Women at Work

Perhaps the most dramatic change in wartime America was on the job front. War production provided almost limitless job opportunities, yet the number of men available to take them was dramatically reduced by the tremendous needs of the armed services. So the government called on the nation's women to take their men's places in production factories, which they did enthusiastically. The national symbol of the female work force was Rosie the Riveter, a character who appeared in war production recruiting posters, a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, and even in song. Rosie was emblematic of the female contribution to the American war effort, and she would forever change the face of industry.

According to anthropologist Margaret Mead, more than 3 million women went to work specifically to aid the war effort, and many more did so because they desperately needed the money. Defense jobs ranged from shipyard welding and riveting to outfitting bombers and fighters to sewing powder bags. Much of it was hard physical labor, yet few women complained. For most, the factory “uniform” of slacks, shirts, and work shoes — once solely male attire — became a true badge of honor.

Of course, not all men working stateside were happy with the fact that they had to labor side by side with women in what had traditionally been male occupations. Sexual harassment of women was common but generally downplayed. (To prevent problems, women were encouraged to dress down, i.e., avoid tight sweaters so as not to inflame the hormones of their male coworkers.) Some less-than-progressive trade unions tried to keep out female workers, but the demands of war production superceded their bias, and women were finally allowed in.

Figure 18-3 Women workers at an aircraft plant.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (208-AA-352QQ-5)

The changes in American employment trends resulting from the war had far-reaching consequences. In the months before America's entry into World War II, the percentage of women in the work force was slightly less than 25 percent; by 1945, that figure increased to 34.7 percent. And while many female war workers quit their jobs when the war ended, many more chose to remain because they liked the money, the freedom, and the constructive changes they were making in their lives. In many ways, sociologists say Rosie the Riveter helped pave the way for the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

When the war effort dramatically reduced civilian supplies of nylon, used for women's stockings, many women took to drawing lines on the back of their legs to simulate the appearance of stockings.

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