Table of Contents
- World War II
- Women’s Roles
The Second World War is one of the most important events in the 20th century. The scale of the conflict was so far-reaching that it included five continents: Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and Australia. The significance of this event is not only due to the destruction and the great number of people that were killed in the said conflict but also the numerous precedents that help changed the course of history. It can be argued that one of the most significant precedents of World War II was the time when the U.S. Government actively sought the assistance of women to help in the war effort. After the war, these women found out that they can become an important contributor to the economic development of the country. The sudden increase in their ability to earn money and the chance to leave their traditional roles behind was more than a powerful incentive to enter the workplace and perform many of the jobs reserved for men.
World War II
In 1939 when Hitler and the German army initiated a war that would escalate into a global conflict, the United States found it prudent to not get involved. At first, the United States found no reason why it should go to war against Germany’s armed forces. From a political and economic point of view, this was considered as the more practical decision but in some quarters it was also condemned as the more cowardly option. But it is hard to blame the U.S. government for trying to steer clear away from the war as far as possible. First of all, it would be costly in terms of human resources as surely men will die in the conflict. Secondly, it was perceived as a war for Europe, not for the Americas. And thirdly, Americans can indirectly benefit from the war through the Lend-Lease agreement.
It was the Lend-Lease agreement that increased the need for more workers in manufacturing plants and other support facilities needed to help Allied Forces in Europe. At first, there was an upsurge in male employment as more and more men are needed to man the factories and other facilities needed to produce armaments and war materials. Eventually, the demand for more products prompted industry leaders to tap women. But first, they had to change the way they look at women. They are no longer limited to housewives, teachers, babysitters, and other feminine roles associated with women. This time around, when America was on the verge of war, American women must learn how to do the work of men.
In December 1940 the United States began sending help to Britain by lending or leasing material that the government believed should be returned after the war or be paid for after the conflict has ended.1 For the time being it was enough to satisfy both sides. Americans were spared direct involvement while Britain received much-needed reinforcements – at least in the aspect of war materials. Inevitably it was the Lend-Lease agreement and the U.S. government’s open support to the Allied Forces that sealed their fate and forced them to join in the global conflict. In 1942 the Japanese Imperial Army performed their version of a blitzkrieg and raided a U.S. military establishment thousands of miles away from the U.S. mainland. By bombing Pearl Harbor the Axis Forces composed of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Imperial Army, and Fascist Italy would benefit from a pre-emptive strike against possible military resources that can be used against them in their Asia-Pacific campaign. But the plan backfired because it had managed to awaken a once-sleeping giant but now an angry military juggernaut.
Before going any further it must be pointed out that American women did not only make the successful transition from housewives to factory workers, they also succeeded in joining the U.S. Armed Forces. But without fulfilling their support roles in factories the war could never have been won. It was the U.S. industrial war machine that contributed greatly to the success of the war. The courage and tenacity of U.S. servicemen were also a major factor but their audacity can be easily crushed if they did not have with them the necessary equipment necessary to defeat the enemy. For instance, if their tanks are substandard then thousands of soldiers could be annihilated by a well-trained German tank division. If their battleships could not stand the rigors of naval warfare then thousands of sailors would have been destroyed without even having the chance to fire back.
To put everything in perspective one has to understand the magnitude of the war effort and one can begin by looking at the effect of the Lend-Lease agreement on the American labor force. As mentioned earlier the first sign that America was supportive of Great Britain was made evident in the shipment of materials at the end of 1940. By 1941 the need for more war equipment was made emphatic by a letter penned by Admiral H. R. Stark, the then secretary of Navy to U.S. President Roosevelt and he wrote, “In accordance with the request contained in your letter of June 24, 1941, there is attached hereto a list setting forth defense aid articles which have been, or will be transferred to foreign governments…”2 Adm. Stark referred to contained the following information: a) 400 aircraft for basic training, 250 bombers, and 106 aeronautical engines to Great Britain; b) 20 bombers and 15 basic training aircraft to Canada; and c ) 100 bombers to Australia.3 It has to be reiterated that these requests were made before America joined the war. One could imagine the requirements after 1942.
From Stark’s letter to FDR, one can have a glimpse of the enormous pressure that American industries were subjected to fulfill the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement. But when America joined the war there was suddenly a significant rise in the demand for equipment and other things needed by American soldiers. This is because millions of young men wanted to join the war in Europe. Their patriotism was stirred by the infamous Pearl Harbor attack. Even if 5.6 million Americans enrolled in civil defense programs the great need for ammunitions, tanks, planes and other forms of military hardware could not be met without the help of women.4 This prompted government officials to declare that, “…the only answer to the manpower crisis was to employ women on a scale hitherto unknown” and it American society must reverse years of official policy that discriminated against women workers.5
Admiral Stark’s letter was not the only urgent communiqué that was brought to the attention of the U.S. government. The Russians were also desperate and they needed the support promised by the American government. One of the members of the Russian foreign affairs ministry, Ambassador Maxim Litvinoff made an urgent plea to Harry Hopkins one of the top officials in the FDR administration and he wrote6:
Taking into consideration the fact that it was difficult for the United States Government to deliver 600 airplanes as recently requested, my Government now asks whether it will not be possible to deliver immediately at least 100 and 25 airplanes monthly thereafter. The Government of the U.S.S.R. is willing to accept not only new airplanes but any airplanes available, including used airplanes.7
It is easy to read the anxiety contained in the said letter to the White House. The letter also highlighted the fact American industries dedicated to the war effort could not deliver on time as promised. There was truly a need for more workers and to increase the capacity of the factories to meet deadlines and honor their delivery dates. It was time to also step up the recruitment process that would attract more women to the wartime industries. After all, no one can force them to contribute if they do not want to. In contrast to the prerogative of the U.S. government to forcefully draft young men into armed service, women who would like to work in these special factories must volunteer.
The government had to step up its efforts to draw in more women into manly jobs. The U.S. government badly needed a labor force but it was prudent enough not to conscript women into the service of her country.8 But this does not mean that the government was taking its feet off the gas pedal instead the Roosevelt directed local authorities, “…to institute enrollment drives using advertising, mail, and house-to-house canvassing to recruit women into war work.”9 In a clever use of propaganda and advertisement Uncle Sam appealed to their hearts by saying that if they will volunteer then it is out of patriotism and also as a way to escape loneliness and boredom while waiting for their loved ones to come home.10 For the message to sink deeper the think tanks at the war department created a mythic figure called “Rosie the Riveter” and the government’s poster-making teams made use of her effectively and her image burned in the hearts of minds of women volunteers.11
The presence of large numbers of women in industries that used to be dominated by men could not but impact American society. After the war, it was now more acceptable to find women working outside of the home and not limited by their major duties which are to be a homemaker or family support. Feminist writing in the early part of the 20th century, was able to explain it succinctly when she said that, “…war falls on the women most heavily, and more so now than ever before.”12 She was right on target considering that in the Second World War there were at least 9 million US women who were mobilized into war-related industries.13 Men and the rest of American society now had a newfound respect for women and their capability to help win the war for them.
Another major impact of women workers can be understood from the way they experienced deep satisfaction from being able to do complex and difficult jobs. Moreover, the women found the jobs more exciting than the drudgery of domestic work and in addition, they also found it lucrative.14 If a person has tasted something better he or she will not go back and endure what is now considered mediocre. After the war, the millions of American servicemen who fought in Europe and the Pacific had to go home and many women had to relinquish their position but the facet of the American labor market was never the same again.15 This means that women would now continue to look for work that was reserved only for men. In the aftermath of the war women could no longer be denied, they had to have equal employment opportunities just like their male counterparts.
Women were supposed to stay home and take care of the babies. Those who are not yet married or who are never going to get married did not stray far from home as they are needed for domestic work. Many find this role constricting and it was drudgery for some. But there was no escape for it was their traditional role to play. But war is very disruptive in that it can change society in an instant. When the world was at war it needed millions of young men to join the conflict. In the United States, a great number of men were sent overseas. The soldiers who are doing the fighting will not be able to accomplish their mission without the right equipment and materials as well as food. Due to the shortage of labor women were given the chance to do the work reserved for men. The women help secure victory but in the aftermath of the war, women found it hard to leave the jobs that gave them not only satisfaction but freedom, money, and respect.
Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey America Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Goldstein, Joshua. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
H.R. Stark. “Letter to the President.” FDR Library and Museum. Web.
Livitnoff, Maxim. “Letter to Harry Hopkins.” FDR Library and Museum. Web.
Mankiller, Wilma. The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.
- Chafe, William H. The Unfinished Journey America Since World War II. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.) p. 3.
- H.R. Stark. “Letter to the President.” FDR Library and Museum.Web.
- Chafe, p. 4
- Livitnoff, Maxim. “Letter to Harry Hopkins.” FDR Library and Museum. Web.
- Livitnoff, Maxim. “Letter to Harry Hopkins.” FDR Library and Museum. Web.
- Goldstein, Joshua. War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.) p. 387.
- S Mankiller, Wilma. The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.) p.519.
- Goldstein, p. 384
- Mankiller, p. 519.