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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


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


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

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

Executive Order 9066

February 19, 1942
This 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

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.