Essay: How did World War 2 change the role of Women

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If you were born right now, this instant, at you’re present age without any knowledge about how women used to be treated, the assumption could be made that men and women are basically equal.  Yes, men are a little stronger physically, but overall the two sexes are both equal.  Things weren’t always so picturesque, though.  Since people first settled here, on what is now the United States of America, women were thought of as inferior.  Ever so slowly though, the men’s view on women began to change.  The change started in the 1920’s but it was going slowly and needed a catalyst.  World War II was that catalyst.  So much so that women ended up participating in the rise of the United States to a global power.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, mostly in the U.S. women were thought of as inferior.  Men did anything they possibly could to prevent women from entering certain parts of the industry, backing up their actions with “Men are stronger than women”.  The majority of fighter planes were built by men and it was also men who worked in most of the factories that produced cars and other transportation vehicles, thus implying that technology was a man’s job.  Women were relegated to being seamstresses, some were secretaries, nurse, phone operators, and the majority were house wives.

The misnomer that very few women had jobs back in the 30’s and 40’s, is not true.  In fact, the majority of women had jobs.  Even during the Great Depression, almost all women leaving school looked for jobs, and eventually found one.  Of the women born in 1915, 91% had a job by 1938, which was relatively good compared to the 96% of men in the work force.  Most women, however, quit their jobs after getting married so by 1939, there were millions of housewives with a variety of job experience.  The untapped resource of high school and college women made for potential recruits for the wartime labor force (Campbell, p.73).

December 7th, 1941 had came and gone, with the U.S. naval fleet being seriously damaged at Pearl Harbor by a series of air and submarine attacks by the Japanese.  This move gave the Japanese temporary naval supremacy at the expense of a large portion of the U.S. fleet.  With that, President Roosevelt, who had been avoiding entering the War, declared war on Japan and then eventually entering in the war against Germany (Hayes, p.659).  As a result of this declaration, a military conscription was put into effect as the first step to the allocation of soldiers.  Thus where there were men in jobs before, there was nobody and with that women flowed into factories and offices, taking over jobs previously thought that only men could do (Palmer, Colton, p.719).

“May 22, 1942, will surely go down on the record,” predicted the Christian Science Monitor. “It was the day that women joined up with the army…”  It was obvious; the U.S. needed a larger military force.  Thus women joined the army within organizations.  From there came Oveta Culp Hobby, the director for the first American military organization of women.  This organization was called the WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps).  Many people were impressed by the strength of the WAAC and it is said that within three months, the AAF was discussing the possibilities of obtaining more members of the WAAC (Weatherford, p.34).

In 1943 there was a U.S. male pilot shortage.  In August, the WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots), were formed to aid the shortage.  For the most part the WASPS weren’t used for actually fighting.  They were used mainly used for ferrying bomber and fighter planes from factories to airbases.  Even in the Airforce, while helping the men, women were still antagonized by the men.  The WASPS lasted only for one year and in 1944, when the male pilot shortage ended, a proposal to make the WASPS a part of the Airforce was submitted.  The proposal, however, was narrowly defeated by the House of Representatives (Woloch, p.462).

The U.S. used women as their “secret weapon”.  Between 1940 and 1944, the amount of women employed increased by half going from 12 million in 1940 to 18.2 million in 1944.  The amount of women in steel, machinery, shipbuilding, aircraft, and auto factories more than quintupled to 1.7 million compared to 230,000 nearly five years prior.  The only other country who had women to backup the men when the men went to war, was Britain (Campbell, p.72).

The experience is vivid, as recounted by Almira Bondelid after her husband left for the war: “I decided to stay in San Diego and went to work in a dime store.  That was a terrible place to work, and as soon as I could I got a job at Convair [an aircraft manufacturer]….I worked in the tool department as a draftsman, and by the time I left there two years later I was designing long drill jigs for parts of the wing and hull of B-24s.” (May, p.24)

The fact that the U.S. didn’t have to worry about the economy or the building of ships, planes, cars, and other military vehicles, seem to, if you think about it, put the U.S. Navy and Army at ease.  If there hadn’t been a stable economy or production lines for the needed equipment, the U.S. might not have been able to retaliate and defeat Japan, let alone aid Russia, France, and Britain in the war against Germany and Hitler.

For about six years, from 1939 to 1945, the women ruled the work place.  There wages also increased from approximately $100 per week in 1930 to $150 per week in 1940 and later to $175 in 1950 (Bergmann, p.26).  Then men came back from the war and as a result there was a forced exit of many women from the work force that occurred between 1945 and 1947.

From the 18.2 million women employed from 1940 to 1944, 15.8 million remained in 1947, still 3.8 million higher than the original 12 million prior to 1940.  The amount of women in steel, machinery, shipbuilding, aircraft, and auto factories also dropped.  From 1.7 million women at work in 1944, those industries had only job positions for 580,000 women in 1947 (Campbell, p.72).  This drastic drop in the amount of women in the work force  occurred because the war had ended.  The U.S. didn’t keep all the factories, that were used to build wartime machines and equipment, open.  Thus, the high pay and new options that had brought women into the work force, had disappeared.

World War II’s impact on women can be looked at as positive and then as negative.  Yes women entered the work force and basically ruled it for about  five years, and were also the saviors for the U.S. Airforce, in a sense.  But with all they did, especially in the army, women did get enough recognition and were also told to leave the army and the factory all together.  The members of the WASPS, for example, was split up without military recognition or veteran’s benefits (In 1979 this was resolved).  Yes, now you can make the assumption that men and women are equal, but thing weren’t always so picturesque.

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