Women in World War II
Many changes in the United States occurred with the start of World War II. These changes were heavily influenced by society, propaganda, and different kinds of advertising. One major change was the drastic shift of traditionally male jobs being taken over by women as a great number of men went off to fight in the war. This may seem like a step in the right direction for gender equality, but when the war concluded, women were expected to hand their jobs back to the men and return to the homes and their lives pre-war. They were supposed to act as if their work life through the duration of war had not occurred and to move on with their lives as they would have done before. World War II resulted in a vast number of women joining the workforce until the men returned from war and the women were expected to leave their jobs, but this occurrence still led to the upcoming events of the fight for gender equality.
Prior to the United States involvement in World War II, women were often seen as objects and inferior to men. They were expected only to please their husbands and families. Women were not expected to go to college, and when they did, it was believed they only did so in order to become better wives and mothers. Women’s roles consisted of staying at home, being in charge of cleaning the entire house and keeping it tidy, doing laundry, washing dishes, watching over the children, cooking all of the meals, all while making sure the entire family, especially the husband, was happy and taken care of. Women were often treated as objects rather than decent human beings, not seen as equal to men, and only around to keep everyone happy. Advertisements for products like cleaning supplies were often targeted towards women and how they should buy their merchandise in order to keep their families happy. In a study done on advertisements throughout World War II, they found that immediately before the war, most advertisements that had women were not seen in occupational roles. They also saw that none of these advertisements showed women in the armed forces or in volunteer organizations. Additionally, only 5% of all advertisements with women displayed wage earning workers. These advertising trends, of course, can be seen to significantly change throughout the duration of the war. In 1941, The United States broke their isolationist state and declared war on Japan after the devastating event of Pearl Harbor. This led to more and more involvement of the United States in World War II. During the war, arms production increased tremendously. The United States made many important products for the armed forces during this time such as ships, airplanes, and military supplies which increased the need of manufacturing workers. Therefore, a large number of women were drawn into the labor market for these occupations that were originally dominated by men. In order to persuade more women to keep joining the blue-collar workforce and contribute to helping the United States during the war, mass advertising was heavily used. But this kind of advertising was very different than what was displayed before the war.
In 1943, advertisements of women shown as wage earners increased by 19% from only 5% in 1940. Although many women were still portrayed as homemakers and mothers, women shown as participating in the armed forces and volunteer organization positions in advertisements increased to 13%. These changes were extremely important to the United States and women as a whole. These advertisements seemed to show women that it was now okay to step outside of societal norms and work in certain occupations that were usually dominated by men. It encouraged women to step up’ and take the jobs that the husbands and men left behind, in order to maintain their family and help the United States. The reasons for this shift of occupations was still deeply rooted in gender inequality and unreasonable expectations of women. Not only were they now expected to take these new jobs, they were still expected to look after their families and keep up with all of the responsibilities they possessed before the war.
Women were also expected to surrender these occupations to the men who came back after World War II had ended. In the study about advertisement trends during this time period, the authors state, the images of women in the work place might have been new and surprising, but the social position of the woman worker was qualified by connotations of her new role being that of a patriotic martyr who will work only while the nation was at war,. This meaning that women workers were in a position where they were seen as a patriotic symbol, sacrificing part of their lives for the sake of the United States but then falling back into their prior situation when the war had ended. In 1946, advertisements with women reverted back to the same ways as they were before United States involvement with World War II. Many women were depicted as homemakers and mothers still, less women were seen as wage earners, and no women were included in armed forces and volunteer organization advertisements. Propaganda switched to sell women the idea that it was their patriotic duty to return home, to take care of their husbands and children.. After the war, women were expected to take on traditional women’s work positions such as teaching, nursing, and clerical work.
Some women had no problem with this change and were expecting it to happen after the war had ended, but many women who were laid off were, to say the least, not pleased. The United States wanted women to be perfectly fine about completely changing their lives back to the pre-war agenda as if the past almost four years did not happen at all. Protests even began to break out such as the one in Highland Park, Michigan consisting of 200 women that had been laid off at the Ford Plant, carrying signs that clearly opposed the new layoffs based on sex. Although this was infuriating for many women across the country, it cannot be unnoticed that this war brought a tremendous amount of women to places they had never been before. Penny Colman also states in her book, Never before had so many women responded. And although three million women left the workforce by 1946, there were still more women in the workforce than there had been before the war began,. Though women in the work place during World War II occurred around 75 years ago, working women still face many of the same kind of issues today such as the wage gap, child care, harassment, and the double work load. These issues, along with many others, are later brought up in many different feminist movements in various different forms.
If this significant event did not happen, feminism as a whole may not have evolved as much as it has today or have taken longer to. World War II led to second wave feminism, which led to third wave feminism, and everything after that point. As a country, we are moving forward and becoming a better society. Women have accomplished so much but it still is not enough. Women will not stop until they are equal to men and are treated as such. Working women during World War II was a huge stepping stone for women and feminists and helped pave the way for future generations to create a better country where all women and men are created equal, treated equal, and are equal.
- Bellou, Andriana, and Emanuela Cardia. “Occupations after WWII: The legacy of Rosie the Riveter.” Explorations in Economic History 62 (2016): 124-142.
- Colman, Penny. 1995. Rosie the riveter: Women working on the home front in world war II. 1st ed. New York: Crown Publishers.
- Lewis, Charles and John Neville. “Images of Rosie: A Content Analysis of Women Workers in American Magazine Advertising, 1940??“1946.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly72, no. 1 (1995): 216-227.