American Women During WWII Essay

This essay has a total of 3723 words and 15 pages.

american Women During WWII




American Women During World War II.

America's entry into World War II posed opportunities for American women domestically, yet
paradoxically heightened fears in the polity about the exact role that women should adopt
during wartime. A central issue that dominated women's lives during this period was how to
combine the private sphere of the home, with the new demands of the war economy in the
public sphere. Women made significant gains in the military, the war economy and in some
cases, in terms of political influence. Yet these gains were misleading for policy makers
utilised the female workforce for short-term gains during war, with a long-term goal of
seeing women return to the domestic sphere and reinforcing traditional gender roles.
Significantly also, American women encountered different experiences of life during World
War II since factors such as ethnicity and class largely shaped how women responded to, or
were affected by the Second World War.

Owing to the critical demand for labour, employers during the war helped to break down
traditional gender roles by recruiting women to traditionally male jobs. Government,
industry and the media all encouraged women to serve their patriotic duty by taking a job.
Throughout the war however, policy makers sent out ambiguous messages to women about what
their "proper" role in American society was. The motive behind this ambiguity rested in
the fact that the government feared that the long-term consequences of women in the
workplace, since gender roles could permanently be disrupted if women became reluctant to
return to the domestic sphere when men returned from war. Many governmental agencies aimed
to hinder sweeping changes for American women during the war- particular attention was
placed on women in the military. Business associations largely worked independently from
the polity, and tensions emerged when women's organisations highlighted the
discriminiatory practices of employers. Unions were also a highly important source of
oppression to American women, for men feared that women would gain too much power
if...Gender AND WORK BOOK. Moreover, the social and political fear of women in the
workplace was largely confusing anyway, for women had worked outside the home in huge
numbers ever since the Depression.

And yet, after Pearl Harbor , the government issued non-discriminatory directives to
recruit women into the workforce since by 1942 , only 29 percent of America's fifty-two
million women had jobs. Thus, the War Manpower Commission ( WMC ) was established to
actively recruit women so that in the beginning of 1943 " the shortage of workers had
toppled many sex, race, and age barriers." By 1944 , married women constituted the
majority of the female workforce at 72.2 percent, and the issue of married women at work
revealed the contradictions of " womanpower". At the heart of this dilemma was the fear
in the polity that women would become too attached to their new found economic
independence, since women were told by industry on the one hand that " (the) American
homemaker...has the strength and ability to take her place in a vital War industry;" yet
through the government backed WMC women were told through pamphlets that : " Even in a
national emergency as critical as this, the welfare of our children must be of paramount
importance..." Implicit in these war messages was the notion that women were contributing
to the war economy out of duty to their children and/or their male loved ones fighting in
the war. Therefore , in the immediate economic crisis created by World War II ,
government and industry had little option but to actively seek female employment, although
in the long-term, the government, through its propaganda messages, revealed its long-term
aim of seeing women return to their "natural" domain in the home.

Many women reconciled this tension by arguing that work outside the home satisfied family
needs by providing financial security. Work outside the home was also appealing because
it provided emotional bonding between women whose loved ones were fighting abroad. Yet
although the war raised living standards, women's long-term position in the workplace was
not guaranteed. When women came to plants they faced hostility from male co-workers, and
cases of sexual harassment at work were commonplace. Women who worked in factories for
example , presented a challenge to gender roles, and male dominance in the workplace
seemed to be under threat. To counter this, personnel managers typically taught women " to
be neat and trim and well put together. It helps their morale...(and) our prestige too."
Fearing that women would find intrinsic value in work on a more permanent basis ,
employers, with the backing of the Labor Department and the WMC , put forth propaganda
campaigns that emphasised how women's work in the war economy was only temporary.

To further this view, industrialists were unsympathetic to child care issues, for although
they were forced to employ women out of a shortage of labour, they still held patriarchal
views. One industrialist stated: " Experience has shown that the surest and quickest way
to disrupt a family...is to take the mother out of the home." This is an interesting
point, especially since women represented 72.2 percent of the female workforce. The
patriarchal views of some employers overrode the need to employ women for the sake of the
war effort, and although most industrialists employed women, they expressed their
disapproval towards female entry in war plants on other ways. For example, job segregation
by sex was explicitly acknowledged for jobs were formally labelled "male" and "female."
The two largest electrical firms, GE and Westinghouse, continued this practice until the
end of the war.

The Women's Bureau responded to stating that it made sense to cater for a huge pool of the
workforce by implementing child care facilities, and throughout the war, childcare
facilities were woefully inadequate. Government policy conveniently endorsed a Children's
Bureau report which linked child care to juvenile delinquency. The report implied that
paid working women were to blame for the " slower mental development, social ineptness,
(and) weakened initiative (of children)." It can be argued that government agencies were
genuinely concerned about the detrimental effects of women's work outside the home on
children. In 1943 Congress passed the Lanham Act which desginated funds for childcare
facilities.

This argument holds little credibility when examining the extent of government propaganda.
1944 was an important shift in media's tone towards childcare, no longer was "Rosie the
Riveter" praised for her patriotic qualities ... Preparing women for their post-war return
to domesticity, 1944 advertisements increasingly dramatised the unhappy plight of the
children of war workers. By the end of the war, only one in ten women enjoyed the
benefits of childcare. The government's commitment to women in work was very weak. When
the Allied victory in Europe seemed imminent, the tone of government sponsored
advertisements changed in tone and content. Business also seized the opportunity to
portray women as a threat to the American familt - the deeper motive for this was to
secure men's jobs who would imminently return from Europe. The Armco Manufacturing Company
released an ad in 1944 stating: " Some jubiliant day mother will stay home again, doing
the job she likes best- making a home for you and daddy." Government and industry
continued their inslaught on the worknig mother for the same motive: to ensure that the
transition from female-male work patterns would be smooth once the war was over.

Yet women responded to such sexism at work by advocating women's rights at work through
unionisation. Women soon became alienated by many trade unions that tolerated job
discrimination and wage inequalities. Women often confronted difficulties with attending
union meetings, for their home duties absorbed much fo their spare time. This gave
powerful union members, such as the President of the United Autoworkers Association , to
voice comments like " We have never advocated women taking a very active part (in unions)"
unchallenged. Manufacturers customarily placed women in the lowest-paying jobs and paid
them less for the performance of work traditionally done by men. In Michigan for example,
state law guaranteed women equal pay for "similar" work, but the statue was so vague that
it was virtually unenforceable. Labour organisations like the NWTUL failed to mount a
sustained campiagn for equal pay because employers proved adept in maintaining the sexual
pay differential by such means as giving titles to similar jobs or by changing job
classifications from skilled to semi-skilled.

Yet the sheer number of women working in the war economy worked to women's advantage for
by 1944 women constituted more than 22 percent of trade union membership. Indicating the
level of importance that the female workforce had reached, in 1944 the President fo the
United Auto Workers ( UAW), Walter Reuther, pledged to " give special consideration to
seniority, safety standards, maternity leave practices, and other problems relating to the
employment of women." Unionism then, was a central way in which women pushed for equal
rights in the workplace, and some trade unions like the UAW addressed women's needs.

Still, a contradiction emerged during the war for although women were actively recruited
by industry and praised by government and media campaigns, women had very little
opportunity to influence policy that directly affected their lives. From the heights of
national policy it was men who made the decisions, something which suggested that politics
was a male domain. Organisations which did have prominence such as the National Women's
Trade Union League (NWTUL), suffered from their inability to embrace the myriad of women
in the war economy - their white middle class dominance meant that working class and black
women felt alienated by the League's politics. Race and class were important obstacles to
a strong political voice for women during the war, for national women's groups were
plagued by class elitism. In this sense many paid working women felt that their interests
were not being represented for even the President of the NWTUL conceded that " higher
salaried women too often allow their concern over the special discriminations against
women in their group to obscure the more fundamental problem which millions of working men
and women face."

Although race and class divided American women during the war , women found consensus in
the fact that direct representation in Washington was the key to securing the political
needs of American women. Organisations like the League of Women Voters (LWV) focused more
on the needs of professional women than the needs of working class or black women , to
reinforce the view that middle class women dominated wartime politics more than any other
group. The wartime shortage of men made women valuable campaign workers and as activists
it has been asserted that this was " quickened when the need for womanpower during World
War II increased the importance of women's public roles." The Second World War then , can
be seen as a turning point for women in terms of political influence, although the
downside to this was that privileged, professional women gained more from the political
process than working class or minority women did.

Yet although minority women responded to the issues of gender inequality at work, the
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