Before WWII most of society frowned on women working outside the home. Most of the working women were from lower working classes doing menial jobs. With WWII there became a shortage of workers as so many men were in the armed forces plus there was an increased demand for wartime production.
In 1943 Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “The War Department must fully utilize, immediately and effectively, the largest and potentially the finest single source of labor available today – the vast reserve of woman power.” To encourage employment of women, on April 1, 1943 the U.S. War Department published a pamphlet entitled “You’re Going to Employ Women.”
I found a copy of the pamphlet and I had to laugh at some of the advice given to potential employers of women. Here is just some of the statements in the pamphlet:
- Women are pliant – adaptable
- Women are dexterous – finger-nimble
- Women are accurate – precision workers
- Women are good at repetitive tasks
- Women are fine color and material observants
- Women can be trained to do almost any job you’ve got
Further instructions were:
In some respects women workers are superior to men. Properly hired, properly trained properly handled, new women employees are splendidly efficient workers.
In spite of the government’s propaganda campaigns to employ women, there was still some resistance. Some worried women would become too masculine, would take jobs from men, would upset home life, would have negative effects on children.
Minority women faced even more challenges to working. Black women found it hard to obtain a job. Women from Japanese and Italian backgrounds found widespread prejudices.
One of the main stars of the propaganda campaign was Rosie the Riveter. Rosie was a fictional icon representing women who worked in the WWII munitions and war supplies industries. She was designed to look strong enough to handle the manual labor, yet also feminine enough to reassure men that women working would not lose their feminine appearance. Rosie’s picture was seen in newspapers, magazines, posters, and even music.
Hitler used America women working in his own propaganda campaign noting that the German women’s job was to have babies and be good wives and mothers to the Third Reich.
Women found it difficult to balance work and child care. Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged her husband, President Franklin D Roosevelt, to create childcare facilities. She also encouraged employers to provide childcare facilities for their workers.
Women entering the work force changed much of the fashion for women. High-heels were out. Clothing had fewer adornments. Khaki jackets and blue jeans became popular. Following Rosie’s picture, slacks and headscarves was the fashion thing to wear. Wool and silk were rationed due to the need for military uniforms and parachutes. Manufactured fibers such as rayon and viscose became popular. When nylon was also restricted, women were forced to not wear stockings.
Along with women entering the work force at home, approximately 350,000 women joined the military. They served as nurses, truck drivers, mechanics and clerical workers. Military groups for women organized in WWII were:
- Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps – later named the Women’s Army Corps (WAC)
- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES)
- Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs)
Over 1600 female nurses received military honors and decorations for courage under fire. Women could only serve in the military in times of war until 1948 when Congress allowed women to serve as full-fledged members of all branches of the military.
Many feared after WWII that women in the work force would take jobs needed by the men returning from war. Many women gladly returned back to the home and many were laid off. However, WWII opened the door to women in the work force and this source of labor has only increased since then.
Checking the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, I found that in 2019 57.4 percent of all women participated in the labor force. And, as expected, women still made less than men. According to the Bureau in 2019, women who worked full time in wage and salary jobs had median usual weekly earnings of $821, which represented 82 percent of men’s median weekly earnings ($1,007).
The final page of the pamphlet I found gave me a last laugh:
A woman worker is not a man; in many jobs she is a substitute – like plastics instead of metal – she has special characteristics that lend themselves to new and sometimes superior uses.
After reading that, I had to wonder what superior uses they thought women would bring to the labor force. And I love their statement that a woman worker is not a man – just a substitute. They opened the door for women to be in the work force – and here we are – hardly a substitute.