World War II was the most widespread and destructive global conflict, that started in September 1939 and ended in August 1945. World War II brought a revolutionary change in women’s role and empowerment in history, that has impacted generations. It dramatically changes the lives and attitudes of American women.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the president of the United States at that period, Franklin D Roosevelt went in front of Congress and declared war against Japan, the country, that attacked the United States. This declaration of war stirred up the hearts of many American men. Many of these patriotic men joined different branches of the military while the industrialized factories and the business began to suffer due to the lack of men in the workforce. To combat the shortage of men in the workforce, there was a call for the women of America to fill these spots. Before World War II, the traditional role of a woman in America would simply be a housewife or caretaker of the children. The women were reluctant at first due to superstitious society beliefs at that time, that men would be the ones who would work outside and provide economic support to the family, whereas women worked in the house. The government of the United States launched numerous campaigns to change people’s minds, that women are capable as well. The campaign worked so well, that by 1945, more than six million women were working in military factories out of which over three hundred fifty thousand women volunteered for military service. Furthermore, more than thirteen million women joined civilian jobs like plumbers, firefighters, nurses, journalists, and many more. American industrialization significantly changed after 1941 as women moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities, raise funds, and fill the jobs left by men who entered military service. From this point, American women gained a new sense of freedom and played a huge role in America's economy going. Women began to see, that there were more opportunities and responsibilities for themselves to explore in the workforce and they finally gained empowerment. Despite all the positive developments in women’s employment, one has to consider the fact, that all views of women were not changed; they were expected to be in charge of the domestic sphere as well as outside the home and still do not have the same opportunities as men in many parts of the United States. This paper investigates the rise of women’s empowerment due to the impact of World War II and evaluates how it changed the role of women in the history of the United States.
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Before World War II, the role of women was not appreciated by society. Women were regarded as a caretaker of the family who would be responsible for cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the house and children. Women had been fighting for the right to work since the early 1900s. Women were, without question, second-class citizens at the start of the struggle. When the war broke out, it was clear, that America would not be able to win the war without the help of its women. Although there was a huge need for manpower to fulfill the need for jobs left by men, the government of the United States had to overcome several challenges to recruit women to the workforce. So, to lure women into the workforce, the government launched a propaganda campaign. One of the most renowned campaigns is “Rosie the Riveter”, an iconic image for women in the 1940s with the slogan, “We Can Do It!” along with the image of her muscular arms aimed at recruiting female workers. Rosie the Riveter was commonly used as a symbol of feminism. When most men joined the army to serve in the war, women were forced to pick up the men’s jobs to support the income to run the household. Even though women were typically paid much less than men, women worked in all manner of products ranging from making ammunition and aircraft to mechanics, engineers, tank drivers, nurses, and plumbers. They often faced sexual harassment, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Despite the gender discrimination and inequality faced by the women, they stepped up and took on the industry during this time of great hardship for the United States.
Augusta Clawson, the author of the book “Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder” explains her excitement about the first day of her work. She was one of the million women who got an opportunity to join the American workforce. In the book, she states, “Sunday I am back from my first day on the Ways [staging on which ships are built], and I feel as if I had seen some giant phenomenon. It's incredible! It's in-human! It's horrible! And it's marvelous!”. She goes on to explain, that the newest field that women were entering was shipbuilding and the toughest job was welding. The book is very interesting as she describes the first-hand personal experience of working outside the home. The book describes how she gained respect and confidence by working in the shipyards and gives the reader a real feel for the women at that time.
The impact of women in World War II can be looked at as positive and then as negative. For about six years, from 1939 to 1945, the women ruled the workplace. The was an increase in their wages from approximately $100 per week in 1930 to $150 per week in 1940 and later to $175 in 1950. In 1944, when victory seemed assured for the United States, government-sponsored propaganda changed by urging women to return to work in the home. The end of the war ended most of the munitions-making jobs. Especially in the army, women did not get enough recognition at that period as they were told to leave the army and the factory altogether. Women veterans encountered roadblocks when they tried to take advantage of benefit programs for veterans, like the G.I. bill. Less than 50% of those women who newly entered the workforce maintained those positions in 1950. The overall percentage of women working fell from 36 percent to 28 percent in 1947. The wartime and postwar economic prosperity, as well as the return of many female workers to the domestic sphere, resulted in a dramatic increase in birth rates in the postwar period. It seemed, that the nation that needed women’s help in a time of crisis was not ready for the greater social equality, that would slowly come in the decades to follow. As many have said before “history repeats itself” with World War II as well as World War I, the return of peace meant that women faced layoffs, renewed wage discrimination, and segregation into female-only jobs.
An article published by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt in the magazine “Reader’s Digest” in January 1944 states, “Our women are serving actively in many ways in this war, and they are doing a grand job on both the fighting front and the home front”. One cannot question the fact, that women’s significant efforts in the US industry and government helped the US win World War II. The patriotism that drew women to work in the first place, not only helped them gain economic incentives but also got the benefits of learning, contributing, and gaining self-worth through work which became the values, that would be passed down for generations.