American Women in World War II (Fall 2012)

            Prior to World War II, married women generally worked in their homes, and women only held jobs that were deemed suitable for ladies.  During World War II, President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, pushed for women involvement in the military because she had seen the success that the British were having with women involvement in their military.  As the war went on, women began to take on new jobs and do whatever they could to help out the war effort, which included everything from flying planes, to serving as nurses, to volunteering their time, and to using limited resources sparingly.  Women’s actions in World War II helped alter society’s views on women employment and opened new opportunities for women in the workforce after the war as well.

Women in the Military
        When the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, there were only 8,000 women nurses, but before the war ended, the Army Nurse Corps and the Navy Nurse Corps included 59,000 and 11,000 nurses, respectively.  Women served as nurses at home and abroad in order to help heal wounded soldiers.  Nurses were strong women who put up with tough living situations and went through survival training.  Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, women were only able to hold nursing jobs in the military.  After Pearl Harbor, Congress approved women to serve in the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and later, the Marines. 

        Over 400,000 women served in the military with a huge variety of positions; 432 women lost their lives and 88 were prisoners of war.  In the beginning, women only held certain jobs that did not require physical strength and that were deemed appropriate for women.  However, as the war went on, visions changed as women took on more jobs.  Eventually, women held jobs in every area other than direct combat.

                Many women earned their pilot’s license in order to fly planes for the Air Force.  These women had to pay for their basic flight training, and then they volunteered their time in the Air Force.  Women were able to transport supplies from the factories, and they even flew fighter planes from the factories to where they were needed for the war.  Women also tested planes and broke in engines; all of these efforts saved thousands of men from being pilots, so that the men could fight in direct combat.  There were over 1,000 Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), and 38 WASPs died in war.  These women did not even have military status, so they did not get any benefits or official recognition for their efforts; women pilots were only recognized as civilians, and it was not until 1977 that women in the United States Air Force received military status.

Influence of propaganda on Women’s Involvement
        Advertising portrayed a good image for women to participate in war efforts. Uniforms were used in propaganda to show people that women really were making a difference in the war efforts.  Propaganda encouraged women to join the war by convincing them that they could have a great impact on soldiers’ lives, and that they could help the United States win the war sooner.  One of the most famous examples of propaganda from World War II is Rosie the Riveter.  She was a strong woman who urged women to join the workforce for war efforts, and she appeared in numerous advertising techniques such as newspapers, movies, and posters. 
        When men left to fight in the war, propaganda urged women to step up and take their place.   Many women held clerical jobs, and the amount of women working in government grew.  It became acceptable for women to hold these jobs; however, this was only acceptable during the national emergency.  By the end of the war, women held over one-third of the government jobs, but the men were to get their jobs back when they returned from war.  After the war, some women were happy to be done working long, strenuous hours.  However, other women were upset when they were forced to give up their jobs to the men who came back from war, and some women even protested.  Some women felt betrayed after working overtime with specific companies for years and then losing their jobs and not having a way to provide for their families.  

Other Jobs Held by Women During World War II
        Industrial production greatly increased during World War II.  There was a variety of work to be done in other factories as well in order to produce supplies needed for the war.  Women worked in the factories to make parachutes, uniforms, and boots; and women worked six days per week and overtime in order to keep the factories operating.  The factories that produced war goods paid higher wages, which attracted many women.  With such a high number of women working, it was often a struggle to find available housing, especially for the women who worked in munitions factories in rural areas.

        Besides working in factories, women were involved in critical jobs in transportation, communications, and science.  Women worked for the railroads, drove taxis, delivered mail, drove trucks, conducted radio broadcasts, and wrote journal articles.  For the women who were qualified, during World War II, there were jobs available in research, engineering, and chemistry, which were not available to women prior to World War II.  Some women participated in research for nuclear weapons and other technologies, which included 300 women who worked on the Manhattan Project to construct the atomic bomb.  Some of the women who worked as scientists even volunteered their time.  New scientific courses were offered at universities across the country, and women were now allowed to take these classes too.  World War II was the beginning of opportunity for women in science.

Women on the Homefront and How World War II Changed Society’s Views of Women’s Roles
        Women at home also contributed to the war efforts by volunteering their time and participating in rationing demands.  Women volunteered to drive ambulances, put out fires, and provide other emergency medical care; women were also trained for what to do in case they were bombed.  The civilian defense initiatives also had women on the lookout for enemies.  Supplies needed for the war became scarce, and many food items and other products were rationed. Meat, sugar, coffee, cheese, butter, clothing, nylon, silk, shoes, and gasoline were all just a few of the items that were rationed.  Women were forced to come up with alternative recipes in order to accommodate the available ingredients, and they were also urged to recycle products such as metal and paper.  Women were also encouraged to grow their own victory gardens in order to produce and can their own vegetables.  An estimated number of 19 million women took part in these demands on the home front in order to save food and materials to be used for the war.

        World War II also changed women’s lifestyles in other ways besides rationing. People were encouraged to invest in war bonds, which was encouraged by women volunteers.  Women asked people to invest ten percent of their earnings into war bonds.  When more jobs were created, women filled those positions, and women continued working after the war.  After the war, it became normal for women to work; teenage girls worked too.  

        On top of working, women also had to be strong mentally as their husbands, sons, and fathers went away to fight in the war.  At first, women did not respond well to their need to work, so that is when propaganda began.  Girls who had just graduated from high school joined the work force as well.  Mothers with children and adolescents were encouraged to stay at home; however, eventually, mothers with young children were forced to work as well.  Women gained confidence and satisfaction through working, and they saved their money that they earned during the war, which was used to buy homes for their families after the war ended.  By the end of World War II, society’s views toward women had changed.

History Forces
        One of the history forces that impacted American women during World War II was personal identity.  Prior to World War II, married women stayed home with their children to take care of them and the house, and women who worked outside of the home were only allowed to hold certain jobs that were considered to be suitable for women, which included jobs such as nurses and teachers.  However, during World War II, women’s roles changed; women were expected to step up and perform tasks that they had never been required to do before.  They took the jobs that men vacated after they left to go fight in the war, and qualified women were also allowed to take rigorous science and mathematics courses at colleges and universities across the nation.  Educated women took jobs in science and research, which was a new area for women to work in.  Many women volunteered their time as well.  Some of the women who had filled men’s vacated jobs were required to give up their jobs back to the men once they returned, but other women were able to keep their jobs and keep earning a steady income.  Teenage girls saw their mothers and other women working during the war, which led them to believe that it was normal and common for women to work, and a lot of girls in that generation ended up working outside the home once they were older and had completed school.

        Another history force that is not as obvious as personal identity, but is still relevant, is politics and government.  The government had a huge impact on women’s changing roles during World War II, since the government decided to help support the allies in the beginning of the war and eventually decided to enter the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.  President Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, was even involved by urging women to get involved in the military.   The government also limited the amount of food and materials that citizens were allowed to use during the national emergency, which had a great impact on women’s lives, since they cooked the meals for their families and also used materials that were rationed.  

        In order to help win World War II and end it sooner, women worked extremely hard and made many sacrifices.  From working in factories, volunteering for various organizations, serving in the military, to using materials sparingly, women did whatever they could to help the war effort.  Women filled positions that freed men from their jobs and enabled them to fight in the war for their country.  Besides directly helping the war effort, women benefitted from helping out in World War II because after the war ended, society changed its views on what jobs were considered to be suitable for women, and women had more opportunities.  After the war ended, many women remained in the work force and their numbers continued to grow in later years.  The women who worked during World War II led the way forward for the modern working women of today.  If it was not for women’s sacrifices and efforts during World War II, the war could have taken much longer or even had a completely different outcome.

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