Despite a barrage of opposition from men, World War II directly influenced and changed women's roles in America in both society and in the home in the two decades immediately following the war through the shifting labor force, changing of female sexuality, and women's positions in relationships, the media, and stereotypes.
When World War II began, most men went off to fight, leaving women to pick up the work the men left behind and forcing wives and mothers to keep life running smoothly. It was soon realized that, no matter how "untraditional" or "unfeminine" it was for a woman to work outside the home, it would have to be done.
Recruiters, posters, and other media assured women that working would not "diminish their femininity."
Ploys to coax women to secure jobs were everywhere. "Women have delicate hands...Precision work at which women are so adept...There is need in a man for comfort and attention that only a woman can fill," and similar phrases were plastered all over the media.
Women rushed to fill jobs.
Some reasons for this may have included patriotism
, money, independence, companionship, and pride in learning new skills. Whatever the reason, from factories to newspapers to stores and farms, women "came into their own." "The war definitely affected women...because without them, who would fill jobs? There had never been women in the service [or the majority of other jobs] but someone
had to do it" (Helen Duggan). And work they did. The minority of women that worked before the war earned an average of $24.50 per week, compared to the $40.35 average per week during the war. Women were thrilled at the prospect of making their own money. They built tanks
, airplanes, and battleships, manufactured bullets and bombs, managed farms and stores, paid taxes, and rationed, in addition to raising their children without
fathers. It was not only the working woman who had to adjust her life and habits to the reality of the war. Everyone made sacrifices. "All the women were affected. Even if you were too young to work, fathers, brothers, boyfriends...men were gone" (Joanne Juergens).
The "normal" duties of the woman on the home front were not limited to the home and family.
Often overlooked were a woman's "duties," to keep the "boys
" upbeat, by writing letters and attending "USO
" dances. The women who remember this time only reiterate the sacrifices that females made. "On the home front people walked everywhere because gas was rationed. It was difficult for us. I worked in a hardware store during The War, giving out ration books for gas, food, sugar, tires" (Duggan). "Simple luxuries such as nylon were not to be had. They were used for parachutes. You had what you needed...only
the necessities" (Joanne Juergens). However, because of the Great Depression
shortly before the war, women were used to hardships, emergencies, and struggling to survive.
Contrary to popular belief, some men didn't go to war, thus remaining in their jobs alongside women.
The men were greatly diminished in number and often looked down upon women, when in reality it was the women who were America's "safety net
," catching the country from falling into a depression so soon after the "Great Depression" of the 1930's
The men who remained on the home front felt threatened by the sudden "aggressive assertation of female sexuality" and retaliated in the only ways they knew how: overt discrimination against the female workers, especially in the "better" jobs.
Also, the women faced harassment
, teasing, and unwanted advances
. One of the reasons that men resented women in the workplace
was because, in the absence of a male majority, females demonstrated that they could survive without the domination and supervision of men. Men tried at every opportunity to return women to their 'proper place' in the home and in society:"
"The war in general has given women new status, new recognition...Women are 'coming into their own' in this war...Yet it is essential that women avoid arrogance and retain their femininity in the face of their own new status...In her new independence she must not lose her humanness as a woman. She may be the woman of the moment, but she must watch her movements," (Brokaw 39).
Men even made female sexuality an issue as a result of women's new independence.
"When women work, earn, and spend as much as men do, they are going to ask for equal rights
with men...The right to behave like a man means the right to misbehave as he does," (Freidan 75). "This causes 'sexual laxity,' [otherwise known as a deterioration of sexual morals, codes, and the rigid structure of proper sexual behavior]...and wartime ushers in an anxious preoccupation with all forms of feminine non-marital sexuality" (Freidan 40). This was partially true. With so many women in such small areas with few or no men, lesbianism
became an increasing statistic, as women were in 'high supply.'
Strong warnings were plastered on posters everywhere regarding the return of veterans.
Women were urged to "stay pure" for returning soldiers, and men were advised to avoid prostitutes and "cheap" women, warned with phrases like, "You can't beat the Axis
if you get VD
." In spite of these glaring warnings, promiscuity
and sex appeal
also 'came into their own' during the war, only making things worse for women in post-war America. Women alone were blamed for sexually-transmitted diseases
. In popular opinion, germs weren't the cause of VD..."Promiscuous" women were. In actuality, males were more "loose" than they claimed to be; men, however, were almost excused from their indulgent sexual behaviors because "at least they were 'sowing their wild oats
' before marriage," (May 91).
Males in post-war America found it to be a "sexual paradise" of sorts, thanks to the media.
This was the period where sex became used as a marketing tool. It was used to sell products from cars to toothpaste. Women were encouraged by movies, magazines, and advice literature to be "sexy" and "attractive" to "catch a husband," but stop when it came to the sex act itself. A girl could be "ruined" if she behaved outside of what was acceptable behavior.
"[Women] had to walk the difficult tightrope between sexual allure and the emphasis on virginity that permeated the youth culture...Post-war America was a society with stop-go lights flashing everywhere we looked. Sex, its magic spell everywhere, was accompanied by the stern warning: Don't do it!" (May 102).
But even the struggles that the American woman faced regarding the newly-set sexual boundaries paled in comparison to the problems that would evolve for females; the worst was yet to come.
After the war, the men returned to claim their rightful positions in their homes, families, and jobs, the latter aspect of their homecoming putting many women out of work.
With men home once again, marriage rates increased, the average marriage age dropped, the divorce rate declined, the birth rate soared, and Americans rapidly streamed into suburbs. The creation of "Americana" also meant the redefining of the workforce from the 1940's; the husband worked outside of the home, his wife as a homemaker. In the 1950's, only 30 percent of women worked outside of the home. Gradually, the ideals of the working, or "career" woman, were ousted. Feminine individuality and independence, which during the war had been personified in the "career girl" stories written by female authors, became "embarrassments for women" to talk about because they had become obsolete terms in the early 1950's.
[Note: The aforementioned shifting of feminine roles after WWII is portrayed smashingly in the film Mona Lisa Smile
Modern society tends to look upon this period as one in which life was good, simple, and perfect, because it was.
The suburban housewife had modern conveniences, healthier living than ever before, and "free choice." That is, a woman was free to choose her own automobile, clothing, appliances, and supermarkets.
Women's lives were so perfect and well organized that females weren't "blissfully happy."
They were miserable, because their lives and daily routines were monotonous, consisting of sending children off to school, shopping, cleaning, playing bridge, and being a "model citizen." Women did not feel that they shared their lives with their husbands, because at this time many men assumed that women had no interest in public issues, national or international affairs
, politics, satire
, or travel. They also assumed that humor had to be "gentle" or women wouldn't understand it. A "mask of dreams, vacuum of ideas...and terrible boredom...settled over the American housewife," (Freiden 56). Poets at this time like Anne Sexton
and Sylvia Plath
were inspired by this feminine ennui
and angst. Women, afraid of being labeled "unfeminine," "untraditional," or a "failure of her sex," suffered through the unnamed depression that engulfed the female non-working populace. Unhappily, millions of women lived up to the expectations put on them. But as for their expectations for themselves
, many women experienced such a loss of personal identity that they felt unable to set personal goals and standards for their lives.
The media at this time was, in actuality, a main cause of the stress of the American woman.
Not only was it responsible for setting some of the unrealistic standards for "ultimate fulfillment of femininity," but it was also a primary cause of the stereotype of post-war America. When the men went to war, their jobs needed to be filled; authors and journalists were no exception. As women began to write their own stories, they replaced the "happy housewife
" stories with the "independent career girl
" stories. They ran human-interest
stories, and because they knew personally what women wanted, they gave it to them. When the men came back to reclaim their jobs, however, they didn't want women to maintain the independent and individual air; they once again penned "happy housewife" stories, rather than the emancipated women stories, and the power that women felt when they had pillars of individuality and independence (the working women from the war stories
,) began to drain. Popular magazines such as Look
were seemingly biased toward women in the home, and appeared to be coaxing women out of the workplace and "back where they belonged," using words such as, "wondrous creature" and "tender, loving, caring women" to describe housewives and words such as "untraditional," and "unfeminine," words with blatantly negative connotation, to refer to the working woman. "[Woman is] no longer a psychological immigrant to a man's world. She works less toward a 'big career'...she gracefully concedes the top jobs to men" (Freidan 59). Once again, women submitted to the authority of male dominance
and returned to the "security" (or shackles) of their homes and families.
It is through the masking of woman's character and personality by male authors and media in the years immediately following World War II that today's distorted view of post-war society exists.
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998.
Freidan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963.
Hancock, Jim. Raising Adults. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Piñon Press, 1999.
Hart, Jeffrey. When the Going Was Good!. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1982.
Helen Duggan, Telephone Interview, 17 Apr. 2001.
Joanne Juergens, Telephone Interview, 17 Apr. 2001.
May, Elaine Tyler. Pushing the Limits. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Strom, Sharon H. Hartman and Linda P. Wood. Women and World War II. www.stg.brown.edu.projects/WWII.../womeninwwii.htm
Noded from an English lit dissertation