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Working for Victory:

Women During World War II


The US supported entry into WW II, with only one congressional representative, Jeanette Rankin, voting against entry into the war. Responding to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and to Hitler’s menacing conquest of Europe, Americans overcame their reluctance to enter another international conflict and supported our nation’s entrance into the conflict. The war brought profound changes for the nation. As industries converted to produce military supplies, thousands of new jobs became available, and finally, the nation pulled itself out of the economic depression that almost ten years of FDR’s New Deal had been incapable of doing. At the beginning of 1941, as many as 40% of American families lived below the poverty level. American women experienced the most significant and dramatic changes during the war. All during the depression women had been pressured to return to the home or to remain there. Laws and hiring policies discriminated against women and in some cases prohibited hiring married women. Now, as men were shipped off to the European and Pacific theaters of war, the nation’s war industries developed a dire need for workers. Within a very short period of time, the message women received regarding employment shifted 180 degrees. Women embraced the opportunity to contribute to the war effort and improve their own conditions. The great mobilization of the female workforce was to be a temporary one, however. In less than a decade, women would go from being encouraged and rewarded for working in support of the war effort to being blocked from well-paying positions so that men could have them. Women would go from receiving decent compensation for their skilled work to being invited to submit recipes in the newly established Pillsbury bake-off contests.


I. The American Home Front

during WWII:

A. Maintaining the home front:

As in previous wars, women supported the nation.

Rationing helped conserve scarce resources.

3 million women joined the Red Cross.

Purchased war bonds.

Maintained households and family businesses.

The American Home Front during WWII: After our nation officially declared war on Japan and Germany, the United States mobilized to support the war effort at an astounding pace and an impressive degree of effectiveness. The mobilization for the war effort produced some profound changes here at home. There was an immediate increase in the number of marriages. Following a decade of depression in which couples post-poned marriages due to their economic uncertainties, they now headed up the aisles together to formalize their relationships. A provision of the 1940 Selective Service Act also encouraged men to get married; the provision excluded married fathers from being drafted, so the birthrate for couples also went up – presumably to excuse the father from military service. But, there was also an increase in the number of babies born to soldiers heading off to war, and these babies were called “good-bye babies.”


Domestic rationing and

conservation helped win the war.

Maintaining the home front: Women who remained at home, supported the war effort, just as they had done in all the previous wars. Three million women joined the Red Cross. They invested in the country by purchasing war bonds. And, they maintained the home front, managing businesses and households in the absence of their husbands.


B. “Rosie the Riveter:”

Attitudes toward

women working


6 million women

joined the work force.

300,000 women joined

the aircraft



Women’s salaries


Women of color



Women’s patriotic

work efforts were to

be temporary!

Rosie the Riveter: Once America entered the war, the attitudes toward women working underwent an immediate and dramatic change. Over 6 million women took jobs, this represented a 57% increase in the female labor force. The population of single women available to work did not satisfy the war time demands for labor. Married women also were needed to work, even those with children. The number of married women working doubled during the war.

Not only did women enter the work force at unprecedented levels, but they filled jobs previously considered masculine in nature. 300,000 women received training for and took jobs in the aircraft manufacturing industry. They assembled B-29 bombers here on the West Coast, as well as tanks, warships, and they manufactured ammunition. Women received training to be welders. The pay women received in the war industries was much better than the jobs considered appropriate for women before the war. Women’s salaries increased from $24.50 a week before the war to $40.35 a week in war industry jobs. (Prewar jobs were laundry, hotel, restaurant, and department store work.) The attraction of war industry jobs created shortages of female labor in other low paying areas. Over 600 laundries closed during the war due to a lack of laborers willing to perform that job. Not all women enjoyed the same level of wage increase however. Racism persisted.


Welders in Richmond, CA

Here in Richmond, California, African Americans came to fill wartime jobs. The population increased by 500%. Half of that population increase resulted from Southern blacks migrating to the West Coast, and in Richmond, a little over half of the southern migrant population were women. Here they enjoyed rich job opportunities and an exciting social culture as well when their shifts ended.

Female war workers did encounter sexual harassment on the job. One woman complained, “At times it gets to be a pain in the neck when the man who is supposed to show you work stops showing it to you because you have nicely but firmly asked him to keep his hands on his own knees; or when you have refused a date with someone and ever since then he has done everything in his power to make you work more difficult… Somehow we’ll have to make them understand that we are not very much interested in their strapping virility. That the display of their physique and the lure of their prowess leaves us cold. That although they have certainly convinced us that they are men and we are women, we’d really rather get on with our work.”


Racism persisted

Executive Order 8802 prohibited discriminatory hiring practices by war industry contractors, but black women nonetheless received lower pay and were offered the least desirable positions. They worked the dangerous jobs, such as in the “dope rooms” of aircraft assembly plants where poisonous fumes of glue made working in poorly ventilated rooms unpleasant and unhealthy. Other jobs exposed women to very dangerous conditions.






C. Women in the Military:

Women in the Military: Responding to a shortage of personnel in the military, several women’s branches were created. Approximately 350,000 women served in these enlisted positions during the war. Beginning in 1942, the military began establishing female branches. Army: WACS, women’s army corps.; Navy: WAVES, women’s reserve of the US navy; Coast Guard: SPARS; Marines: MCWR ). Women also served as transport pilots flying planes to needed destinations, WASP – women’s airforce service pilots. The WASPs were created in 1942 initially with only 50 female pilots, but the next year, 1943, 1,000 pilots served in this corps. Women typically performed clerical work in support of the military. In the WACs, for example, women’s positions were classified in the fields of medical, personnel, science, photography, languages, drafting, communications, mechanics, radio, clerical, textiles, food, and supply. Their positions ranged from private up to Colonel; with the starting monthly salary of a private being $50 and that of a colonel being $333.33. They were typically not placed in positions where they would have authority over men. Although each division had its own specific requirements, generally to be qualified for the women’s reserves, women needed to be between the ages of 20 and 35 for enlisted positions and 20 and 49 for officer positions. They had to have completed a minimum of two years of high school (officer candidates were required to have had two years of college and two years of business or professional work experience) ; and they had to pass physical fitness and aptitude tests. Married women were permitted to enlist, but they could not have children under the age of 18 years of age. Wives of commissioned officers were also ineligible for service. It was not until 1943 that the Army removed his prohibition of commissioning female doctors.


Women in the Military:

350,000 women enlisted in female branches

of the military.

1942 female divisions established for each


Women encountered restrictions and double


The armed services refrained from deploying women in combat and leadership positions, but its need for personnel prompted it to pull from a wider population. By August 1943, the selective service decided to cancel its provision that exempted fathers of dependent children from military service and by October of that year, fathers were also being drafted. Men serving in agricultural positions and vital war industry jobs continued to be exempt from service. They were needed here at home to produce essential commodities in support of the war effort.


Breaking Down Racial Barriers

The armed forces opened to women, but maintained segregation based upon race. The service women featured in the above photograph, under command of Captain Charity Adams served in a segregated unit in the Army. African American women faced restrictions based upon quotas and segregated units.

I encourage you to check out the National Women’s History Museum tribute to Captain Adams linked in this week’s Module Resources.


From Manzanar to Service in WAC

Private Margaret

Fukuoka, WAC, 1943.

Ansel Adams

photograph, Library of


Executive Order 9066: Signed into law by President Roosevelt in February 1942, this order required Japanese Americans to leave behind their homes and businesses and live in internment camps for the duration of the war. Young folks, men and women, were eligible for military service, even though the federal government required their parents and families to remain in the internment camps. Private Margaret Fukuoka enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and is shown in this photograph taken by Ansel Adams at the Manzanar Internment Camp located in the Eastern Sierra region of California. Born in Placer County, Fukuoka was pursuing a college education in Southern California when she was required to go to Manzanar. Following the war, she pursued further education and served as an educator. Her obituary included mention of her service in WAC, but not her forced internment.


WASP Flight Crew proudly

serving their country.

Initially, military and industrial leaders maintained skepticism about women’s abilities to serve as pilots. Necessity forced a change in perception, albeit reluctantly. In 1942, a trial program of just 50 female pilots revealed that in fact, if given training and opportunity, women could successfully fly plans. The next year, the WASP (Women Airforce Service Program) expanded to 1,000 pilots, with additional women serving as civilian pilots. Female pilots served as transport pilots stateside and some assisted with training male pilots in preparation for combat and flights abroad.

Sadly, at the conclusion of the war, all female pilots were discharged from their positions and none secured positions with the growing commercial airline industry because they were informed that the flying public would not feel “confident” with women flying the planes.

Women who gained access to opportunities, particularly pilots, frequently recalled their war-time service as a high point in their lives.


Women filled clerical positions in the

military and federal government.

Recruitment posters featured and targeted white women. Generally, women served in the military areas of communication, medical care, and supplies.

Notice how this poster emphasizes patriotism and emphasizes the Red, White, and Blue colors. Even the typist is exuding patriotism with her bow, blue eyes, and white blouse.



Women encountered double-standards as revealed in this ominous poster warning male service men to be cautious about the women they might encounter during breaks near military bases. While condoms were readily supplied to men, enlisted women did not receive access to birth control through their military provided medical care.

We should keep in mind the kind of atmosphere and attitude toward women poster such as this one, nurtured during WWII.


Pride and Shame

The WW II era includes many accomplishments the nation can be proud of, but it also includes shameful history. The forced internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans while waging a war to defeat Fascism and Nazism abroad, serves as a glaring contradiction of US values and principles. Maintaining racist policies, both in military and civilian realms intensifies the inconsistencies of this significant era.


Executive Order 9066

Executive Order 9066 asserted that internment of Japanese Americans, even children born here in the US, protected national security.“Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national defense material, national defense premises, and the national defense utilities…”

Executive Order 9066

February 19, 1942This Dorothea Lange photograph shows children with identifying tags lining up for forced “relocation” to one of 14 internment camps established in the U. S.


II. Role of the US


A. Attitudes toward women working


B. Propaganda Campaign.

C. Government Services: housing & child


Role of the US government: As the nation geared up to fight the war, activities that had once been considered inappropriate for women became patriotic. To facilitate women working in support of the war effort, the government orchestrated a campaign to encourage women to leave their homes and take jobs. The government also became directly involved in providing the support system women, especially those who were mothers, needed to work outside the home. The resistance to women working, especially married women, evaporated fairly quickly, but concerns about the impact of women working in such large numbers remained. An article in Fortune magazine expressed the alarm some felt about so many women joining the work force. “There are practically no unmarried women left to draw upon…. This leaves, as the next potential sources of industrial workers, the housewives…. We are kindly somewhat sentimental people with strong, ingrained ideas about what women should or should not do. Many thoughtful citizens are seriously disturbed over the wisdom of bringing married women into the factories.” Job advertisements encouraged women to take positions temporarily during the war. Advertisements also sought to reassure women that they would still be feminine. Assembly tasks were compared to domestic chores. Women’s work clothes and uniforms were characterized as flattering, and when a woman was wearing her work clothes, she was assured that she’d be “cute and snappy”, even pretty.




Propaganda Campaign: The Office of War Information orchestrated a propaganda campaign to persuade women to take war time jobs in order to fulfill their patriotic duty. Women received these messages in movie theaters and from posters. Women were encouraged to believe that they could help save lives and bring our nation closer to victory through their efforts. Their war time contributions were only to be temporary, however. As the end of the war drew nearer, women received the message to resign from their jobs so that returning veterans could have a job. One woman who had enjoyed an improved salary argued, “War jobs had uncovered unsuspected abilities in American women. Why lose all these abilities because of a belief that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’? For some it is, for others not.” Of the 6 million women who went to work during the war, roughly 1,000,000 became employees of the federal government.

This well-known image, again features a white woman with patriotic colors. Notice how her image assures women that they’ll maintain their femininity even while performing blue color, assembly work.


Longing Won’t Bring Him Back


Get a Job! Printed by

the Government

Printing Office for the

War Manpower

Commission, 1944.

Government Services: To facilitate women working, the government quickly recognized that it needed to provide services, especially for those women who were mothers. The Federal Works Agency invested $50 million in establishing 3,000 daycare centers. Women with young children still encountered difficulties finding open spaces for their children in daycare centers, and in feeling comfortable about the quality of care their young children may be receiving. The West Coast Air Production Council summarized the value of childcare: “One child care center adds up to eight thousand man-hours a month, and ten weeks are equal to one four-engine bomber. Lack of 25 child care centers can cost ten bombers a month.” Reservations about mothers working persisted and some estimates indicated that only 10% of the childcare needs were filled by day cares. Kitchens also provided take-home meals for working women to pick up at the end of their shifts.


III. Post-war Disappointments:

Women’s jobs were


Cold War followed

WW II. Women’s

role changed again.

Women working

during WWII wanted

to keep their jobs.

Although temporary,

war time opportunities

were influential.

Post – War Let Down: At the height of the Depression, public opinion indicated that as many as 80% of Americans were opposed to married women working. In 1942, however, 60% of those surveyed strongly believed that married women should work in order to support the war effort. 71% of Americans responded that they thought more married women should take jobs. By the end of the war, four out of five, or 80% of the women who filled wartime production jobs reported wanting to keep their jobs.

Women’s wartime job opportunities were temporary, and as soon as the victorious soldiers were on their way home; many working women were fired from their war time positions.

The impact of WWII on women is not easily analyzed. Women underwent a dramatic transformation during the war, but those changes were always considered to be temporary. Following the war, women received an entirely different message about what role and contributions they should make to society. The cold war – suburbs, privatized domesticity, children, and peripheral status.


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