Women's Transition into the Workforce During World War II and Its Aftermath

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Prior to World War II women were often restrained to domestics, laundresses, secretaries, and dishwashers, or did not work at all. There were very limited opportunities for them to excel in the professional sphere, for at the time, their work was not vital to the success of the United States. It was not until World War II erupted in 1939 that women would be considered for previously male-dominated professions, such as factory and industrial work. The rapidly expanding American economy needed to be fueled by an abundant labor source, however, as men were enlisting in the war, the number of eligible candidates dwindled. Women were then called into the workforce through a series of propaganda campaigns, which emphasized the positive and patriotic nature of a female sustained homefront.

One of the most recognized pieces of wartime recruitment propaganda was the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ poster, for it embodied what many desired to be: strong, working women. In 1942, the image was so successful in recruiting women to work for the Westinghouse Electric Company that it was revamped and pulled into a broader public audience to continue the influx of women into the industrial workplace. J. Howard Miller’s influential illustration depicted a woman dressed in a man’s uniform, flexing her arm, and saying “We Can Do It!”. The image encouraged women to enter the labor pool by appealing to the heightened sense of nationalism during the war, for every citizen wanted to contribute to the war efforts. Not only did the poster allude to the wartime duties of an American, but it also represented a shift in how women saw themselves in the media. It empowered them to think that they had the tenacity to thrive in an industrial setting, rather than in the home. When women looked at Rosie the Riveter, they saw themselves, which ultimately led to a drastic increase in the number of women working in factories and many other previously prohibited careers. From 1940 to 1945 the percentage of women in the workforce rose from 27% to 37%, which can attest to the influence that wartime posters had on women. The famous ‘Rosie the Riveter’ poster was one of many propaganda campaigns released by the government to promote women working during the war. In June of 1942, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9182, establishing the Office of War Information. Through this office, the government was able to publish, post, and release various forms of propaganda in the media. Many examples of recruiting advertisements at the time mashed contradictory themes of women being homemakers and being competent in male roles together. This concept advocated for women to serve their country, rather than seek a more fulfilling life because many did not want there to be a shift in the societal norms surrounding a woman’s role. The OWI also targeted young women to join the workforce in order to boost the production rate of needed goods.

Teens, such as Juanita Loveless, were recruited through extreme amounts of propaganda released by the government. Loveless stated, “Actually what attracted me-it was not the money and it was not the job because I didn’t even know how much money I was going to make. But the ads-they had to be bombardments: “Do Your Part”, “Uncle Sam Needs You”, “V for Victory”. I got caught up in that patriotic “win the war” and “help the boys””. She was encouraged by the many campaigns that emphasized the patriotic duties of women during this time, for she felt responsible to do her part.

Overall, the introduction of women to the workforce during the 1940s can be credited to World War II and the necessity of a large labor pool to fuel it. Which in turn, inspired the many rounds of government created campaigns that encouraged women to join the industrial workforce.

Once women had been successfully recruited to the industrial workforce in the 1940s, there were a variety of consequences, both positive and negative. As the propaganda campaigns had advertised, women contributing to the production of wartime essentials benefited the United States and allowed the men overseas to effectively fight in World War II. Women became the driving force on the homefront, working long hours to give America and the Allies an advantage over Hilter’s tyranny. Nationalism soared, and industrial production boomed, “women facilitated America's production of 296,429 airplanes, 102,351 tanks and guns, 87,620 warships, and 47 tons of artillery ammunition”. This increase of production led to America becoming one of the most prominent industrial exporters throughout World War II. The United States took advantage of the thousands of eager to work women and boosted average productivity of labor in industry by 25% between 1939 and 1945. American war efforts were unmatched, for there was a sense of pride and patriotism that coursed through the nation, especially in women’s ability to sustain the homefront, both in factories and in the home. The United States productive output grew until it was twice that of Germany and five times that of Japan. By 1944, the collective effort put forth by women was tangible and was seen through the Allies dominance in the war. Since women were able to physically track their accomplishments throughout the war, their confidence in being equals in the workplace was established.

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Although women had redefined their role in society and were vital to the success of America, many men were intimidated by the drastic change; some worried that men and women would be competing for work. Because of this mentality, women faced incredible amounts of discrimination during their brief time in the workforce. In 1941, Albert Edward Wiggan expressed men’s concerns through a cartoon, which was later published in the Times-Picayune. The illustration depicted contrasting themes of a woman carrying a large, metal anchor on her back while wearing high heels. Near by men gaped at her, seemingly confused. At the bottom of the image, there was a sign that stated: “Do women really want to COMPETE with men in business and industry?”. Men who did not enlist in the World War II found it difficult to adjust to women compromising their domestic work for industrial labor. With women working in factories, challenges arose for managers in charge; many did not understand how to supervise the opposite sex, and felt as if the genders were so drastically different that they could not be trained the same. Action was taken by the government to ensure proper training, the U.S Office of Education Training Film was released in 1944. This campaign did not solve men’s discomfort in working with women, but highlighted the differences between them. Discrimination on the basis of sex was a norm throughout the 1940s, however, women worked though it to complete their national duty.

As the divide between sexes grew, a pattern of inequality was institutionalized in both pay and promotions. Although they were completing the same jobs, working women were paid considerably less than their male counterparts. Many skilled women workers earned $31.21 on average per week, while men made $54.65. The value of female work in American society was capped at 45% of what men were worth. This was a direct, physical representation of how men were given more opportunity and respect in the industrial arena. Not only were women discriminated through the pay gap, it was also seen in the discrepancy in the number of promotions given. Throughout the 1940s, women were not able to rise in the labor system that they had worked to keep afloat when their country needed them. As exemplified in discriminatory practices during the war, there was a deep stigma around self-driven, independent women. Instead of being seen as essential for the country, they were deemed crude and less feminine. A sense of masculine pride was described in a letter from Walter V. Marquis, “I never let my wife work, and I know she is a far sweeter woman than many women who have been coarsened by having to get out in the business world. I say, let’s keep the women out of the industry and out of the war”. The traditional values surrounding women participating in industrial labor confined many women to their homes, and created an unequal power dynamic between spouses. The line from Marquis’s letter, “I never let my wife work” demonstrates a subtle form of enslavement. Men during this time period were able to place restraints on their wives, such as allowing them to work or not, and many felt that they had no choice but to stay in the domestic role. Women had to overcome obstacles from both their employers as well as their husbands in order to advance in the professional sphere, making it very difficult for them to fuel the wartime economy with the patriotism expected of them.

Despite the discrimination that women endured throughout their time in the industrial workplace, many had also gained confidence that women were equals to men in the American labor system. Vivien Kellems published in the Augusta Chronicle, “Will anyone ever again question American women’s equal intelligence with men, after this demonstration of brains, brawn, and skill so freely offered in their country’s emergency?”. She argued that the contributions and sacrifices that women made during World War II established their position from then on. Unfortunately, this was disproved when the war production began to slow and the end of the war was in sight. In 1945, many Americans were overjoyed with the victory as men returned home from their wartime posts. Just as it did during the war, nationalism soared, and the emphasis on family life heightened. With women being associated with the position of homemaker, 1945 marked the end of their careers in the industrial world. The marriage and birth rate increased to a remarkable level, and once again, women were confined to their traditional role as a mother. The glorification of domesticity in post-war America was reintroduced not only because of the surge in birth and marriage, but also because men expected their jobs that women had filled to be returned to them. Factory jobs were restored to their former owners and most women began living the classic suburban lifestyle. Although women were not physically holding laboring professions after the war, there was a subtle change in the mindset of women around the country, and both men and women recognized this. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under FDR emphasized, “I think that this is as good a time as any… to warn men that when the war is over, the going will be a lot tougher because they will have to compete with women whose eyes have been opened to their greatest economic potentialities”. How women defined themselves had been predetermined until they had experienced the other side of their abilities, which in turn boosted their sense of self, confidence, and standards.

During their brief time in the workforce, women were exposed to a more independent lifestyle; they were able to work, and make their own money. Some women, such as Margaruta Salazar McSweyn worked longer hours to receive more pay. Taking advantage of the opportunities presented to her, McSweyn exclaimed, “You made more hours, and the more hours you made, the more money you made. And it was exciting and being involved in that era. You figured you were doing something for your country-and at the same time making money”. She and thousands of women similar to her were not solely dependent on a man for economic benefit during the early 1940s. The request for women to return to normalcy after the war conflicted with what they had just experienced. With this, many externally altered their professions, but continued to internally value their own ability to be an independent woman. In addition to having a taste of independence, most women who worked in the industrial field realized that they had the ability to complete the same physical labor as men. Many women were trained with and worked with men in specialized occupations. J.R Morrill stated to the Cleavland Plain Dealer Newspaper, “They are working right beside men on the heaviest work in our aircraft, tank, and shipbuilding plants”. In 1943, there were approximately 200,000 women welding or being trained to in America. Each of these women were able to effectively complete the same work that men were, which demonstrated that the capabilities of a women and man were equal. This perspective of hope and opportunity was seen when Betty Jeanne Boggs spoke about women’s strides during World War II, “I think it showed me that a young woman could work in different jobs other than, say, an office, which you ordinarily expect a woman to be in. It really opened up another viewpoint on life in general”. Once women had been introduced to a more stimulating atmosphere, their mentality on the limits and abilities of themselves shifted.

Women being transitioned into the workforce during World War II enhanced feminine power and confidence, however, when forced out of it, they felt as if something had been stripped from them. How women defined themselves had changed and now the domestic jobs most held before the war were no longer satisfying. Many evaluated their experiences during the war against the more traditional alternatives, and there was a sense of disappointment. In 1963, Betty Friedan published ‘The Feminine Mystique’, which described the ‘problem with no name’ and identity crisis that some women were experiencing. Friedan wrote: “Each suburban wife struggled with it on her own. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question- “Is this all?””.

Women returning to the professions, or lack thereof, that they held prior to the war was a complete reversal in the strides made towards women’s liberation. As Betty Friedan described, many mothers and housewives were struggling internally over their role in society and what they believed should be. The rapid switch from being portrayed as Rosie the Riveter to a domestic figure impacted women’s happiness, for they were no longer satisfied with their post-war work.

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Women’s Transition into the Workforce During World War II and Its Aftermath. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/womens-transition-into-the-workforce-during-world-war-ii-and-its-aftermath/
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