During World War II American women took news jobs in the military and defense industry. 

Overview

  • World War II provided unprecedented opportunities for American women to enter into jobs that had never before been open to women, particularly in the defense industry.
  • Women faced challenges in overcoming cultural stereotypes against working women, as well as finding adequate childcare during working hours. Minority women also endured discrimination and dislocation during the war years.
  • 350,000 women served in the armed forces during World War II.
  • After the war, women were fired from many factory jobs. Nevertheless, within a few years, about a third of women older than 14 worked outside the home.

Women on the home front

World War II is often falsely identified as the first time that American women worked outside of the home in large numbers. In fact, about a quarter of women worked outside the home in 1940. Before World War II, however, women's paid labor was largely restricted to "traditionally female" professions, such as typing or sewing, and most women were expected to leave the labor force as soon as they had children, if not as soon as they married.start superscript, 1, end superscript
World War II changed both the type of work women did and the volume at which they did it. Five million women entered the workforce between 1940-1945. The gap in the labor force created by departing soldiers meant opportunities for women. In particular, World War II led many women to take jobs in defense plants and factories around the country. These jobs provided unprecedented opportunities to move into occupations previously thought of as exclusive to men, especially the aircraft industry, where a majority of workers were women by 1943.
But most women in the labor force during World War II did not work in the defense industry. The majority took over other factory or office jobs that had been held by men. Although women often earned more money than ever before, it was still far less than men received for doing the same jobs. Nevertheless, many achieved a degree of financial self-reliance that was enticing.

The challenges of wartime work

Working women, especially mothers, faced great challenges during World War II. To try to address the dual role of women as workers and mothers, Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt to approve the first US government childcare facilities under the Community Facilities Act of 1942. Eventually, seven centers, servicing 105,000 children, were built. The First Lady also urged industry leaders to build model childcare facilities for their workers. Still, these efforts did not meet the full need for childcare for working mothers.
Photograph of an African American woman working on a battleship.
Eastine Cowner at work on the SS George Washington Carver, 1943. 17 Liberty ships were named for outstanding African Americans. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
There was also some cultural resistance to women going to work in such male-dominated environments. In order to recruit women for factory jobs, the government created a propaganda campaign centered on a figure known as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie was tough yet feminine. To reassure men that the demands of war would not make women too masculine, some factories gave female employees lessons in how to apply makeup, and cosmetics were never rationed during the war. Keeping American women looking their best was believed to be important for morale.
Minority women faced particular difficulties during the World War II era. African American women struggled to find jobs in the defense industry, and found that white women were often unwilling to work beside them when they did. Although factory work allowed black women to escape labor as domestic servants for a time and earn better wages, most were fired after the war and forced to resume work as maids and cooks.start superscript, 2, end superscript
Japanese American women in western states had little access to new job opportunities, given that the policy of Japanese internment had resettled them in remote locations. Cramped into converted barns, living with as many as eight people in a single room, Japanese American women struggled to retain a semblance of normalcy in the face of terrible privation.start superscript, 3, end superscript

Women in the war

Approximately 350,000 American women joined the military during World War II. They worked as nurses, drove trucks, repaired airplanes, and performed clerical work to free up men for combat.
Photograph of four white women pilots from the Women's Airforce Service Pilots division.
Women's Airforce Service Pilots flew planes from factories to military bases. Here, Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn leave their plane, "Pistol Packin' Mama," in Ohio. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Those who joined the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew planes from the factories to military bases. Some were killed in combat or captured as prisoners of war. Over sixteen hundred female nurses received various decorations for courage under fire.
Many women also flocked to work in a variety of civil service jobs. Others worked as chemists and engineers, developing weapons for the war. This included thousands of women who were recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, developing the atomic bomb.
Minority women, like minority men, served in the war effort as well, though the Navy did not allow black women into its ranks until 1944. As the American military was still segregated for the majority of World War II, African American women served in black-only units. Black nurses were only permitted to attend to black soldiers.start superscript, 4, end superscript

Women after the war

Social commentators worried that when men returned from military service there would be no jobs available for them, and admonished women to return to their "rightful place" in the home as soon as victory was at hand. Although as many as 75% of women reported that they wanted to continue working after World War II, women were laid off in large numbers at the end of the war.
But women's participation in the work force bounced back relatively quickly. Despite the stereotype of the "1950s housewife," by 1950 about 32% of women were working outside the home, and of those, about half were married. World War II had solidified the notion that women were in the workforce to stay.start superscript, 5, end superscript

What do you think?

What effect did World War II have on women's work?
Do you think Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of women's strength? Or was she a symbol that women had to retain beauty standards during the war?
Which of the jobs available to women during wartime would you have wanted, and why?
Portions of this article were adapted from "The Home Front," OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. 2016.
This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. On women's participation in the workforce in 1940, see Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents, 4th ed. (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2016), 487.
  2. See Dubois and Dumenil, Through Women's Eyes, 497-498.
  3. See Dubois and Dumenil, Through Women's Eyes, 499-501.
  4. See Dubois and Dumenil, Through Women's Eyes, 495.
  5. See Dubois and Dumenil, Through Women's Eyes, 503.