By Nick Suhr ~
It took American women a lengthy time to gain the right to vote, and women’s place in the workforce has been a struggle. Unequal pay, unequal opportunities for advancement, glass ceilings, and the like. But this story is different. It tells how American women stepped up when our country needed them most during the Second World War.
The Oxford Research Enclyclopedia of American History includes a detailed section on Women, Gender, and World War II, which is a wellspring of information on this important subject. Here is how it starts:
The Second World War changed the United States for women, and women in turn transformed their nation. Over three hundred fifty thousand women volunteered for military service, while twenty times as many stepped into civilian jobs, including positions previously closed to them. More than seven million women who had not been wage earners before the war joined eleven million women already in the American work force. Between 1941 and 1945, an untold number moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities, but many more remained in place, organizing home front initiatives to conserve resources, to build morale, to raise funds, and to fill jobs left by men who entered military service.
On the Homefront
The need to replace the men trained and sent off to conduct the grisly business of war was the primary reason many doors and opportunities opened for women. But there was still a lot of history to be dealt with, a history wherein women had a certain place in the social order. When that order began to change, it was accepted by many but challenged by others. Women were offered the chance to do wage-based work at rates of pay far beyond those offered by traditional “women’s work” such as sewing and embroidery, retail sales, baking, laundering, house cleaning, and child care.
After President Roosevelt created the War Manpower Commission, the government brought Madison Avenue into the picture with many clever, colorful, and inviting posters luring women into all aspects of the war effort. Among the most popular—and comparatively lucrative pay-wise—were industrial jobs. Topping the list were building airplanes, ships, tanks, jeeps, and all manor of weapons and munitions. One of the most powerful ad campaigns assured the country that “Women Workers Will Win the War.”
The Work the Women Did
There was no limit to the work in which women were involved. “Rosie the Riveter” became the iconic symbol for women signing up to build the machinery of war. But women were also involved, either as volunteers or as paid workers, doing things like inspecting factories, testing chemicals and other miltary supplies, and working as nurses in hospitals and on battlefields.
Opportunities were there for women, but the record shows that there were still significant differences between what women and men were being paid to do the same job. A 1944 study found that despite federal regulations requiring “equitable pay for similar work,” women were being paid $31.21 per week for doing the same work for which men were paid $54.65. This was an unfortunate, but not unexpected, consequence.
There is no doubt that what the women of America did during World War II significantly contributed to the war effort, as many studies and reports later confirmed. The image of Rosie the Riveter on the assembly line was an inspiration for women to join in the massive, undeniably critical job of winning the war.
Today, there is a Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Park in Richmond, California, dedicated to preserving the memory of the work American women did in the 1940s. A Living article published just a few months ago about the Liberty ship John W. Brown noted that the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond built and launched a total of 747 cargo ships under the Merchant Marine Act.
The years have not closed the gender gap that existed in the United States fifty years ago as far as compensation is concerned, but the gap has narrowed enough that today that nearly everyone can foresee it disappearing in the not-too-distant future.
There is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States—every man, woman, and child—is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks.
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
About the author: Nick Suhr is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and a frequent contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine where this article was originally published. Thank you, Nick, for sharing your article with our readers.
Featured image is in the public domain.