A Change in Gender Roles: Women’s Impact during WWII in the Workforce and Military (Fall 2012)

Women had long been seen as stay at home mothers before World War Two and only that. The stereotypical, perfect American family had the father that brought home the bacon each day during the week and the mother who raised their children. The fact of the matter is, women always worked outside the house but it just wasn’t glorified as much. These women were usually in the lower class or the minority and many men did not have the best attitude toward them. A male could better suit their jobs, the men believed. During WWII all of this changed and a revolution in the work force was eventually seen. Numbers of women working outside the home rose exponentially and they thought they were there to stay. Women also played a large role in the military, which had never been seen before. Gender roles had changed in the modern world; women throughout the nation made a huge impact on the Second World War efforts.

America’s involvement in WWII helped shape our country to what it is today. It was one of mankind’s greatest wars and affected millions of people. The depression in Europe has been theorized to be the catalyst for WWII, along with the outcomes of WWI. Never before in a war was there this much damage caused, lives lost, or money spent. Over 55 million people were killed during the six-year war. The United States wanted to stay uninvolved in the war due to their Neutrality Acts passed in recent years. However, the atrocities seen from overseas led to American despise of the Axis powers. Americans were hoping the Allied nations could win the war without their help but started to increase their production of wartime supplies. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese brought the U.S. into the war for the Allies and a large amount of patriotism rose. A total of 16.1 million Americans served in the devastating war and many more lives were affected back home.

To prepare for and during the war factories in the U.S. were changed from civilian to war production. Men had historically been the main source of workers for these factories but a solution had to be found to cope for the losses of men fighting overseas. Women were brought into the factories from their stay-at-home jobs and America saw some of its highest production rates in history. Factories had been converted from producing normal household goods to equipment necessary for the war effort such as planes, ships, and munitions. Americans throughout the nation began portioning smaller amounts of their food and buying fewer unnecessary goods. Some even began planting Victory gardens in their backyards and in public parks. These gardens helped reduced pressure of public food supply brought on by the war. Before the U.S. entered the war many companies already made contracts with the government to produce war equipment. These huge companies were expanding and building new factories. A great need for workers had arisen because of this. Women were eventually needed to work in the factories because of all the men leaving for war and a new change began to rise.

Today’s general public views the effort of women in the workforce during the war to be completely unordinary, I believe. They think that women had never worked before WWII and all of a sudden flocked to the factories to help out in the war effort. This is far from the truth however their efforts were completely needed and very helpful. Women had always been working so this was not new to them. As mentioned, the majority of women in the workforce at that time included lower classes and minority groups. The ideal middle and upper class Caucasian families placed women in the home while the men were in the workforce. During the Great Depression in the years before the war, most didn’t like women working because it was taking jobs away from more capable men. A reason for allowing more women in the industry field was that it would only be temporary. Women were not ones to quickly run out to the factories, however, and the government had to find a better way to recruit them. A style of propaganda included the “Rosie the Riveter” character. She was the perfect woman worker.

Not all women wanted to work even with the country’s propaganda ploys. If I were a stay at home mom for my entire life, I know I would not want to go to work. Working in the industry field was a totally different walk of life and was not the easiest. Patriotism did influence women to go work because they did not want to see the Allied powers fall. Half of the jobs that needed to be filled were taken over by minorities and lower-class women who had already been in different workforce areas. These women usually were just given pay raises at different companies that wanted them more. Married mothers eventually had to help out even if they had children. Many were worried that juvenile delinquency would increase because of this but no statistical difference was actually seen from the change. The main incentive was the large amount of money that they brought into their family, which they had never seen before. The women learned practical and hands on skills that were also transferrable back home. Throughout the nation, women were proud to prove themselves and to contribute to the public good.

There were a few big questions that women asked themselves before they decided to go work and while they were working. The first one was, “Why should I go work?” This was addressed in the previous paragraph but the second main one was, “Will I even keep my job after the war? I don’t mind it that much.” Many factors such as these ultimately played a role as to if women even wanted to become involved in the whole ordeal. When the United States entered the war in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor 12 million women were already working outside of their homes. By the time the war had ended 18 million women were in the workforce. This drastic change during the war led women to make up one third of the force by 1945. Only 3 million women worked in traditional war plants, however, while the majority worked in traditional female service sector jobs. Most had to work in jobs that paid poorly and were very tedious. Men, at the time, were still the dominant sex and received better paying jobs. Women had to suffer the “double shift” of working at home and in the workforce. If their husband was away at war, no one else was able to raise their children besides maybe some close relatives. For this reason and others, most women stayed at home as a housewife while their husband was away at work or in the service. During the war the image of women in the workforce changed for America but it did not last long and was only superficial. Most women ended up returning to the housewife role during the prosperous 1950s if they were involved in the workforce. The women of this workforce war era blazed the pathway for future women to come as well as in the military.

Before the great World Wars the role of women in western countries was usually to be kept at home. All of the jobs that were available to men were not necessarily open to women. Some women tried to start traditional career paths like those of men; taking this route in the workforce was rarely seen. The status quo was for women to stay at home and take care of the children. Military service had always traditionally been a male occupation up until World War II. Nursing was the only area of the military that enabled female’s to contribute to the war effort up to the great wars. Starting with the First World War and greatly expanding with the second, women started taking on a more active role in defending our country overseas. The allies had enlisted thousands of women as nurses that fought alongside our troops on the frontlines during World War II. During this time, 400,000 American women served in many different ways. This amount is higher than the total amount of men in 1939. My grandmother served on the Aleutian Islands during WWII. She handed out uniforms and was involved in a lot of secretarial work. Close to 460 women lost their lives from the conflict across the globe. Estimations for the total loss of females are closer to 543 some say. It wasn’t until 1948 and the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act that women were actually recognized as a permanent part of the armed forces. This passed act had a great impact by congress that led to more equality among women and men back in the states. It also aided the women’s suffrage war by, again, creating more equality. Over a hundred thousand women played a role in combat for the allies as well. Anti-aircraft units were especially popular. The U.S. however did not incorporate women into combat because it wasn’t done before and public opinion would not accept it. Countries, such as Russian, had women fighting on the front lines in a few of their battalions. Since World War II was a total war it was absolutely necessary to immobilize the entire nation, including women.

Women serving in our military during WWII challenged social norms and the views of women as a sex. The large number of women involved in the war and the scale of the war itself led these changes to be seen in a far greater picture. A huge impact the war had on women was that it changed their expectations and they wanted to make a different and better name for them. This event was the largest game-changer for females that transformed the United States as a nation. We became a leading military power with a large amount of force throughout the entire globe. Females enlisted for six months to allow male troops to be free from combat for a while. Specifically, women served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, the Navy Coast Guard (WAVES), and Marine Corps Women’s Reserves. Another branch that allowed women to be involved in was the Women Airforce Service as pilots. This branch wasn’t presently a part of the armed forces. Organizations involved with the war effort such as the American Red Cross also held many female workers. Nearing the finish of the war there were hardly any noncombatant jobs that women did not hold. Their presence was vast throughout the world and in every branch of the military. New positions were even taken on by women that were not in existence when the war began. These jobs came about from the technological advances made throughout the war. Nurses and the Women’s Army corps served overseas while the other female specific branches were limited to the home front. These brave women earned medals throughout the war and some even gave their lives in order to protect our freedom.

The bold women that blazed the trail for presence in the workforce and military changed the way America operated for the rest of its times. Their participation in the work force was not met with open arms at first, but resentment. Perseverance was a great trait held by many of these women that changed the status quo to greater equality among the sexes. Men with jobs, those not in-service, thought women were taking away from other men without jobs. Manufactures, on the other hand, greatly appreciated the women’s efforts. Without the help of women and men combined the Allied powers may not had won the war. Production was at an all time high and military supplies were being sent to all lengths of the globe. The stay at home was still envisioned to be the idea American housewife and a majority of mothers did just that and did not join the workforce. Women who sacrificed even more to protect our freedom actually enlisted into the military. The impact that these branches had was very great because women hadn’t had the numbers as they had in this war when compared to others. Nurses saved thousands of lives and many were stationed on the front lines. The noncombatant branches eventually led to being combative in the present day. The overall theme that was created by women in the workforce and the military was an increase in equality between the sexes and a huge change in gender roles. No longer were women looked down upon as they were before they aided in this huge public effort to promote the freedom and well being of the great Allied countries. This impact will never be forgotten and times continue to change for more equality among men and women in the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.

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