Identification and Evaluation Of Sources
This investigation focuses on the events surrounding World War I as well as after World War I and how it affected the role of American women in the workforce to a certain extent. The sources that are going to be evaluated, one of which is primary and the other is a secondary source, will show insights on women while working during World War I and perceptions among women as well as by women throughout their experiences in the workforce.
The first source is a primary source; a poem by Ethel Betty, a woman who worked for MI5 between 1915 and 1920 as a Military Permit Officer who acted as an administrative assistant to a senior officer and supervised soldiers’ leave. A poem she wrote during those years mentions “We’ll think of when we had the ’flu, the days we had to ‘muddle through’, and all the work we used to do to snare the wily Hun, of times when strafs were in the air, and worried secretaries would tear, great handfuls of their flowing hair, and swear at everyone. We’ll think with something like regret of all the jolly friends we met; the jokes that we remember yet, will once again revive. Here’s to the book that’s just begun!” (Betty, 10).
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The purpose of her writing these was to keep memories for herself in when she got to be in such a high position within the military, despite the huge amount of work she was forced to do even on days when she would be sick. She mentions ‘we’ a lot within the poem, referring to other women working with her at the time and how they all had to put in the same huge amount of work. She also gives insight on how the staff and secretaries thought of her and the other women workers, mentioning how they were usually frustrated and stressed with all of them despite the amount of work they put in. When Ethel mentions “Here’s to the book that’s just begun!” (Betty, 10), this is a value of the source that is able to imply that the time for women belonging in the workforce didn’t just stop there, and that there will be room for opportunities for women being able to work at the least. Since men were still dominant in the workforce, given that they would be the ones to employ the women, a limitation would be that it doesn’t mention the men in the workforce and how they treated her and the other workers, which would have been a major value given that harsh and sexist perceptions on gender roles back then played a huge part on whether women could even benefit from being in the workforce any longer. In regards to this, it is unclear whether there is other information that is being withheld that would provide essential insights into this case.
The second source is a secondary source by Susan Grayzel, who is an American academic historian and author of many books, mostly dedicated to women and how they were perceived or treated during World War I, especially during the workforce. This source is from “Changing Lives: Gender Expectations and Roles During and After World War One.” published by The British Library in 2013. Even though the origin of the source is found in The British Library, she is an American historian who wrote experiences of women all around in America and Europe as well during World War I. The fact that the source is published in 2013 makes it a limitation in that it is too recent to indicate if all ideas and information presented in this article makes it true for every woman generally during the actual time of World War I. “Women could support the military effort and the nation’s men in uniform as nurses, female military auxiliaries, ambulance drivers, farm workers, and factory labourers as well as in many other occupations, something evident in many of these documents.
However, they were also celebrated for their quiet heroism in keeping the home intact whilst their men were absent.” (Grayzel, Changing Lives: Gender Expectations and Roles During and After World War One). The purpose of writing this is to show the real insight on how most women were rather treated as options when it came to belonging in the workforce, as most women were praised for being at home and keeping the family together, despite the fact that women were still able to support military effort. The value in this gives more perceptivity on how workforce and war support was encouraged among women, but the housewife role was still expected among them which could have resulted in not as many being in the workforce as there could have been at that time.
The limitation is that the author brings up that their occupations are only ‘something evident’ in other documents but doesn’t analyze or go deeper in that claim enough in which she would bring up real evidence and numbers of some sort to show that women were actually working and how many of them were. However, she also mentions that “Economically, returning men displaced many women from their wartime occupations, and many households now headed by women due to the loss of male breadwinners faced new levels of hardship. Women did not gain or retain access to all professions, and they did not come close to gaining equal pay for comparable work.” (Grayzel, Changing Lives: Gender Expectations and Roles During and After World War One), which gives value on how gender roles played a part in whether women were expected to be in the workforce after World War I ended, thus showing that women’s role in the workforce was only changed to the extent that they were encouraged to be a housewife for the most part, but were valued in the workforce when needed.
Some historians may disagree that World War I had a huge impact on the role of American women in the workforce. This is mainly because “no exact comparison of the extent of women’s employment in the two wars can be given, owing to lack of comprehensive data for 1917-18.” (Robinson, Mary, 650). However, large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war.
Women were more likely to be accepted into the Navy and Marines, as well as more likely to be treated equally. The Navy and the Marines accepted over 13,000 women into active duty and the Coast Guard. These women served initially in more clerical positions; where they were given the same responsibilities, rank and benefits as men. After the war, this gave women the chance to be treated as veterans who were eligible for veteran’s benefits for the first time and received honorable discharges.
New jobs that were created led to women working in fields that were formerly reserved for men, for example as railway guards and ticket collectors, postal workers, police, firefighters and as bank ‘tellers’ and clerks. Some women also worked heavy or precision machinery in engineering, led cart horses on farms, and worked in the civil service and factories. “This led to over 8.5 million women workers in the workforce after January 1920. This was also a big increase compared to the number of women working in 1870, which was 1.8 billion workers” (Robinson, Mary, 651). Statistics may prove that more women were involved with similar labor to men, but “despite the fact that women were able to perform these jobs effectively during the war, this did not shift the perception that women would be as productive as men” (Keir, Malcolm, 103).
The duration of the war meant that governments positioned women in the war and as a result, they began reorganising basic aspects of their lives. Governments could alter the food women could eat and tried to restrict the information they could know or share. This also contributed to the lack of change in gender roles as well; Even men who were “too young or old or ill were expected to support the war, and some men in key industries were required to stay at their jobs in order to ensure the output of basic supplies. Most places in the U.S. celebrated women as mothers, the representative of family life and domesticity. Women’s designated role as guardians of morality meant that in most countries, ‘separation allowances’ – funds paid to soldiers’ dependents – were tied to their good behaviour, including in some cases demonstrating their sobriety and fidelity.” (Grayzel, The British Library). Women could support the military effort in uniform as nurses, female military auxiliaries, ambulance drivers, farm workers, and factory labourers as well as in many other occupations. However, it was more expected of women to keep the household together even if their husbands or brothers could not participate in the war. When it came to training for jobs after the war, the limited number of women enrolled for training is the result of the failure of employers to uplift their restrictions on the employment of women. It is also known that as long as men were available, women were not being enrolled in training courses at all.
The aftermath of the war led to unemployment rates and poverty rates increasing nationwide; in that with several million unemployed workers and no widespread labor shortage, it took a fairly long time before women are employed on a large scale everywhere. “The unemployed and workers temporarily displaced by the conversion of industries to war work will have first consideration in employment. Where local labor shortages exist, increased efforts must be made to ensure employers to be able to adopt policies that will ensure the full utilization of female labor. Jobs must be broken down into unit skills, workers will have to be upgraded, and women will need to be trained to fill the new jobs.” (Tyler, Alice, 430). This setback a lot of opportunities for women to belong within the workforce for a very long time, which arguably set back the perspective of women being able to handle manual labor at all. “Women did not gain or retain access to all professions, and they did not come close to gaining equal pay for comparable work.” (Grayzel, The British Library). This was a time where women were most needed at home to take care of their starving and poor families at the time while the men were most encouraged to look for a job.
It is plausible to claim that while women were encouraged to support various workforces and the military, the establishment of their actual positions in the workforce didn’t happen immediately after World War I. Some historians can agree this is due to perceptions on gender roles back then, in that women were more encouraged to be at home taking care of the family, and others can agree that this is due to the hardships many places of work suffered due to the aftermath of the war, making it harder to employ more women, and employment priorities applied more to men for a while. The extent in that women could participate in the workforce after World War I couldn’t go to the full extent despite the capabilities that women had alike with men when it came to working, as results of women partaking in employment positions were not immediate after the war.
As I was researching many different documents in different time periods by different historians, I realize that the information presented in these documents are a result on how historians will display and analyze the information based on the focus they are going for and the perception they want to centralize. I wanted to investigate the extent of to how and if women were able to participate in the workforce and what roles they were given, but that extent was due to not only economical setbacks that the country suffered after the war, but it was also because of social issues. Gender roles and perceptions however weren’t presented in the documents I found that were written around the time of the war as opposed to the documents I discovered from recent times.
When showing statistics on women participation during and after the war, the historians that displayed that information wrote it around the time of the war. They claimed that the result of not all women being able to take these opportunities in being employed were because of economic hardships. This was an excuse to not employ more women because they already had more severe limits on even obtaining a job before the war started. The historian did not fully state that the reason for this was due to the gender roles put upon women in the first place. As opposed to a source I found in recent times, which clearly stated that women were perceived to be good housewives and obtaining morality, and they weren’t even given the chance to show their abilities to be in the workforce.
This is able to prove the fact that reliability isn’t only based on primary sources or sources that were written around the time of the event. Perceptions on events in history are also very valuable to a certain extent, as it creates more room for discussion especially on a topic that was once problematic and controversial as women belonging in the workforce. Historians a long time ago could be challenged nowadays by the topic they introduce and how they introduced it, as historians during this time period are the ones challenging them with new ideas and information presented in a new way. This investigation was requiring me to search out more sources in a range of different time periods in order to be able to accurately show a more median perspective, which is challenging to do. This gave me more analyzation and answers on to the extent women’s role changed after the war; which I believe can make this investigation stronger given that the research question can have more than one answer or perspective.