Roles of American Women during World War II Essay

INTRODUCTION

            The World War II years continue to fascinate both the amateur and the serious scholar. The majority of publications, however, have dealt with the war front; even the numerous memoirs have almost all been written by male participants. Only recently have scholars turned to specialized studies dealing with various aspects of women’s history: their military roles “for the duration”, and their lives on the home front, whether as homemakers, wage laborers, or volunteers for the war effort.

            “Rosie the Riveter” has come to represent the working women, usually seen as paragons of strength as they maintained homes, families, and factories during the war years. The books, dissertations, journal articles, and movies focusing on women’s lives during the war have dealt largely with the women who found employment in large scale aircraft and shipbuilding factories in urban setting, from Baltimore to the Puget Sound area to Long Beach. With the possible exception of Doris Weatherford’s “American Women and War II,” D’Ann Campbell “Women at War with America” and Susan Hartmann’s “The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in 1940s”, all of which move beyond “Rosie” as the central figure, most studies concentrate on women as war workers.

            Bounded on one side of the Great Depression and on the other by the age of affluence, World War II offered both unique and unprecedented opportunities as well as hardships for America’s women. While the vast majority of American women had always worked whether in the home or in wage labor, and many had contributed in some way to past war efforts, their experiences in World War II were different in many ways from past crises.

            In 1942, women went to war “with” America. In Army barracks, at nursing stations, on assembly lines, in typing pools, in home kitchens, and in shopping queues, women contributed in all manner of ways to their country’s effort (Campbell, 4). Historian D’Ann Campbell points out that many of these women were also “at war with” America. Rationing, sacrifices, shortages, inability to direct public policy, and lack of adequate child care all forced women to face the challenges of the day with less enthusiasm than heretofore realized. The strong, confident image of Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” on the May 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post with her sleeves rolled up, her welding glasses poised on her forehead, and her foot resting squarely on a copy of Mein Kampft, belies the fat that many American women found the war years disruptive and a time of great uncertainty. While dealing with the demands of housing shortages, rationing, wage labor, and the departure of loved ones, women took on responsibilities of social housekeeping through volunteer work, planted victory gardens, and joined the armed services. But how were women convinced to take on this myriad of roles?

            On the national level, my controlling assumption is that women were supportive of the war effort on hand but they were, at times, in conflict with wartime America on the other. While women were seldom at the highest governmental decision-making levels, they did influence what went on in their families and in their respective communities. Whether they entered the job market for the first time or changed jobs for better pay, cared for aging parents or their own children, were members of the Red Cross or the American Women’s Voluntary Service, were active duty military or were homemakers, American women both shaped and were by those experiences.

AMERICAN WOMEN AS WAGE EARNERS

            American women’s lives in the 1920s and 1920s presage the problems encountered by the nation in convincing women to enter the labor force during World War II, while at the same time they helped explain the need for massive mobilization campaigns. The “typical” female worker of the 1920s was single, you, working class, and expected to work until marriage. Married women were discouraged from entering the labor force. Historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues that “the feminine mystique” ideology that strongly suggested that married women return to, or remain in the home after World War II, actually began after World War I (Cowan, 147). Whatever it was that trapped educated America women in their kitchens, babbling at babies and worrying about color combinations for the bathroom, the trap was laid during the roaring twenties, not the quiet fifties (Cowan, 147). In writing about the 1920s and 30s, Cowan explains that non-fiction in women’s magazines was used in an attempt to persuade women that with the decrease in availability of domestic servants, they were now responsible for household duties. More importantly, middle class women were responsible because such duties (cooking, diapering, child rearing) could not be entrusted to servants. Housewives were to view themselves not as drudges, however, but as wise and responsible caregivers. But at the same time they were chastised for the 20s and 40s equivalent of “ring around the collar”, or if their homes were not a welcoming retreat for a returning husband at the end of the day. The typical woman was supposed to be always cheerful, healthy, up-to-date, and gracious; never angry, frustrated, sick, old-fashioned or – perish the thought – gainfully employed (Cowan, 147).

            But despite the rhetoric that discouraged women from entering the labor force in the 1920s, they still did, although not in large numbers and usually into jobs that were considered “women’s work”. Between 1920 and 1930 the proportion of women in the labor force increased by only 1 percent, or about two million new workers. The majority still retured from work once they married (Margolis, 205). The percentage remained almost constant suggesting that the numerical increase in the female labor force reflected the growth rate of the population and economy, rather that a radical change in women’s economic activity (Chafe, 54).

            The paradox here is that even with the introduction of a myriad of appliances and labor saving devices to lighten women’s household tasks, and possibly enable them to enter the labor force, they were advised to remain at home. During the Depression, jobs were scarce or non-existent for most women, so the prevailing thought was that they could best spend their time and money and serve their families by continuing to remain at home. With a scarcity of jobs for men, women were admonished not to take those jobs that were available. One Chicago civic group declared that marries female workers “are holding jobs that rightfully belong to the God-intended providers of the household”, while a congresswoman concurred that “women’s place is not out in the business world competing with men who have families to support (Margolis, 209). Many assumed that women worked during the Depression for “pin money” rather that of necessity. But despite the protestations against women entering the work force, the percentage of women working in 1940 was actually 25 percent higher than it had been in 1930; the rates for working women had increased from 12 to 15 percent (Margolis, 210). The reason cited for this phenomenon is that women held on to or continued to enter jobs that were considered “women’s work”, as men faced unemployment (Wandersee, 29).

ROLES OF AMERICAN WOMEN THROUGH PROPAGANDA

            It should come as no surprise that with the onset of World War II and the resultant labor shortages caused by men leaving for military service, American industry found itself in need of workers. On the eve of World War II, American women could never have imagined the events that would lead them into the workforce “for the duration” or the propaganda used to get them into those jobs.

            Contemporary literature has shed light on this aspect of World War II. Lelia Rupp has examined the propaganda designed to entice women into the labor force, instill patriotism, and at war’s end, prepare them for demobilization and a return to the home. But women were no easily persuaded to leave home. It became apparent that this mobilization propaganda was used to make their entry into war work acceptable, while at the same time reinforce traditional gender roles. Beneath her coveralls it was made clear that the housewife-turned-war worker still wore her apron, maintained her femininity while doing a “man’s job,” and would cheerfully and readily relinquish her new-found vocation and independence to the returning veterans (Rupp, 37).  “It’s a Woman’s War, Too,” the New York Times proclaimed on September 27, 1942, in a new feature created to step up the war effort of American women (Rupp, 29). The title of the column underscored the significance of gender as a social category in wartime society. The appearance of special forums of war information for women in the Times and many other newspapers as well challenged the conventional assumption that war was a men’s enterprise because of the categorical exclusion of women from combat.   As insulated as the American home front was from the battlefields of World War II, women might seem even more removed from the war. Yet the scale and length of the overseas military engagement of the United States required an extraordinary level of support from women. To accommodate the nation’s military priorities, a host of war programs such as Victory gardens, conservation of vital materials, and rationing of consumer goods introduced tremendous lifestyle changes in American homes. By virtue of their domestic responsibility, women constituted the key sector of the civilian population to be mobilized to participate in these home front campaigns. Recruitment drives in response to the shift of manpower to military needs also targeted women, who were considered by officials and employers as a flexible source of labor subject to the changing demands of society.

The cooperation of women was thus central to the redistribution of both human and material resources prompted by the exigencies of war. Although scarcely noticed by journalism historians, newspapers, with a tradition of emphasizing female readership, provided the government with a powerful channel of communication to enlist American women in the nation’s war effort. A twelve-page supplement titled “Women Meet the Challenge of War” in the San Francisco Examiner in March 1943, illustrated the all-out effort by the press in persuading women to help Uncle Sam win the war. Stories with headlines such as “Women are needed now in war jobs” and ‘If you want to join up, here’s where to enlist” urged women with patriotic resolve to take up the jobs men left behind. Other headlines such as “Many channels open for women in volunteer work” and “American woman now rations her luxuries,” challenged homemakers to go to war in their own communities and homes (Margolis, 231).

               Blurring the line between persuasive propaganda and objective reportage, journalistic narratives contended with the ambiguity of female citizenship to establish for their readers socially acceptable ways through which American women were to relate to the war. In the absence of female conscription for either military or civilian services in the United States cultural resources such as news was instrumental in specifying the civic responsibilities of women in wartime society. Through an intimate liaison with the Office of War Information (OWI), the press joined forces with the government to define appropriate roles and outline proper behaviors for women in the wartime civic culture. Shrewd publishers and articulate journalists turned the forum of news into an indispensable link in the nation’s extensive propaganda network to promote the ideology of female patriotism underlying the nation’s mobilization for war.

           In tandem with the government’s initiative to encourage women’s employment as a solution to manpower shortages, the Hearst newspaper chain, for instance, launched a nationwide contest for “Miss Victory – the Typical American Girl War Worker” in the fall of 1942.  With much fanfare that boosted morale as well as circulation during the two-month search, the Hearst newspapers crowned Barbara Ann Clark, 21, of Flint, Michigan, on December 7 to mark the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.  Unlike the traditional beauty queen, Clark was selected from 1,500,000 women war workers all over the country for her patriotic contribution. Newly wed to a radio technician in the Navy, she operated a milling machine at the local General Motors plan (Margolis, 252). As the publicity of the contest stressed, she helped turn out machine guns there for American men who, just like her husband, were risking their lives to serve the country. Honored as a wartime role model for American women, Clark was received by government and military officials in the nation’s capital. Afterwards, she went on a tour on behalf of the Treasury Department to promote the sale of war bonds.

Over the course of the war, newspapers across the country staged many similar contests to raise the war consciousness of civilians. In the carnival atmosphere of war preparation, almost every community rallied around its own Miss Victory. The Gary Post-Tribune in Indiana, for example, held a beauty contest in June 1944 to support servicemen abroad. In response to the “Smokes for Yanks” campaign, readers bought five-cent votes to select their “favorite paper doll” as “Miss Gary Cigarette” (Margolis, 271).   These paragons of female patriotism kept war enthusiasm high on the home front particularly by consolidating the political interest of women in the archetypal female identity as helpmates to the heroes fighting to protect home and country. The popular representation of women in the wartime media cast them as home front soldiers standing behind their men to provide civilian support essential to the nation’s military success. The implications of the patriotic appeals circulating in the mainstream press went beyond the construction of gender roles. The presumably homogeneous form of political consciousness proposed for American women by the dominant ideology of female patriotism also displaced racial tension and class conflicts to promote the ideal of national unity. The approach of the black press to civilian mobilization, however, revealed significant social divisions in the war effort. “Race girl vies to be Miss Victory,” the Chicago Defender announced when Gwendolyn Norman, described as “a comely colored girl,” entered the Hearst contest (Wandersee, 48).The presence of Norman in the widely publicized contest challenged the ideal of female patriotism represented in the daily press mostly by middle-class white women.

              The gendered appeal to patriotism in the white press, with no apparent references to other hierarchical foundations of social relations, nonetheless reinforced race and class privileges. In the mobilization of women for war work, the exclusion of non-white women, who were also more likely to belong to the working class, not only barred them from the greater social mobility afforded to middle-class white women by increasing employment opportunities; it also marginalized minorities in the political culture of wartime society, relegating them as “others” to a lesser civic status. Keenly aware of the politics of representation, black newspapers and civil rights organizations sponsored separate morale boosters for black communities throughout the war to bring public attention to black women as patriotic citizens. Hailed at freedom rallies as a symbol of the achievement of blacks and a mark of their contribution to the war effort, “Miss Negro Victory Worker” underscored black resistance against racial prejudice that precluded consideration of minorities as role models in the dissemination of mobilization propaganda (Wandersee, 51).

DEFINING ROLES: EXAMPLE OF OWI

           Never in history have American women played such an important part in wartime,” declared the Office of War Information, “Womanpower is this country’s reserve of industrial labor and military strength” (Campbell, 74).  As a key target of the government’s effort to mobilize support for the war on the home front, women commanded special attention from the OWI. The Domestic Copy Desk addressed women through its dairy dissemination of general news to explain the effects of the war on the home life of Americans. In addition, the Campaigns section of the Feature Desk distributed a column designed specifically for women.   The “Shopping News Column,” published twice a week, offered women advice on how they could best serve their families and the country as efficient and patriotic consumers.

               Women’s pages in dairy newspapers offered the OWI a readily available channel of mass communication to engineer public responses to wartime privations such as rationing and price control, and to encourage greater participation in civilian defense. The dissemination of domestic propaganda prompted the News Bureau to take advantage of this specialized news forum to court the enthusiasm of women for the war. The Women’s Press section of the Feature Desk, headed by Hazel Howard, a New York publicity writer, served as the contact between the OWI and the press. Howard distributed OWI material directly to 500 women’s departments through news releases, correspondence with women’s editors, and its flagship publication titled “Fortnightly Budget – For Wartime Editors of Women’s Pages” (Campbell, 76). The publication featured information on the war activities of women both in and outside their homes. For instance, in an ostensible appeal to the patriotic spirit of American women, on November 13, 1943, Fortnightly Budget debuted its “Guest Editor” page written by women who were well known for their contribution to the government’s war program. They represented the proper wartime role model for women to be celebrated in women’s pages. Although the Women’s Press section was aggressive in soliciting editorial support from newspapers, an OWI survey of 150 women’s pages in the spring of 1943 revealed, however, that government material was not receiving as much play as expected ().  After revising its method of distribution by working with feature writers and syndicates, the Women’s desk subsequently retooled its publication in June 1944 so that it resembled the content and style of women’s sections more closely.   Renamed “The Women’s Page,” the publication sought to promote greater interest among women’s editors in disseminating OWI information. In its effort to manipulate news coverage of women in the war, the OWI did not recognize black women as a distinctive group as the division of responsibility in the Feature Desk indicated. The generic approach of the Negro Press section made no distinction between women and men as different targets for government information on blacks. The Women’s desk, addressing its material to women in general, made little, if any, specific effort to reach black women. The absence in the black press of a full-fledged women’s section with the traditional emphasis on service features suggested also that the network between the women’s unit of the OWI and women’s editors did not extend to black newspapers. As a result of the structure of the OWI, government propaganda targeting women, although addressing all groups in principal, focused on the white majority in practice.

               In addition to the long range effort carried out by the news service of the OWI to court women’s support for war programs on the home front, the government launched two major campaigns to emphasize the need for womanpower through intense, short-term publicity.   The two campaigns in the fall of 1943 and the spring of 1944 sought to recruit women for military service and wartime employment in defense and essential civilian industries.   The womanpower drive aimed also to counter public disapproval of new lines of work for women that breached established notions of gender differences. The OWI prepared an extensive information guide to explain the overall appeals to be highlighted and specific strategies to be adopted by the media. Despite the interest of the OWI in promoting war activities for women that defied sexual stereotypes, the guidelines drew largely on a dichotomized view of gender roles and identities. For instance, the media were supposed to present wartime paid employment as a civic duty for women comparable to military service for men.   The OWI suggested also that media publicity take advantage of the strong identification of women with the domestic sphere to convince them that war work was similar to their household tasks such as running a sewing machine or a vacuum cleaner. The strategies encouraged women to undertake unfamiliar tasks in the wartime economy and at the same time upheld the principle of sexual division of labor.

           In the promotion of military service, the OWI asked the media to accentuate the differences rather than similarities between women and men. In fact, according to the OWI’s analysis, recruitment pitches showing women working side by side with men and accustoming themselves to Spartan comforts as men had not been effective. Apparently, the misplaced emphases on equality deterred women from joining up because they did not want to lose their feminine lifestyle and identity. “Women have not been told in national publicity that military service does not destroy their femininity nor detract from it,” the OWI insisted. “There has not been sufficient emphasis on the fact that women in the Armed Forces are not remolded into some other kind of half-male, half-female hybrid” (Campbell, 82). The media were therefore advised to emphasize the feminine interests and activities of women in uniform, portray their work as similar to what women did in civilian life, and characterize their training and services as vastly different from the experiences of men in the military.   The overall strategy was to convince women that military service would not change their fundamental way of living as women. To “get to the girl information that would sell her into the armed services in an interesting manner,” the News Bureau provided newspapers with popular and entertaining features such as crossword puzzles and “score yourself” tests with questions such as whether women in the military could wear lipstick or had dates with civilians.   In short, the appropriate copy approach according to the OWI would show servicewomen dating, dancing, going to parties, performing supportive duties, and above all avoid making any impression that they were ever engaged in combat.

Through its connection to the media, the OWI became a powerful agent in defining women’s place in wartime society. Although the agency never articulated a clear overarching policy concerning the mobilization of American women, the fragmentary discourse on womanpower as seen in the stream of news releases, special publications, and campaign directives nevertheless implied a loosely constructed hierarchical system designating differential value to women’s work. As the demands of national mobilization privileged the war contribution of women in their more public roles, military service and paid employment generally took precedence over volunteer work and domestic work in the propaganda effort of the OWI. Within the public sphere, women’s work in the military appeared to assume top priority because the requirements of the armed forces were well denned in quotas to be met. The clearly expressed goals facilitated publicity of national recruitment campaigns, which made military services highly visible in the drive for womanpower. Although the needs for additional labor in war and civilian industries were equally urgent, a more complicated set of variables such as the supply and demand in a particular industry and local labor market made it more difficult for the OWI to make effective national appeals that could be easily grasped by the public.

AMERICAN WOMEN: GENDER AND IDENTITY

            The demands of the wartime economy compelled greater use of womanpower. The Selective Service drained the supply of manpower at a time when high industrial production also became critical in the drive toward final victory. To raise women’s interest in war work, the War Manpower Commission popularized Rosie the Riveter as the quintessential American woman inspired by patriotism to step out of her domain in the home to the production front. Sporting a confident “victory smile” in her trademark overalls, goggles, and bright bandanna, she also served to encourage public approval of outside employment for married women, who had been excluded form the labor market to protect male employment in the Depression era. Defying sexual prejudices, many women took on “men’s” jobs, working in shipyards, aircraft factories, and munitions plants. More than six million women entered the labor force during the war, representing a 50 percent increase in female employment The drastic changes in the pattern of female employment led some scholars to perceive World War II as a turning point in the history of American women. Most notably William Chafe in his path-breaking work showed that the opportunities created by the war offered women a taste of freedom and equality, foreshadowing the women’s movement two decades later (Chafe, 109). Others found, however, in their investigations of the war decade little evidence to support the war’s progressive implications for social change. The exclusive focus on middle-class white women in the promotion of female employment in particular brought into question the positive influence of the war on women from less privileged social groups. Underlying the different conclusions drawn by these historians was a common concern with the impact of wartime employment on the status of American women. Without a more inclusive conceptualization of women’s relation to the war to take into account other aspects of their involvement, both interpretations tended to portray the war years as a period of relaxed gender norms, which were inexplicably constricted just as quickly as the war ended. Neither was able to explain the cultural mechanisms and ideological momentum underlying such a radical disjuncture. Even for women who did benefit from the expanding employment options created by the defense build-up, the temporary disruption of gender roles during the war seemed to result only in their retreat to a stifling isolated domestic existence after the war.

            In recent years, historians have increasingly turned their attention to the cultural and social underpinnings of war to break the impasse in the debate on the influence of World War II. The problem with the conflicting interpretations, as Joan Scott noted, is that “both sides in this debate see ideology as a powerful explanatory factor, yet neither sees as problematic its creation, change, or effects on behavior” (in Thomas, 223).  Instead of taking experience for granted as historical evidence, Scott urged historians to examine “the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation, its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate” (in Thomas, 225).  Also stressing the importance of the ideological dimension of war, Margaret R. Higonnet and others argued that, “It is insufficient to examine only the objective situation of women before, during, and after the war. The analyst must also explain the social meanings attached to these activities through discourse” (Higonnet, 4-5).

            The new historiographic impetus enhanced the significance of cultural representations in negotiating the paradox of change and continuity in wartime. Yet historians have not addressed the critical role of news media in reconciling changing demands on women’s labor introduced by the war with existing racial assumptions and gender expectations. Despite the need for women’s participation in the labor market, two-thirds of American women remained full-time homemakers in the war years. To draw them into the war effort, domestic propaganda created the image of the kitchen patriot who served the country in a “combination front-line bunker and rear-echelon miniature war plant” (Thomas, 99). The concern of most historians with paid employment as the primary index of the impact of the war, however, obscured the significance of appeals to women’s domestic interest in the war effort. Ironically, this approach to women and war tend to reinforce a more male-centered perspective on history that often privileged the public over the private sphere without questioning how the boundaries were renegotiated and reaffirmed under specific circumstances.

            News coverage of women’s wartime activities, defying the narrow conceptualization of war mobilization, offered a productive entry point to explore the dynamics of war and social change. Competing for public attention and legitimacy with the famed Rosie the Riveter, diverse images of female patriotism ranging from the conscientious shopper who observed ration rules to send premium foodstuff to servicemen abroad, the kitchen patriot who saved grease for the government to the grieving war mother who sustained the ultimate sacrifice of her son for the preservation of American democracy paraded through the wartime press to energize civilian support for war objectives. Amidst this narrative variety, a clear editorial direction, particularly in the dairy press, promoted the domestic commitment of women as an integral part of national defense. Urging the American housewife to ‘join in the fight with her frying pan,” the San Francisco Chronicle asserted in a tone echoing the “Uncle Sam Wants You” plea that “the government is depending on grease saved in millions of American homes to keep our war effort going. It may be your cupful that will save the lives of some of our boys at the front” (Higonnet, 18).  To a lesser extent, the black press also encouraged women to relate to the war through their role as homemakers. The collective emphasis on women’s war effort at home reinforced sexual division of labor by assuming that all women. regardless of their economic status and lifestyle differences share the same domestic responsibility. The popularity of the appeal of patriotic domesticity underscored the broad attraction of the vision of an ideal household – consisting of a nuclear family headed by a male breadwinner and sustained by a female care-taker – imbedded in the wartime consumer culture as one of the most compelling reasons for “what we are fighting for.”

Works Cited

D’Ann Campbell, Women at War with America, Harvard University Press, 1984

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “Two Washes in the Morning and a Bridge Party at Night: The American Housewife Between the Wars,” Women’s Studies 3, 1976, pp. 147-171

Maxine L. Margolis, Mothers and Such: Views on American Women and Why They      Changed, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

William H. Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic and Political            Roles 1920-1970, Oxford University Press, 1991

Winifred D. Wandersee, Women’s Work and Family Values 1920-1940, Cambridge       University Press, 1981

Leila J. Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945,       Princeton University Press, 1978

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, Jane Jensen, Sonya Michel and Margaret Collins Wehz, eds.       Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven: Yale University     Press,   1987.

Thomas, Mary Martha. Riveting and Rationing in Dixie: Alabama Women and the

            Second World War, The University of Alabama Press, 1987