AMERICAN WOMEN AT WAR, Sara
From Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America by Sara M. Evans, The Free Press, 1989.
The massive mobilization for World War II politicized daily life on a scale never before seen. Women's most mundane activities were suffused with nationalistic fervor. They saved and recycled metal toothpaste tubes and tin cans; rationed short supplies of meat, sugar, and gasoline; stretched food supplies with "victory gardens," volunteered at the Red Cross or the Civil Defense agency; bought war bonds; deferred consumer purchases; joined the armed services; and entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers. As in previous wars, activities once viewed as inappropriate for women suddenly became patriotic duties for which women were perfectly suited.
THE WAR YEARS: 1941-1945
The most powerful, immediate effects of the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt's call for a Declaration of War were the surge of patriotism and the creation of new jobs. At the end of the 1930s, 25 percent of American workers remained unemployed, but now suddenly jobs were everywhere. Employers scrambled to find enough workers at the same time the government drafted young men into the armed services. Manpower was at a premium. As jobs appeared in industrial centers, people flocked to them, creating overnight housing shortages and insurmountable domestic difficulties.
A revived economy and wartime realities generated new patterns of marriage and childbearing. Nine months after the Selective Service Act passed in 1940 with a provision to exempt fathers from the draft, there was a sudden spurt in the birthrate. Even when the exemption was withdrawn, rates stayed high as young people married in great numbers, casting their lot with an uncertain future. The "good-bye" babies resulting from these marriages represented the first wave of a baby boom that reached new heights after the war's end.
Well-schooled in voluntary activities, women responded in massive numbers to the social needs of wartime society. Three million of them volunteered with the Red Cross. Others drove ambulances and spotted airplanes for the Civil Defense, served food and entertained soldiers at USO canteens, sold war bonds, and organized their domestic tasks around the needs of the economy for scarce materials. As men began to leave civilian life, women took up the slack, assuming responsibility for families as well as for mobilizing the community for victory.
Soon, however, the country needed women to do more than volunteer with the Red Cross or buy war bonds. By 1942 the economy had absorbed available supplies of male workers and there was widespread recognition that only the employment of women could meet industrial demand. U.S. Employment Service surveys reported marked shifts that year in employers' willingness to hire women. Between January and July, employers raised their estimates of the proportion of new jobs for which women would be acceptable from 29 to 55 percent. One of the primary reasons given for refusal to hire women was the opposition of male workers who periodically walked out rather than work with, or for, a woman. However, with fewer men in the factories and increased demands for industrial output, employers saw fit to tap the pool of female workers.
By 1943 Fortune magazine noted, "There are practically no unmarried women left to draw upon.... This leaves, as the next potential source of industrial workers, the housewives." That was even more disturbing than hiring single women. As Fortune put it: "We are a kindly, somewhat sentimental people with strong, ingrained ideas about what women should or should not do. Many thoughtful citizens are seriously disturbed over the wisdom of bringing married women into the factories."
If employers and coworkers were reluctant, so were many women. Al though large numbers of women were clearly eager for well-paying jobs, many-especially those with children-faced practical obstacles. Some were unsure about the social ostracism they might encounter for crossing the boundary from acceptable female to decidedly male domains.
To entice women into the factories while allaying anxieties about the consequences of change, the government mounted a major propaganda campaign aided and abetted by the active cooperation of the media and industrial advertisers. Indeed, the mobilization of women for industrial work illustrates an extraordinary degree of governmental intervention in the economy and in molding values and attitudes achieved during the war. Through the War Production Board, the administration determined what would be produced and how scarce resources would be used. The War Manpower Commission allocated the labor supply. The War Labor Board intervened in labor disputes to prevent strikes or other disruptions. And the Office of War Information coordinated publicity and propaganda campaigns.
Once the War Manpower Commission decided to recruit female workers, including married women, the War Labor Board indicated its intention to rule that women working in previously male jobs should be paid at the male rate, and the Office of War Information generated recruitment posters and pamphlets and established guidelines for fiction, features, and advertising in the mass media. The response was immediate.
"Rosie the Riveter"
became a national heroine, gracing magazine covers and ads that emphasized
women's civic and patriotic duty to work in the defense industry in no way
undermined their traditional femininity. In Seattle, Washington, Boeing
Aircraftplaced large ads urging women to come to work. They displayed "pretty
girls in smart slack outfits showing how easy it is to work on a wiring board."
Propaganda films such as Glamour Girls of '43 assured women that industrial
tasks and machines mimicked household work: Instead of cutting the lines of a dress,
this woman cuts the pattern of aircraft parts.Instead of baking a cake, this
woman is cooking gears to reduce the tension in the gears after use.... After a
short apprenticeship, this woman can operate a drill press just as easily as a
juice extractor in her own kitchen.
Similarly, a group of 114 electric companies extolled the "modern magic" of electricity: "She's 5 feet 1 from her 4A slippers to her spun-gold hair. She loves flower-hats, veils, smooth orchestras-and being kissed by a boy who's now in North Africa. But, man, oh man, how she can handle her huge and heavy press!"
Labor shortages affected the military as well, and from the outset of the war women's organizations demanded that women be allowed to serve their country. The result was the creation in 1942 and 1943 of women's branches in the army (WACs), the navy (WAVES), the Coast Guard (SPARS), and the marines (MACRO) in addition to the army and navy nursing corps. Close to three hundred fifty thousand women served in these various branches and an additional thousand flew commercial and air force transport planes for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). As in the case of women in industry, glamorized servicewomen appeared everywhere in the media, looking for all the world like Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn with their squared shoulders and sophisticated smiles. In another version these "girls" or "gals" peeked prettily out from under their sailor hats, looking too cute to be threatening. A Sanforized ad in 1942 epitomized the latter with a head line "Maidens in Uniform" and the following verse: Oh, aren't we cute and snappy in our coveralls and slacks. And since the tags say "Sanforized" we'll stay as cute as tacks.
In retrospect, such reassurance seems excessive. The breakdown in the sexual division of labor was clearly limited to the war effort from the start. In the armed services women's work sustained the traditional values and labor force segregation of the civilian world. Most women worked in clerical and supply areas or as nurses. Each of the services avoided placing women in positions where they might give orders to men and prohibited overseas duty as long as they could (1943 for WACs and 1944 for WAVES). They also prohibited the enlistment of women with children, actively persecuted lesbians, and segregated black women.
Similarly, though women entered manufacturing industries in large numbers, many new jobs such as riveting and wiring aircraft were simply redefined from male to female work. Women were hired in far greater numbers in light industry than in heavy, and they often found themselves confined to entry-level and lower-skilled positions. In addition, many areas of growth were in jobs like clerical and teaching previously defined as female. As the numbers of female clerical workers grew by 85 percent they dominated the field more than ever, raising their proportion of all clerical workers from 50 to 70 percent. A nation wide teacher shortage induced many localities to withdraw prohibitions on the employment of married women thus increasing the numbers of female teachers as well.
Discrimination against women in traditionally male blue-collar jobs continued in spite of the crisis. Employers were reluctant to invest in training women for skilled work, as they presumed women workers were only temporary. And for the most part, they flatly re fused to hire black women. When they tried to lower the wages of women workers holding formerly male jobs, however, unions protested vigorously. Even if unions were less than enthusiastic about their new female members, unions were unambiguous about protecting the wages they had fought for and they worried that lower wages for women might create an incentive for industries to retain female workers after the war. As a result they waged the first effective battles for equal pay for equal work….
The government campaign to fill defense needs with women workers was hugely successful. Six million women who had never worked out side the home joined the labor force during the war years while millions more shifted from agricultural, domestic, or service work to industrial work. Their profile represented a marked shift toward older and married women from the traditional young and single worker, and most of them did not want their new status to be temporary. When questioned about their future intentions, women in defense industries indicated an overwhelming preference for retaining their jobs after the war. If the stresses of managing home and workplace were acute, the gains were also real. For the first time, women had access to high-paying industrial jobs requiring specialized skills and affording status. Black women, though blocked from higher-level industrial jobs, began to enter the female jobs which had previously been virtually all white, such as clerical work and nursing, and significantly reduced their reliance on domestic service. In Detroit in 1942 and 1943 black women demonstrated for jobs and housing with the support of the UAW [United Auto Workers]. Two busloads of women finally stormed a Ford plant to call attention to discriminatory hiring. Perhaps most important, half the rural black female labor force left the countryside and found employment in cities.
From the beginning, business owners and government planners worried that women might not willingly give up higher paying industrial jobs once they had access to them. Some managers consciously tried to hire the wives of the servicemen they were replacing, "reasoning that the women will not be reluctant to yield their jobs to their own husbands." Surveys of women workers confirmed planners' fears.
Shipyard worker Katherine Archibald described the constant resentment of men in the shipyard where she worked. From overt harassment in the beginning, men retreated to "a vague and emotion-charged atmosphere" in which women were always suspect of sexual improprieties. And they regaled one another with anecdotes proving that women were unsuited for the work: 'Take a look around at the women and what they're doing,' one disgruntled workman urged. 'From one end of the hull to the other they're jawing or prettying up their faces or bothering some man and keeping him from his work.' The Minneapolis Tribune editorialized in August 1942,"WACS AND WAVES and women welders.... Where is it all going to end? . . . Is it hard to foresee, after the boys come marching home and they marry these emancipated young women, who is going to tend the babies in the next generation?"
Government and media propaganda consistently reassured Americans that while women would do their civic duty for the duration, they would certainly return to their traditional roles once the emergency was over. Ads that praised working women also emphasized the temporary nature of their positions. The Eureka Company, for example, noted women's many contributions to the war effort including filling over 70 percent of the positions on their own assembly lines "for the duration. But," the ad continued, "a day is coming when this war will be won. And on that day, like you, Mrs. America, Eureka will put aside its uniform and return to the ways of peace . . . building household appliances."
Unions reflected the prejudices of their constituents, especially fears that women would displace male workers at lower rates of pay. In the beginning, unions objected strenuously when women were hired, frequently to the point of going on strike. "Women don't know how to be loyal to a union," said a skilled craftsman. "They're born, and they grow up, dirty dealers. There isn't a straight one among 'em." Once the War Labor Board announced its intention to rule that women must be paid at male rates for the same work, unions expressed their willingness to support women workers and accept them as members. Because unions began to see organizing women as the key to protecting jobs and wage rates in previously all male work settings, and because the War Labor Board protected labor's right to organize, the unionization of women as well as men made enormous strides during the war. The number of organized women grew between 1940 and 1944 from eight hundred thousand to three million, and the female proportion of organized labor from 11 to 23 percent.
Even though popular culture extolled the adventures of strong female heroines, its messages were always mixed. Middle-class journals were most likely to present women as assertive, proving that they were as good as any men. In the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, for example, women appeared as welders, engineers, executives, and taxi drivers, heroically claiming their own capacities against the doubts and denigration of men around them. In actuality, female adventure and achievement represented little threat for middle-class men because women were being recruited either into female-dominated white-collar positions or into blue-collar industrial work. For working-class women, however, the complexities were more serious. They faced hostility from men in their own communities who were threatened by the loss of prerogatives at work as well as authority in their homes.
In pulp magazines like True Story, fictional female war workers' happiness rested not on their achievements but on stoic willingness to continuing work for the larger goal of victory. Boring assembly-line work, for example, took on new meaning when imbued with patriotism: "The noise of the factory [became] an articulate voice, saying: more planes, more planes, more planes-we're making them, we're building them, we're sending them out." Status in True Story fiction still depended on a romantic relationship with the right man. Advertisements in such magazines sustained women's consumer roles, imbuing everything with a gendered, domestic patriotism. In 1942 a columnist in True Romance quoted Ruth Merson, a "well-known corset designer and stylist," on the necessity of corsets in wartime: "Right now with the country embarking on its gigantic task of self-preservation it is essential that the women of America do not let down their men. Women must keep up the morale of their men and still continue to be their guiding star. To this end they must be their trim and shapely selves."
At the end of the war women knew that they, as well as men, had made victory possible. The outpouring of energy and patriotic emotion had given a new dimension to citizenship and to their sense of self. Yet there was no way to institutionalize such emotions when public life itself was so thoroughly dominated by the state. The political focus of wartime activity had only one purpose-victory. There was little to debate either about means or ends. Only military and techocratic expets could know what was needed to mobilize and direct the massive resources of America.
Women's duty was simply to respond, to do what was necessary "for the duration," and to maintain the family as the essential foundation for democracy. As a result, the exhilaration of wartime communal effort had neither structural nor ideological support for continuation after the war. At the same time, the changes, even if temporary, were shocking and deeply unsettling, and their consequences must be read far into the postwar era.
As men were mustered out of the army, women were mustered out of the factories; both were sent home to resume increasingly privatized lives. What the war had accomplished, with a reinvigorated economy and pent-up consumer demand, was a new expectation that most Americans could enjoy the material standard of living promised by the consumer economy in peace. The purpose of work outside the home was to procure the resources to sustain this standard of living (which now included a private house; appliances such as a refrigerator, stove, and vacuum cleaner; and a car). The female task was to oversee the quality of this private life, to purchase wisely, and to serve as an emotional center of the family and home.
The principal obstacle to this vision, however, was the possibility that women might not choose to play their publicly condoned role. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote at the end of the war that the media's "continuous harping on the theme: 'Will the women be willing to return to the home?'" reflected wide spread anxieties. A returning serviceman was likely to wonder, "Will she have learnedto be so independent that she won't want to give up her job to make a home for me?"
"Articles addressed to women warned them about the care they must exercise to support the egos of returning men. One marriage counselor suggested women should "let him know you are tired of living alone, that you want him now to take charge." Others emphasized the "feminine" qualities returning vets valued including "tenderness, admiration, or at least submissiveness." Even before the war ended the pressure to quit began. "In the great factories, the ominous sound of the old saw, 'A woman's place is in the home,' is heard above the music now piped into the workrooms to make conditions more attractive for the still badly needed women workers," wrote A. G. Mezerik in the Atlantic.
The UAW Women's Bureau held a conference for women union leaders in April 1945 to discuss the postwar situation. Union women expressed great concern that seniority must operate in a nondiscriminatory way so that women would have equal opportunity when postwar layoffs came. Two delegates reported that their unions had surveyed women workers regarding their work needs. "In one ship yard, 98 percent of the women want to continue working in shipyards or at least continue working in those skills which they have been able to pick up there. Many of them worked in service industries be fore the war." Another survey in a New York manufacturing industry indicated that 82 percent of the women intended to continue working. The report of the conference noted that "several delegates proposed for labor in general a program to show that women are not just a temporary wartime group." They shared stories of struggles within unions, many successful, to win and enforce equal pay for equal work. But they earmarked for future work ongoing concerns about the wage gap between women and men due to the fact that "women work on jobs historically women's or in separate women's departments where rates are traditionally lower."
Some suggested that a job evaluation system analyze skills and experience in such a way that different job categories could be compared. Both the ideas and the techniques for "comparable worth," an issue which would not emerge full grown until the 1980s, were present in this discussion. But the principal concern expressed in this meeting and by writers, such as Lucy Greenbaum in the New York Times Magazine, was for women who would still need to work after the war. Greenbaum wrote in April 1945, "All organizations working with and for women in industry expect that pressure will be brought to bear on the married women to stay at home and mind the children. In war she heard promises; peacetime will be full of prohibitions."
Greenbaum was right. Even if four out of five industrial women workers preferred to keep their jobs, few had much choice. When military orders ceased, industries shut down to prepare for reconversion, laying off women workers. For a moment unemployment was high again and everyone feared the return of the depression. Plants reopened rapidly, however, and for the most part they refused to rehire women regardless of their skills or seniority rights. In the Detroit auto industry after the war, the proportion of women in the work force fell from 25 to 7.5 percent and women's share of work in durable goods industries throughout the nation dropped 50 percent.
Women who went to the U.S. Employment Service were incredulous to discover that the only jobs available to them paid only half what they had made in war industries. Skilled industrial jobs were no longer open to them. One union organizer reported that the U.S.E.S. in her area told women, "No, these jobs are for men; women can't do them." As one woman complained: "They say a woman doesn't be long behind a factory machine or in any business organization. But who will support me, I ask? And who will give my family the help they have been getting from me? No one has thought to ask me whether or not I need my job."
Women fought back, staging picket lines protesting their exclusion. But they met with little sympathy or support even from their unions, and often they found themselves blamed for their situation. Margaret Pickel, dean of women at Columbia University, said women's own shortcomings accounted for their loss of jobs. She charged that as workers they had proved to be emotionally unstable, to "lack the gift for team work," to "have no gift for finality," and to "lack the corporate loyalty that makes for effective unionization." While advocating the view that "marriage and sensible motherhood are probably the most useful and satisfying of all the jobs that women can do," she nevertheless characterized "marriage mortality" (i.e., women quitting work when they marry) as "women's greatest handicap." Flaying women with the cultural stereotypes their employers and male co-workers held, Pickel accused them of being "unprofessional" and displaying "a weakness for the personal." As a result, "they do not age well. By middle age, when men are at their best, a devoted woman worker is apt to degenerate into a strained fussiness or worse." The nastiness of Pickel's charges was not typical, but it was not uncommon either as women once again provided easy scapegoats in a time of anxiety and change....
Millions of women left the labor force, voluntarily and involuntarily; the women who stayed represented an increase in labor force participation consistent with previous trends. In other words, one could argue that the war itself made little difference. Ideologically, wartime propaganda justified the erosion of gender boundaries "for the duration" and no more. The intense pressure on women to return to domesticity coincided with the wishes of a younger cohort of women and men to focus on their private lives. This privatization promised a dramatically new level of isolation within the family as bulldozers began to reshape the landscape in preparation for growing suburbs.
At the same time, there were some long-term consequences of the changes in women's behavior during the war. Even though the trends the war exaggerated, toward the employment of older, married women, were clearly in place before the war, only the expanding economy created during and after the war could have allowed those trends to continue. As a result, the war removed some of the legal and cultural barriers to the employment of married women. Laws, for example, against married women teachers were removed in several states, and the equal pay for equal work standard was adopted by many unions and by eleven states....
The longer-term consequence of a generation of women shaped by their wartime experiences, like that of their predecessors seared by the Great Depression, can only be inferred, but its importance should not be underestimated. The mothers of the baby boom generation experienced a moment of independence and cultural validation (whether personally or vicariously) during the war years; this may well have shaped the mixed messages they gave their daughters who loudly proclaimed the rebirth of feminism two decades later and politicized daily life once again with the slogan "the personal is political."