World War Two & the Status of American Women

Seeing as I’m History major, I thought I might share a history essay from last semester. It details the change in status of American women after WWII.

To what extent did the Second World War signal a change in the status of American women?

The advent of the Second World War signified a major change in the status and role of the American woman. In this essay I will be focusing on the changing status of married American women. The war was a huge catalyst for social change in many areas. There was a huge rise in the employment of married and unmarried women, in roles that were previously considered to be that of men. The change in family dynamics were also dramatically changed during this period, with women now fulfilling the role of two parents in order to maintain the family unit. Women felt the need to contribute to the war effort, while society still considered a woman’s place to be in the home. There were also changes in the way society viewed marriage and divorce.

Before America joined World War II, there was already a gradual trend of more women entering the workforce. Once America joined the Allied effort, this gradual increase took a sharp turn upwards immediately. What would have happened over a period of years occurred in a matter of months, with initially “four million women… deflected from their domestic orbit”. There was a total of 13,008,000 women employed in 1940, this increased to 16,630,000 in 1944, and by July 14, 1945 that number had risen to 19,610,000. Of the 16,630,000 women employed in 1944, 6,700,000 were married and expected to earn part or all of the family income, in addition to running and maintaining the family household. Many married women gained employment solely because their husband’s allotment cheque from military service was not enough to maintain the family home. Others did so through patriotism and wanting to contribute to the country’s war effort. “War widows”, that is, women with husbands in military service were three times more likely to seek employment than other married women. These women would otherwise have had to live on a monthly allotment cheque of $50, plus $20 per child. This was part of the large number of wartime struggles that women faced alone.

While being expected the continue running the family home and finding income to provide for that home, married women with children were also expected to continue with maintaining the “physical safety, moral training, and informal education” of their children, as mothers “traditionally had [this] major responsiblity”. These women faced considerable personal strain as “their children [lived] under extremely makeshift arrangements” while they participated in new and demanding working conditions. Many new roles were assumed by women. These women were not the same as they would have been if their husbands were still in their peacetime jobs and a woman was able to spend “every waking moment with [her young children] during [their] early years” as they had done in the years previous to the war.

Women were given mixed messages regarding employment. They were told “that victory could not be achieved without their entry into the labor force”, while also being told by the federal government, “Now, as in peacetime, a mother’s primary duty is to her home and children”. There were significant changes to the “family division of labor” and an “increasing independence of the wife”. Nearly half of all American women held a job a some point during the war, specifically gaining employment in areas that were traditionally male, with the labour force of important war industries consisting of forty to sixy per cent women. Three-quarters of the increase in women’s employment was made up of married women, whereas before the war, employed women were generally unmarried and young.

There was a growing public unease over such large numbers of working women. One columnist, Max Lerner, feared that women would turn into “a ‘new Amazon’ who would ‘outdrink, outswear, and outswagger the men’”. There was a feeling throughout society that children would not get the attention they required from their working mother. Child care was a major problem during this time, while did not help women cope with the dual roles they were taking within the family unit. With about 1.5 million working mothers with children under ten, the majority “were only able to make haphazard arrangements”. There were “few public resources and little recognition” for the struggles women faced along during wartime. Public child care facilities were overcrowded and underfunded, though the federal government did contribute “nearly $52 million [to] 3,102 centers providing day care to about 105,000 children”. Many children, known as “8-hour orphans” or “latch key children”, were left to look after themselves while their mothers worked. There was high female absenteeism, as well as job-turn over, being twice that of men over the same period, as women struggled to do what was best for their families.

The Second World War was a powerful instrument for social change. There was a vast labour shortage and employers needed to use groups of minorities which were excluded before the war. This included not only women, but also “teenagers, blacks, Southern white migrants, retirees, and the handicapped”. There was a sudden rise in the marriage rate and birth rate due to the increased prosperity caused by the war. Couples which had delayed both marriage and having children during the Great Depression were now doing so in huge numbers. After the war and servicemen had returned home, there was a sharp increase in the number of divorces. In the four years from 1940 to 1944, the divorce rate increased from sixteen per cent of marriages to twenty-seven per cent. By 1950, the number of divorced servicemen rose to “as many as a million”. Infidelity seemed to have become a symptom of “separation and female independence”, with the news media publically ‘naming and shaming’ women in several cases. But it was not just women who were unfaithful. A 1943 poll of young married women came back with results indicating “almost half believed that their husband had been unfaithful”. This added strain to the readjustment of married life, which was, as well as the wife’s new found “independence and self-sufficiency”, blamed for the steep increase in the divorce rate. There was also a decrease in the stigma which surrounded divorce, which may also have been a contributing factor to the increase.

The status of the married American women changed dramatically as a result of the Second World War. Women battled to provide for their families while at the same time trying to continue in their traditional role of maintaining and running the household. Society also struggled to adapt at the same rate that women were entering the workforce, sending women mixed messages, fearing their new found independence, while wanting women to be both patriotic and ensure that their children are raised in the correct manner. The war was a major catalyst for change, though society was not as ready for it as the women who embraced it.

Bibliography:

E. Foner, Give me liberty! An American history. 2nd Seagull ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company. (2005)
S. Mintz & S. Kellogg, Domestic revolutions: A social history of American family life. New York: Free Press (1989)
A. Truxal & F. Merrill, The family in American culture. New York: Prentice-Hall. (1947)

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