World War Two has often been described as a turning point in the battle for equality between men and women. From the beginning, women were always struggling to gain status, respect, and rights in their society. Prior to World War Two, a woman’s role in society was seen as someone who cooked, cleaned, and gave birth. The years during and following the war marked a turning point in the battle for equality. Women, for once, were being seen as individuals with capabilities outside the kitchen, and we’re for the first time given a chance to prove themselves.
On December 7, 1942, Pearl Harbor was bombed and FDR declared war. This marked the entry of the US into World War Two, a war which has been going on in Europe for almost 2 years prior. The start of World War II opened a new chapter in the lives of women living in America. From coast to coast, husbands, fathers, sons and brothers shipped out to fight in Europe.
With the entry of the US and the absence of large quantities of men, the demand for supplies increased, and women were called out of the kitchen and into the workforce. Posters, banners, and jingles were all aspects that helped encourage women’s entrance into the workforce. Millions marched into factories, offices, and military bases. The demand for labor was so great, that a poll taken that year showed that only 13% of the population opposed females entering the workforce.
Women’s occupations varied from war nurses and cooking for the army, to making bombs and making weapons. Other occupations flourished, as well. Women photographers, writers, and reports were for once given a chance. The war offered women opportunity never given to them before. “The war has given women a chance to show what they can do in the world, and they have done well.”(Craig,4). Women were given freedom and a chance to live the American dream.
In 1910 till about 1940, women’s employment rate was as low as only 13%. By June of 1942, females held 55% of all jobs. Nineteen million women were all employed by 1945. Women worked in fields that prior to the war seemed only suitable for men. They held positions such as manufactures of heavy machinery, to welders in a shipyard.
This new employment opening also, for the first time, gave women a salary of their own. Women received better pay, improved and new skills, and the self-esteem that comes with receiving income, freedom, and opportunity. Women were given a chance to make their own decisions, without the advice of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. The financial situation was entirely up to them. They made and managed their monthly budgets, and decided where and how to spend their money. ” The war changed everybody’s lives. You just bought everything. I was buying these fox furs and all of these things. I could just buy anything”.(Craig,4)
Also during the war, women were being admitted into Unions. They protected a women’s wages and was the cause of it rising. Previously, a Union never protected female employees. Once they were admitted, the War Labor Board helped many of the changes to occur. Unions helped abolish an employers incentive to hire a female over a male, with the “Equal pay for equal work”. In addition, Unions helped provide protection and benefits of a job, and helped increase salaries.
A documentary entitled The Life and Times of Rosie the Riverter, focused on five women whose lives changed due to the war. Lola Weixel, Margaret Wright, Lyn Childs, Gladys Belcher, and Wanita Allen, were women who were employed before the war, and then after. The document told of how prior to the war, they were employed at low paying, low skilled jobs, and were excluded from “heavy industries”. They were receiving such a small income, that they were all forced to rely on men for financial support. With the entrance of the war, their salaries, and their positions in the workforce all rose dramatically.
The Allies’ final push in the summer of 1945 brought World War II to a close. With the end of the war, came the pressure for females to return to “where they belong”. All the women who took jobs during the war, were now all expected to make room for the returning men.
The returning veterans were all unemployed and in need of work. The government’s solution to the problem was to force women out of their jobs in order to make room for the men. The same as they were encouraged into the labor force, they were encouraged out of it. Posters, movies, and articles were posted to help push females to leave their jobs and return to their homes.
Despite the pressure, women were not so quick to return to the kitchen. They were for the first time, given freedom, and allowed a chance. Women across the nation were less than willing to give it back and return to their old way of life. Women began questioning the role they played in society, and began demanding equal opportunities. A poll taken in 1945, by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, showed the ¾ of the female workers wished to keep and their jobs, and continue working outside the home. The years following World War II were crucial in the history of American women, and their struggle for equality.
The battle for women’s rights has existed for many years prior. Women, such as Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, dedicated their lives to help achieve equality. They formed the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, which eventually they succeeded by gaining women the right to vote. They changed the way the world viewed women. They spoke out on equal rights issues, calling it their “inalienable rights”. After much struggle, the 19th Amendment was passed giving women the right to vote. This marked only beginning of the struggle yet to come. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton sparked the controversial battle that continued well into the next century, and gave women the motivation needed to finally achieve what they were fighting for.
Organizations such as Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), the Women’s Trade Unions League (WTUL), the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), National Organization for Women (NOW), and the National Women’s Party were just a few of the many organizations set up in order to achieve their goals.
The 1960s was a major period of gaining equality for women. Various acts were passed in order to help the woman’s cause. Through various struggles and battles, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, which prohibited wage discrimination based on one’s sex. In addition, the Civil Rights Act was passed the following year, which further extended the laws prohibiting one’s occupation due to sex, by also prohibiting wage discrimination, job classification, promotion, and training.
Women’s battle for equality also existed outside the workforce. During the late 1960s, women fought for equal rights anyway they knew how. They wanted to end discrimination not only at work, but at home, and in every part of their society. To accomplish this, women began to take place in marches and spoke out against inequality.
Individual women worked hard to achieve their goal. Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, with the help of President John F. Kennedy, helped approve the Equal Rights Amendment. Also, other activities helped the fight for equality. Betty Friedan, the first President of NOW, became one of the most influential activists of her time. She led a highly publicized campaign in order to pass an amendment to guarantee equal rights for both men and women. In addition, Friedan was the author of The Feminine Mystique, a book that spoke of the idea that women could find happiness outside their homes, and within their careers.
By the 1970s, women achieved some victories, but the fight was far from over. Today, almost 64 million women, almost 16 and over, and about 46% of the workforce is composed of women. Despite all the increasing number of women in the workforce, females on a whole still earn less, and still hold traditional female positions, such as nurses, clerks, and secretaries. Statistics show that clothing industries, telephone communication, health services, and education are predominantly female. In addition, an average male income is well above a female, earning on an average 26% more than a female employer.
However, American women are working in a greater diversity of jobs than ever before. For the first time in history, women are holding jobs that were never seen fit for a female. In addition, females make up 48% of Labor Unions.
Although, females as a whole remain at a distant disadvantage in many aspects of life, they have still gone a long way from the days of the kitchen. The fight for equality is far from over, but has much progressed. This new era of equality has brought on a world of change for females. Women for the first time in history are being accepted in society, are given the right to decide, and young girls of today are all given hope.
1) Chafe, William H. The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
2) Harris, Mark Jonathan, et al. The Homefront: America During World War II (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1984)
3) Trager, James. The Women’s Chronology (New York: Henry Holt and Company (1994).
4) “At Home During World War Two.” http://www.pomperaug.com/socstud/stumuseum/web/ARHwww2.htm
5) Women’s Roles in the Wars. http://carmen.murdoch.edu.au/~jjones/war2.htm
6) Women’s Experiences in World War Two. “http://ask.com/main/metaanswer.asp?metaEngine=directhit&origin=womensexperiences=money+americandrem.html”
7) A Short History of the Women’s Rights Movement, http://ask.com/main/followup.asp?qCategory=EDU_&aequal+right+for+women%27&qS=Jeeves&metasearch=yes&ads=historywomens+rightsmovement.html