Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 94-96
National Council for the Social Studies
The Need for Working Women
Government propaganda during World War II was responsible for much of the change in society's acceptance of women in the workplace. Posters, radio programs, magazine articles, and advertisements showed women in overalls with greasy hands during these years for the first time. Through these media, the Office of War Information (OWI) and other agencies urged women to come out of their kitchens and move into the factories. They also communicated the need for women as nurses and as careful consumers.
The extensive propaganda campaigns were necessary in order to change public attitudes about women's roles left over from the previous decade. In the Depression years, the man of the household was the breadwinner, and since jobs were scarce, men usually received whatever jobs were available (Hartman 1982, 16). Middle-class married women had an especially tough time finding a job; many states had even passed laws against married women in the workplace (U.S. Department of Labor 1946, 1). As a result, women stayed home and made a career of running the household. During World War II, the labor force lost many men to the draft, and the few poorer and single women who had already been working took over some of their jobs. But the largest untapped resource for labor was the middle-class woman at home ("More Women Must Go to Work," 74).
To mobilize these women, all of the government propaganda needed to communicate a central theme. The OWI rejected the idea of emphasizing high wages, for fear of an increase in consumer spending, leading to inflation. Instead, it concentrated on personal patriotism and emotional appeals:
The patriotic appeal had two aspects, the positive "do your part" approach and the negative "a soldier may die if you don't do your part" warning. The campaign slogan "The More Women at Work-The Sooner We'll Win" promised women that their contributions could bring their men home sooner. (Rupp 1978, 156)
By mid-1942, the draft was taking from 150,000 to 200,000 men a month, and one million women were needed in the factories if production was to follow schedules ("When Women Wear the Overalls," 70). By September 1943, 10 million men had gone to war, and almost all of the remaining men were already employed:
More than any other war in history, World War II was a battle of production. The Germans and Japanese had a 10-year head start on amassing weapons. . . . the side with the most bombs, aircraft, and weaponry would be the side that won the war. Production was essential to victory, and women were essential to production. (Weatherford 1990, 116)
The Office of War Information was responsible for "selling" the war to women. It sent monthly guides to magazine and newspaper editors and radio commentators, suggesting approaches to war topics. The OWI also allocated air time and print space, so that the media would stress the same themes at the same time. It distributed films and maintained a close relationship with the War Advertising Council. The agency launched campaigns and urged magazines to cover working women in their articles (Berkin and Norton 1979, 344).
These campaigns were initially successful. In December 1941, about 12 million women were employed; by early 1944, this number was over 16 million-an increase of 36 percent. In manufacturing alone, a reported 6 million women labored to make weapons for the fighting men (Pidgeon 1944, 2).
The problem for the government seemed not to be employing women in these defense plans, but in convincing women to do the other 82 percent of the work that was unglamorous but had to be done. The War Manpower Commission (WMC) and the OWI tried to point out that every job a woman could take would help to solve the acute manpower shortage. The two agencies wanted to communicate to women that "any kind of service in the labor force is a distinct contribution to winning the war" ("More Women Must Go to Work," 76).
Problems of Working Women
As women entered the labor force in increasing numbers during the war, many problems arose. Childcare, housework, and transportation were all left up to the working woman. This resulted in many women quitting their jobs to take care of these domestic responsibilities ("Women Lagging in War Effort," 24). The largest and most urgent of these problems was childcare. Until this time, middle class women were expected to care for their own children. There were no profit-making childcare centers as there are today. Some factories made their own provisions for workers' children, setting up in-plant care (Weatherford 1990, 169).
Housework was an all-day task. Still, women were expected to handle it by themselves: '"It was an era of cooking from scratch and washing dishes by hand. It was before clothes dryers and permanent press. . . . The work of running a home required a far greater commitment of time [than today]" (Weatherford 1990, 161). If a woman had a job on the night shift in a factory, she would work all day doing household tasks, then all night as well.
With new tires virtually unavailable due to lack of rubber and gas rationing, transportation also reached a new urgency. Many women lived in semirural areas and needed to drive to work. These women often carpooled and drove their neighbors to the factory as well. One woman wrote, "You seldom see an empty back seat" (Weatherford 1990, 162).
Many of these problems had never been an issue before the war. As a result of the mobilization of women, the government woke up to the realities of childcare and women's difficulties in the home. These women communicated their need to share household tasks with their families and this, in turn, illustrated the need for change in stereotyped gender roles.
Even those women who stayed home played a major role in government campaigns. The OEI and WMC needed to communicate the importance of these women to the war effort, for it was this group that was primarily responsible for complying with rations and doing volunteer work: "In every city and village of the nation women are sewing for the Red Cross, participating in the civilian defense activities, organizing recreational services for members of the armed forces" (Kingsley 1942, 29).
When food production began to stagnate, women were encouraged to volunteer for the Woman's Land Army (WLA). This organization was responsible for taking women out of the cities and onto the farms. At first, many farmers were reluctant to comply with the WLA. They didn't believe city girls, ignorant of the ways farms function, would make a significant difference in food production. But women were the last available resource. By the first summer of the war, women working in agriculture had risen from one to 14 percent. Many of these women were volunteers (Weatherford 1990, 220).
Rationing was a necessary irritation for Americans during the Second World War. Women needed to learn the difference between "certificate rationing," "coupon rationing," and "value points." Such items as beef, wool, silk, coffee and tea, rubber, and even cotton were rationed. Because they were the primary consumers of their families, the government concentrated its messages on rationing toward women. The Ladies Home Journal printed this reminder: "We still get ten times as much beef a week as people in England, twenty times as much as they get in Russia, and &Mac222;fty times as much a week as the lucky ones get in China" (Weatherford 1990, 201).
Another major change during World War II with regard to women came when they were able to be inducted into the armed services. At the beginning of American involvement in early 1942, a bill went before the House of Representatives to establish a women's auxiliary in the Army. In May 1942, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was formed. (The Auxiliary status was dropped in July 1943 as the Women's Army Corps gained full military status.) Later, the Navy formed the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the Coast Guard established the SPARS (Semper Paratus-their motto meaning "Always Read"), and the Marines accepted women, called simply "Marines." As of January 1943, all branches of the United States military included women. Two other groups formed to give women a chance to fly. The WAFA (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and the WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) took on the job of testing planes, ferrying them from one American coast to the other, and even towing targets for soldiers to practice on (Weatherford 1990, 43).
By January 1944, over 100,000 women had entered the WACs, WAVES, SPARS, WAFA, and Marines to release men for combat duty (Palmer 1944, 19). The movies and films of the time made up a large part of the propaganda influencing women to join the armed forces. Newspaper and magazine articles, too, showed a glamorized picture of military life (Lotzenhiser 1993). Although their numbers were small, these women were important because they were the first to be recognized with full military status.
Nurses on duty with the armed forces numbered only 36,000 in 1944 (Palmer, 1944, 19). Those who served abroad during the war received a great deal of publicity in relation to their small numbers. Still, nurses in Bataan had to care for 200 to 300 men apiece. Even before American involvement in 1941, some hospitals had to close wings because no nurses were available to work in them. By 1944 the United States needed 66,000 nurses for the military and 30,000 for civilian duty. To cope with this severe shortage, Congress passed a bill in May 1943 to provide funding for nursing schools. But when even this measure did not improve the situation, 73 percent of Americans polled approved of a draft for women to fill the much-needed nursing vacancies. In the House of Representatives, the Nurses Selective Service Act of 1945 passed 347-42 with 43 abstentions. The Senate Military Affairs Committee favored it, but one month later the Army entered Berlin and ended the war in Europe. When "the tradition of protection for women was placed against the need of wounded men for nurses, tradition was quick to go" (Weatherford 1990, 19).
The fact that women came so close to being drafted seems to remain a forgotten part of American history. When the end of the war finally came, Americans were too busy rejoicing to notice this fundamental change in the government's attitude toward women. Congress had agreed that the Constitution made no provisions for the protection of women from a draft, and all in Congress who were involved in that debate agreed that they had the authority to conscript both men and women. If the war had continued, it is likely that women would have been conscripted (Weatherford 1990, 19).
When the Second World War ended, many women wondered what would happen to them. There was no doubt in people's minds that many things had changed, especially regarding women's employment. But for many women, the choice was made for them:
The problem was to avoid massive unemployment after the war, and to government policy makers, unemployed was a male adjective. . . . Eighty percent of . . . working women
. . . tried to keep their jobs. Most were unsuccessful. Layoffs, demotion in rank and pay, outright firings, all eliminated women from their wartime positions. . . . The government assisted women's early retirement by cutting off federal funds for day care in 1946. (Berkin and Norton 1979, 279)
Propaganda was then concentrated on putting women back into the kitchens. Magazines began picturing suburban life and large families. Although the urgency for women in the factories had diminished and propaganda began to focus on homemaking, more women than ever before in peacetime were entering the workplace in the 1950s. They did not receive support or attention on any scale nearly like that of the war years, but the new phenomenon of a woman with a family and career continued to expand and grow.
Government propaganda proved a fast and efficient method for changing public opinion during the war. When the need for women to work and to be careful consumers reached the point of urgency, the OWI and other agencies took it upon themselves to communicate these needs to the American public. The focus of their propaganda was on patriotism and working for the country, but only for the duration of the war.
The propaganda released by the agencies was specific in that regard. The programs, articles, and advertisements communicated the ideals that the government thought the majority of middle-class Americans would support. However, the World War II working experiences aided in breaking down the stereotypical gender roles in the home. As a result of World War II propaganda, women learned and showed they could do additional and important jobs and were further motivated to achieve the advances they have made in the fifty years since the war. As writer Dorothy Thompson put it, "There is no example in which a class or group of people who have once succeeded in expanding the area of their lives is ever persuaded again to restrict it" (Weatherford 1990, 308).
Berkin, Carol, and Mary Beth Norton. Women of America: A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the1940s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.Kingsley, J. Donald. "The Battle of Manpower." Current History, September 1942: 29-32.Lotzenhiser, B.K. Interview by Susan Mathis. Coupeville, Washington. February 6, 1993."More Women Must Go to Work as 3,200,000 New Jobs Beckon." Newsweek 22 (September 6, 1943): 74-76.Palmer, Gladys L. "Women's Place in Industry." Current History 4 (January 1944): 19-24.Pidgeon, Mary Elizabeth. Changes in Women's Employment During the War. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, June 1944.Rupp, Leila J. Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda 1939-1945. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau. The Legal Status of Women in the United States of America. Washington, D.C., September 1946.Weatherford, Doris. American Women in WWII. New York: Facts on File, 1990."When Women Wear the Overalls." Nation's Business 30 (June 1942): 7-71."Women Lagging in War Effort, Factories as Well as Services." Newsweek 21 (January 25, 1943): 24.As a senior at Coupeville High School, Coupeville, Washington, Susan Mathis wrote this paper for the 1993 History Day Contest on the theme "Communication in History." Her paper won first place in the Washington state competition. On National History Day, Mathis's paper was recognized with the Women's History Award sponsored by the National Women's History Project. She is currently a freshman at the University of Chicago, where she plans to major in the humanities.