Megan M. Shaw
Due Date: 11-14-2006
“The More Women at Work, the Sooner We Will Win”
Women In the Workplace During World War II
When the entire world was torn apart by war in the late 1930s, the American people came together like never before. Waves of proud, young soldiers lined the docks, ready to be shipped across the sea to fight to protect their homes and families. The majority of those left behind were the wives, sisters, and daughters of these brave men. However, as the ships crossed the horizon, the women were faced with a battle of their own. It was not a battle that would be fought in some distant field, but it would be fought in their homes, at their jobs, in the stores, and on the streets. It was the battle for the preservation of the American way of life.
With war comes hardship, and the American home front was no different. Food shortages and extensive rationing forced families to implement unfamiliar practices in their daily lives. Many households planted a “victory garden” in order to supplement their diet and allow the majority of industrially produced food to be shipped overseas to the soldiers. Public transportation, carpooling, and walking became prominent as gasoline was rationed for use in war vehicles. Families were more than willing to sacrifice pleasures and conveniences in order to help their fathers, sons, and husbands on the warfront.
One of the greatest shortages experienced was that of workers. With approximately 16,000,000 soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces from 1941-1946 [Dept. of Defense], industry was forced to call upon women to fill the significant gap left by military personal. In 1940, the number of women employed was 14 million. By 1945, the number had reached 19 million, increasing from 26% of the work force to 36% [History Matters].
The majority of women who entered the defense factories were from three major groups: women who were already working and transferred to defense jobs, women who had held jobs at one point but had lost them during the 1930s depression, and women who were working for the first time, which was the largest of the three groups. Millions of women stepped outside the home for the first time, leaving behind the typical stereotype of a white, middle-class housewife [Harvey].
For women who already held jobs, the transition from service to defense work was an easy decision to make. The war opened up opportunities formally withheld from the gender, as well as higher wages [Naccarato]. For many women, the production spike brought on by the war enabled them to regain jobs that had been lost during the Great Depression or when factories had converted from civilian to war production. Together with first-time workers, over six million women stepped in to fill positions formally held by men [Harvey].
Many industrial companies found the change to be difficult. It was considered nearly taboo to hire a woman to do a “man’s job,” especially when that job would require her to work under harsh, and distinctly unfeminine, conditions. While the pay was still higher than that earned in service and retail trade, the work was heavily segregated by gender, with women earning nearly half the pay of their male counterparts, even when completing the same job. Many women faced hostility from male employees, some of whom refused to work alongside a female [Sealander].
In May of 1943, Norman Rockwell immortalized the female defense worker with his cover of the Saturday Evening Post depicting “Rosie the Riveter.” Brawny and strong, she held a riveting gun in her lap, the “home front equivalent of the G.I. Joe” [Harvey]. His artwork illustrated women’s contribution to a formerly male-dominated trade.
Rivets were used in the construction of planes, locomotives, and ships. The work of a riveter was hot, dirty, and tiring, but women workers “laughed more than they complained” [Wise]. Wearing men’s overalls with their hair tied back in bandannas, female defense workers endured day after day of harassment, discrimination, and less-than-pleasant working conditions [Wise]. Workers, and many advertisements, compared the unfamiliar defense work to familiar household tasks, such as sewing, in order to make the job less intimidating.
In 1943, the U.S. Office of War Information produced a Magazine War Guide, instructing publications in ways to motivate women to work in the war industry. Appealing to the women’s sense of patriotism and personal ties, their motto was, “The More Women at Work, the Sooner We Will Win.” The Norman Rockwell cover was joined with another well-known work by J. Howard Miller entitled “We Can Do It!” to assist in the effort. Ironically, the “We Can Do It!” poster was created in 1942, long before Rockwell’s cover and was never intentionally associated with Rosie the Riveter [Harvey].
The war gave many women the chance to be independent for the first time in their lives. With the main provider gone to war, they had to provide for their family. Soon, they learned to appreciate the new-found independence that came with each well-earned paycheck. But the effects weren’t all monetary. They came to appreciate doing something for the country more than just rolling bandages or rationing sugar. Working together with hundreds of other men and women gave them a strong sense of what it meant to be an American. The intense work and stress of the war gave them a sense of family.
When the war came to a close in 1945, millions of soldiers gladly returned home. Now that the need created by the war no longer existed, women were asked to step down and let the men have their jobs back. That request was met with several varying emotions. For some women, the end of the war brought welcome relief and they eagerly returned home, sliding back into their roles as typical housewives. Others valued the independence and self-confidence acquired through working and sought to retain their job, but were denied. While many “white-collared” position remained open to women, industrial positions were swiftly closed. That type of work had been a man’s job before the war, company heads claimed, and now that the war was over, it would go back to being a man’s job [Wise].
Countless women resented being pushed out of a job that, only a few years before, the government had practically begged them to take [Wise]. Some companies offered their female employees token positions in secretarial work, for a cut in pay, but after experiencing the high pay and benefits of a “man’s job,” most women refused. In the end, the majority of women were forced to either go back to being housewives or take a traditional woman’s job.
The war industry had various affects on women and their place in the workforce. Although the number of women workers never again sunk to pre-war lows, they would not see a major increase until the 1970s. The 1950s icon of an ideal woman was that of June Cleaver, of Leave It To Beaver fame [Harvey]. She was the perfect suburban housewife and mother, with cookies and a cold glass of milk ready after school and a hot dinner on the table when her husband came home from work. However, the 1950s woman never forgot her contribution to the war and the time spent outside of the home and in the world.
“Continued Employment after the War.” History Matters. 13 Nov. 2006.
“DoD Principal Wars.” Chart. Department of Defense Personnel and Procurement Statistics. US Dept. of Defense. 13 Nov. 2006.
Naccarato, Chris. “Rosie the Riveter.” University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 1998. 13 Nov. 2006.
Rosie the Riveter. Narr. Sheridan Harvey. Journeys and Crossings. Webcast. The Library of Congress, 2003. 13 Nov. 2006.
Sealander, Judith. “ Records of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, 1918- 1965.” LexisNexis. Aug. 1997. 13 Nov. 2006.
Wise, Nancy Baker and Christy Wise. A Mouthful of Rivets. California: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994.