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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 future role for women after the war was problematic. Marriage soared
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