War Two ultimately elevated the status of American women in their own country by proving their capability and dedication by including them in the workforce. When the United States mobilized in December of 1941, women filled in the positions of the men that went off to war. Married women in particular were drawn into the wartime economy. “The 1940s were a turning point in married women's labor-force participation, leading many to credit World War II with spurring economic and social change.” “A husband's absence often meant that his wife had less to do in the home and that the family's labor income dropped considerably; for others, patriotic duty was reason enough to join the war effort”. This “increased labor force participation by women was an important contributor to the growth in employment: the female participation rate grew from 28 percent in 1940 to almost 37 percent in 1944, an increase of about 5 million workers (Rupp 1978)”.

Women also joined the workforce because the wartime economy called for the mass production of weapons and supplies. “From 1939 to 1943… production for the armed forces accounted for fifty-nine percent of all manufacturing” Women worked in factories and warehouses “producing munitions, building ships, airplanes, in the auxiliary services as air-raid wardens”

“The war may also have eroded various policies that had constrained the employment of married women. 'Marriage bars'-the stated policies of firms, school districts, governments, and other organizations not to hire married women and to fire single women upon marriage-were instituted before the 1930s but were greatly expanded during the Depression (see Goldin, 1990 Ch. 6). The bars vanished sometime after the early 1940s and by the 1950s were rarely encountered.”

The War Effort

Women’s participation in the workforce affected the labor supply and wages, but it also affected the types of jobs women were then known to be capable of and were allowed to do. The expansion of possibilities for women is largely due to the “all hands on deck” theme of the American war effort at the time. “Before World War II, women had generally been discouraged from working outside the home. Now they were being encouraged to take over jobs that had been traditionally considered 'men's work.'

Fear and patriotism was the driving force of the American war effort. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the country was gripped with panic which translated into a willingness of most Americans to make sacrifices for victory. Citizens, businesses, and the government all contributed to the effort in one way or another. People were given ration cards to reserve goods and materials needed by the military. “Rationed items included foodstuffs as well as items made from materials used in the manufacture of military supplies, equipment, and arms.” Civilians also contributed to the war effort with the purchase of U S Government Defense Savings Bonds or “War Bonds”

For many women, acceptance of the need to sacrifice in order to achieve victory came in the form of taking on jobs traditionally done by men. Traditional standards for women were somewhat put on hold by the war effort which called for women to “Do the job HE left behind” as one poster puts it. Other propaganda posters like this one are reflective of the general acceptance and encouragement of the public and government of women taking the responsibilities of their husbands and the troops.

With this encouragement and patriotism, “Women in uniform took office and clerical jobs in the armed forces in order to free men to fight. They also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, flew military aircraft across the country, test-flew newly repaired planes, and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets.” Women who did these jobs were known as Women Ordinance Workers (WOWs). A poster published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1942 shows a “WOW” beside the hats of six women's branches of military service: Women Ordinance Worker (WOW), Navy Nurse, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVE), Army Nurse, Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC)e, and Red Cross.

On the War Front

While some women supplied the workforce, others sought to participate in the war itself. American women had been participants in war before, but not to the extent that they were finally given access to in World War II.

In “May 1942 ... Congress passed legislation creating the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, or WAAC”. This created a way for women to serve their country officially and in uniform. The WAAC gained thousands of recruits, including the Women Ordinance Workers (WOWs), Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVEs), Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), United States Coast Guard Women's Reserve (SPARS), Army Nurses, Navy Nurses, and Red Cross. By “the end of World War II, more than 59,000 American nurses had served in the Army Nurse Corps. … Nurses received 1,619 medals, citations, and commendations during the war, including 16 medals awarded posthumously to women who died as a result of enemy fire.” “A few more than 1,100 young women, all civilian volunteers, flew almost every type of military aircraft — including the B-26 and B-29 bombers”.

Limited Progress

The shift in women’s status in America as a result of the United States Participation in the war is undeniable. Yet, some historians argue that the impact was not as lasting or influential in the progression of women’s rights as previously thought.

During the Second World War, there was a definite change in expectations and possibilities for women in the workplace. However, at the close of the war, these advancements started to reverse. “Women were forced off their jobs at war's end, and the war propaganda machine went into reverse gear after VJ-Day, extolling the virtues of women's role in the home” Men were returning home and they wanted their jobs back and their traditional wives back. “Many of the jobs women were offered during the war -Rosie the Riveter's is the perfect example-were taken away from them at its conclusion and were not in sec- tors women had previously shown a desire to enter”. The programs made for women to participate in the war came under threat of ending. 'It was a very controversial time for women flying aircraft. There was a debate about whether they were needed any longer.


War is a powerful force of human nature. When it occurs, extensive changes occur in societies: technological advancements, structural developments in government, the evolution of religion, or changes that directly affect the citizens of a society. “The dominant feature of the female labor force in the United States across the twentieth century is its striking and large increase. But continuity in the increase may be an illusion”.

The investigation of how the United States' participation in World War Two impacted women’s role sheds light on the challenges and limitations of a historian and the values of historical investigation. To explore the research question, the investigation used collected information from a variety of types of sources, including journals, books, and articles. An evaluation of the validity of the sources considered their values and limitations. By consulting the education, achievements, and other recognitions of the authors the investigation confirmed the reliability of origin.

The research method used in the historical investigation was mostly conducted online. This made the search convenient and efficient. Especially because the topic is a fairly well-studied one, a lot of information found about it was accessible in documentaries, images, websites, journals, and podcasts; all things accessible by the internet. However, internet research didn’t allow for access to other potential sources that might have been found in a library.

Works Cited

  1. Do the job he left behind. Apply U.S. Employment Service.. 1943. XX343.31140. Poster collection. Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, CA. https://digitalcollections.hoover.org/objects/40764. http://digitalcollections.hoover.org, 7 November 2019.
  2. Garcia, Rachel. “World War II Homefront.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 16, no. 3, 2002, pp. 57–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25163528.
  3. Goldin, Claudia D. “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women's Employment.” The American Economic Review, vol. 81, no. 4, 1991, pp. 741–756. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2006640.
  4. Impact of World War II on the U.S. Economy and Workforce, Iowa Public Television, 2006, http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/artifact/impact-world-war-ii-us-economy-and-workforce.
  5. Kosier, Edwin J. “The Story of the WAF: WOMEN IN THE AIR FORCE . . . . . . Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Aerospace Historian, vol. 15, no. 2, 1968, pp. 18–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44525177.
  6. Mulligan, Casey B. “Pecuniary Incentives to Work in the United States during World War II.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 106, no. 5, 1998, pp. 1033–1077. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/250039.
  7. “Partners in Winning the War: American Women in World War II.” Partners in Winning the War: American Women in World War II, National Women’s History Museum, Oct. 2017, https://www.ncsbn.org/11565.htm.
  8. Stamberg, Susan. “Female WWII Pilots: The Original Fly Girls.” NPR, NPR, 9 Mar. 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/03/09/123773525/female-wwii-pilots-the-original-fly-girls.
  9. “Striking Women.” World War II: 1939-1945 | Striking Women, https://www.striking-women.org/module/women-and-work/world-war-ii-1939-1945.
  10. Treidler, Adolph, Artist, and Funder/Sponsor United States Army. Ordnance Department. She's a WOW Woman Ordnance Worker Keep 'em shooting! / / Adolph Treidler. [Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
  11. Warm, Tracey. “Wartime Production.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 16, no. 3, 2002, pp. 47–52. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25163526.
  12. “$25 Bond Booklet; Contains Twenty (20) $.25 Stamps ($5.00) toward the $18.75 Needed to Purchase a $25 Bond.” Pickler Memorial Library, Truman State University, https://library.truman.edu/manuscripts/W2-WWII War Effort.asp.
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