Women Facing the Emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II

Gillian Nichols-Smith. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

The 1930s and 1940s are often understood as decades in which the women’s rights movement was stalled in the wake of the suffrage victory in 1920 and the conservatism of the decade that followed it. However, during these years, women continued to struggle for their rights, and they made significant advances by the use of their leadership and participation in a multitude of social and labor movements. The 1930s and 1940s in the United States were decades of both crisis and national purpose. The Great Depression and World War II formed the historical circumstances under which women would play unprecedented roles in the federal government, steward their families through the challenges of material want, enter the workforce in record numbers, and help the nation win World War II. Even as the exigencies of economic depression and war opened up new opportunities for women in political, economic, and social life, however, the realities of gender and racial discrimination in the workforce, as well as the persistence of assumptions about the primacy of women’s domestic roles and responsibilities, constituted formidable barriers to the achievement of gender equality throughout these periods of national emergency and beyond.

1930s—The Great Depression

Women at Work

In 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed and the money of approximately nine million families disappeared as one-fifth of U.S. banks failed. The result was the national economic catastrophe that came to be known as the Great Depression. Businesses and industries shut down, leading to massive unemployment and plummeting wages. Without income, people were unable to pay their mortgages, resulting in widespread foreclosures. Lacking a federal unemployment program, people were struggling for their very survival.

In the early 1930s, at the onset of the Great Depression, it seemed women’s gains in the 1920s—especially those having to do with the acceptance of women continuing to work for wages after marriage—would be eroded. Whether in terms of a living wage, the self-respect from an honest day’s work, or the sense of social dislocation caused by unemployment, the impact of the economic disaster was largely understood in terms of male loss. Male unemployment at the height of the Depression stood at 30 percent (significantly, female unemployment figures were not tabulated), and as the Depression wore on, with men out pounding the pavement for jobs, the employment of married women struck many as unjust. Men were still viewed as the family breadwinners, and women were accused of stealing jobs from men, despite that fact that numerous women were employed before the Depression. In particular, black women faced a 50 percent unemployment rate in Chicago and a 75 percent unemployment rate in Detroit.

Opinion polls revealed that Americans overwhelmingly opposed married women’s employment. George Gallup claimed that he had never seen respondents “so solidly united in opposition as on any subject imaginable including sin and hay fever” (Scharf 1980, 50). It was within this social context that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) passed a resolution stating, “Married women whose husbands have permanent positions should be discriminated against in the hiring of employees” (Schatz 1983, 126). In addition, Congress passed section 213 of the 1932 Economy Act, the married persons clause, which stipulated that whenever personnel reductions were necessary among government employees, married persons were to be the first discharged if their spouses were also federal government employees. The bill was ostensibly gender-neutral, but was intentionally aimed at eliminating married women from government positions. Professional women also suffered. Women’s numbers among the ranks of schoolteachers, social workers, lawyers and PhD recipients all declined between 1930 and 1940. Women as a percentage of undergraduates also declined, from 43 percent to 40 percent of enrolled students.

The assault on working wives galvanized women’s organizations, which, over the course of the 1920s and early 1930s, had become embroiled in battles among themselves over how best to achieve women’s equality. On one side was The National Woman’s Party (NWP), which pursued an equalitarian feminism. The NWP agitated for passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and sought the same legal and political rights for women that were explicitly guaranteed to men in the Constitution. Other organizations, such as the League of Women Voters (LWV), believed that women workers needed labor legislation to protect them from the extremes of industrial capitalism, particularly laws that would govern women’s work hours and safety conditions in mines, laundries, and other dangerous occupations. This kind of social feminism called for special treatment for women, even as it sought equal pay for equal work. However, when national and state governments began to call for discrimination against married working women, virtually all women’s groups, including The American Association of University Women (AAUW), the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (BPW), and even the American Home Economics Association (AHEA) united on the question of women’s right to work. The attack on working wives was seen as an assault on the economic freedom of all women. In May of 1933, representatives of nine women’s organizations met with President Roosevelt’s budget director, Lewis Douglas, to demand an end to the government dismissals. The NWP warned that the economic crisis was being used to “place a brake on the steady advance in the gainful employment of women” (Scharf 1980, 51). Unfortunately, the meeting did little to alleviate the gender discrimination against married women.

Women also sought to advance their rights as workers by joining labor unions. Between 1930 and 1940, women’s union membership increased 300 percent, to approximately eight hundred thousand women. The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW) used these new numbers to win better labor protections in the garment industry’s codes of fair competition. In 1935, several of the smaller unions within the American Federation of Labor, including the ILGWU, left to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and began unionizing unskilled industrial workers. This, in part, accounted for the significant increase of women workers in unions. Nevertheless, in general, unions’ official lines were that women should not be employed outside the home, and most unions prioritized male workers’ needs over those of female workers. For example, in addition to the AFL’s resolution against married women workers, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) created separate job classifications with lower wages for women. In other unions, such as the Minneapolis Teamsters, women were relegated to subordinate (but essential) support roles during strikes, like nursing the wounded and cooking.

Between 1930 and 1934, the Communist Party of the USA(CPUSA) received approximately sixty thousand membership applications. A great deal of this interest was spurred by massive unemployment demonstrations by the CPUSA in 1929, and by the nothing-left-to-lose mentality of CPUSA strike leaders during the Depression. Under communist leadership, the UAW organized a massive sit-down strike at General Motors in 1937 in Flint, Michigan, in which women participated in nontraditional ways. Genora (Johnson) Dollinger was a union organizer who worked at Briggs Manufacturing Company. Besides simply having women deliver food to male strikers, Dollinger founded the Women’s Auxiliary and headed its militant division: the Women’s Emergency Brigade. One historian describes how these women bravely supported the strikers: they wore “red armbands and red tams, they marched and sang, broke windows when their men were gassed, and put their bodies in front of threatening police” (Cook 1992, 428). In the 1930s, this emerging militancy rapidly spread among the different union movements. In the CPUSA, some women became influential leaders, including “Mother” Bloor and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Nonetheless, problems specific to women were often neglected by the CPUSA, such as childcare, sexual harassment, and wage equality.

Despite the social and political barriers facing them, working women increased their numbers over the course of the 1930s. Women went from 22 percent to 25 percent of the workforce. Meanwhile, the proportion of working, married women grew from 12 to 15 percent, and they increased their share of the female work force from 29 to 35.5 percent. Both married and single women worked out of economic necessity. With wages declining and male unemployment rising, families’ survival increasingly depended upon women’s paid labor. Nevertheless, sex-segregation of the job market was ongoing, and women were “concentrated in service, clerical, and retail jobs where layoffs were less severe” (Babson 1999, 55).

Women’s unpaid economic contributions to the family increased as well. Among the poor and working classes, women’s abilities in the home became critical to family survival in ways that were reminiscent of the pre-industrial era: they patched and remade clothes, sewed old sheets together to make new ones, made over children’s clothes from adult garments, re-lined coats, planted home gardens, canned vegetables, and made meals out of the slimmest of ingredients. This kind of recycling and home production could mean the difference between barely surviving and total destitution. They also took in boarders and washing, or prepared food and clothing to sell. Extended families moved in together following evictions, pushing housing capacities to their limits. Wives and mothers were expected to be perfect homemakers, and in the face of the extreme economic hardship, they were required to take on ever-more demanding tasks and circumstances to ensure their families’ survival.

The financial insecurities of the Great Depression resulted in significantly changing family demographics. Many young couples postponed marriage. Divorce rates declined because it was too expensive to divorce lawfully; instead, men deserted their wives and children at an alarming rate. The birthrate dropped, with only 75.7 of every 1,000 women of childbearing age actually having children, and approximately 25 percent of women in their twenties did not have any children. Meridel LeSueur, an activist and single mother, described women’s general attitude during the Great Depression: “I don’t want to marry. I don’t want any children. So they all say. No children. No marriage. They arm themselves alone, keep up alone” (Evans 1989, 200). In 1936, a federal appeals court overturned the Comstock Act, which classified contraception as obscene, thus prohibiting sending it through the mail, in a case called United States v. One Package. Although several state anticontraceptive laws remained valid, birth control was exceedingly common, simply because people did not want to have children they could not afford.

Black women—whether mothers, wives, or singles—suffered some of the worst deprivation and economic distress of any group during the Depression. Historically, black women had been employed outside the home more than white women. As wages and job opportunities withered across the social and economic spectrum, substantial numbers of black women were forced out of higher-paying jobs and into domestic labor. In some cities, black women were reduced to waiting on corners for a day to get a few hours’ work, often for 10-15 cents an hour. Many worked only for room and board. In 1935, two black women from the NAACP investigated this phenomenon in New York, dubbing it the “Bronx Slave Market.” They learned that lower-middle-class women were hiring cheap domestic help for the first time. From 1930 to 1940, private domestic workers increased by 25 percent. While in 1930 about half of domestic workers were not white, by 1940, almost two-thirds of domestic workers were not white.

From 1930 to 1940, the number of Mexican citizens in the United States was cut in half. In the 1930s, 500,000 Mexican citizens and their U.S. citizen children were deported to Mexico. Many Mexican and Mexican American families were denied emergency aid and had to leave the United States in order to survive. Mexican, Mexican American, and white migrant farm workers were forced into a desperate struggle to earn enough to live on during the Depression. In rural areas, families commonly did not even receive $100 per year in wages. Previously, Mexican American women had not been employed outside the home as often as other women had, but during the 1930s, their employment paradoxically increased. As unemployed fathers and husbands could no longer exert their traditional authority, daughters and wives went to work in New Deal programs and industry jobs.

Women in Politics

Women played a crucial role in designing and enacting the New Deal programs of the 1930s, gaining unprecedented positions in the federal government. In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, and Eleanor Roosevelt assumed the role of First Lady. While only 12 women served in Congress during the 1930s, women were central to President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, forming a powerful network in the executive branch. This network was composed of 28 social feminists, including Molly Dewson, Frances Perkins, Ellen Sullivan Woodward, and Mary Anderson. Congress-women Mary T. Norton and Caroline O’Day were also part of the women’s network. Black women, with the guidance of Mary McLeod Bethune, also gained unprecedented power during President Roosevelt’s presidency.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s background prepared her to coordinate revolutionary reforms. She was born into privilege, and when she was young, she volunteered in a settlement house and with the National Consumers’ League. In 1905, she married Franklin Roosevelt, and in the ceremony, her uncle, then President Theodore Roosevelt, gave her away. Over the next 10 years, she gave birth to six children (one died as a baby). After her husband’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, Eleanor stayed married to Franklin, but their relationship was transformed into that of formidable political partners. Eleanor Roosevelt established her own political identity through her work with the League of Women Voters, the Women’s Trade Union League, and the peace crusade. In addition, she volunteered in the women’s division of the New York Democratic Committee and was otherwise active in the Democratic Party. As First Lady, she held press conferences for only women journalists, and wrote about women’s unique challenges in her daily column “My Day,” which was syndicated in newspapers nationwide. She was an influential advocate for unemployed women and minorities, motivating thousands of people to write letters to her and the president. In one letter, Mrs. Blanche Crumbly sent in her pay stubs from a textile mill and wrote, “I want to let you see that they didn’t pay me enough. I worked eight hours a day and you will see they have me marked up forty hours a week and didn’t pay twelve dollars and by law they were supposed to” (KesslerHarris 2000, 420). Eleanor Roosevelt was able to use her distinctive position in the White House to represent poor people’s needs and to advocate for innovative New Deal legislation. A social-welfare state was established that included the Public Works Administration (PWA), with a $3.3 billion budget for construction projects, and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which eventually employed over four million people.

Eleanor Roosevelt also built strong ties with labor and civil rights movements. For example, she developed connections with the UAW’s founders, the Reuther brothers, following their organization of the massive General Motors sit-down strike. In February 1937, Roy, Walter, and Victor Reuther emerged victorious when General Motors formally recognized the UAW-CIO. Eleanor Roosevelt met with union organizers that month and wrote in her “My Day” column that their demands for a living wage, a 40-hour work week, and adequate termination notice appeared very reasonable. She defended women’s right to work, contending that people cannot insist “that married women should stay out of the gainful occupations. The contention that they create unemployment will not hold. It happens that in good times there is work enough for everybody, however large the labor supply, and in times of depression there is idleness, no matter how small the supply” (Cook 1992, 421). In 1938, the First Lady brought the civil rights and labor movements together when she helped form the Southern Conference for Human Welfare with the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners’ southern representative, Joseph Gelders, and the CIO’s southern field representative, Lucy Randolph Mason. She also invited black leaders to meetings at the White House and championed projects aimed at eradicating black poverty. In addition, she worked with the NAACP to expand the interracial movement against lynching. She lobbied one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, Jessie Daniel Ames, to support federal anti-lynching legislation. In these and other acts on behalf of civil and workers’ rights, Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady from that of being the country’s hostess into an influential platform for social change.

Moreover, Eleanor Roosevelt’s connections with the social feminists assisted her in moving numerous other women into leadership roles in the federal government. For instance, Molly W. Dewson served as the Director of the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee from 1932 to 1934; the Chairman of the Women’s Division Advisory Committee from 1934 to 1937; and a Member of the Social Security Board from 1937 to 1938. Her background was grounded in the New York branch of the National Consumers’ League, and she met Eleanor Roosevelt when the First Lady was a member of the Women’s Division of the New York Democratic Party. Dewson was a successful advocate for the appointment of many women to President Roosevelt’s administration, including Frances Perkins. Perkins became the first woman cabinet member when President Roosevelt appointed her Secretary of Labor in 1933. Previously, Perkins had served as the Industrial Commissioner of New York, and she had worked with the Consumers’ League. In turn, Perkins was able to bring numerous women into the Labor Department. A former social worker, she played a central role in formulating the majority of the New Deal’s social welfare legislation. For example, she chaired the committee that drafted the 1935 Social Security Act, which provided aid to dependent children, as well as federal unemployment and old-age insurance, for the first time. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, legislating minimum wages and maximum hours for male and female workers, and banning most child labor. Nevertheless, Perkins could not prevent gender discrimination from infiltrating the New Deal. Perkins declared in a paper titled Resolution on Unemployment and Working Women that “[t]hey have been thrown out of jobs as married women, refused relief as single women, discriminated against by the N.R.A. [National Recovery Act] and ignored by the C.W.A. [Civil Works Administration]” (Cott 2000, 464).

Another vital member of the network was Ellen Sullivan Woodward, who was active in social and political movements in Mississippi. She became Director of the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), from 1933 to 1936; Director of Women’s and Professional Projects of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), from 1936 to 1938; and Member of the Social Security Board, from 1938 to 1946. Intended to create jobs, the FERA had a budget of $500 million, and the WPA had an unprecedented budget of $4.88 billion. Woodward used her leadership positions within these powerful agencies to provide jobs for millions of unemployed women. Despite Woodward’s efforts, gender discrimination was inherent in most New Deal jobs programs, with men given job preference over women, because men were still seen as the family breadwinners. Women were also limited to jobs with domestic underpinnings like sewing, food preparation, heath care, clerical work, and domestic service. Another major figure was Mary Anderson. A former shoe factory worker and a member of the Chicago branch of the Women’s Trade Union League, she served as the Chief of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor from 1920 to 1944.

Mary McLeod Bethune was the Director of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration (NYA), from 1936 to 1944. President Roosevelt did not have black appointees until 1936, which was two years after Eleanor Roosevelt began speaking out on black rights. Bethune became the leader of these appointees, known as the “Black Cabinet,” and a vocal advocate for civil rights. Both as an educator and as an activist, Bethune was a pioneer. She had established and become president of Bethune-Cookman College. She was the president of the National Association of Colored Women and, in 1935, founded the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune felt responsible for promoting the expansion of black women’s leadership in government, writing to President Roosevelt that “[i]n the ranks of Negro womanhood in America are to be found ability and capacity for leadership, for administration as well as routine tasks, for the types of service so necessary in a program of national defense” (McCluskey 1999, 174). Bethune succeeded in guaranteeing that the NYA supported black universities and established a scholarship fund for black college students. However, racial discrimination in New Deal policies and programs remained rampant, with white administrators routinely refusing job placement and relief services to poor African Americans. In the 1930s, 90 percent of black women worked in domestic service or agriculture, occupations that were not covered by either Social Security or the minimum wage and maximum-hour protections of the New Deal.

Popular Culture

The movies of the 1930s starred tough, confident characters played by actresses like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis. These independent women were strong enough to handle the struggles of the Great Depression, but in doing so, they stepped out of women’s traditional roles, and were perceived as threatening men’s power. As a result, these movies commonly ended in a Taming of the Shrew fashion, with the feisty woman being either verbally or physically abused, or overpowered, by a man. One of the most famous examples is from Gone with the Wind (1939), in which the strong-willed Scarlett O’Hara is raped into obedience by Rhett Butler.

During the 1930s, the portrayal of black women in movies was mainly limited to the stereotype of the black mammy. The mammy character was shown as forever “[s]tanding proud, she offers her many services on a tray and is the daily dispenser of nourishment to all who enter her; her body invites invasion and knows no privacy” (Taylor 1989, 168). In Gone with the Wind, the fittingly named Mammy, played by Hattie McDaniel, conformed to the southern romanticized image of a happy slave, and she served the white family with the fussy, energetic pleasure of a busy mother. McDaniel won an Oscar for this role, becoming the first African American to accept an Academy Award. Despite this civil rights victory being diminished by the Mammy stereotype, it still served as an inspiration to all people that racial equality could be reached. In her acceptance speech, McDaniel said, “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you and God bless you” (Watts 2005, 179).

During the 1930s, women were able to take the desperate times of the Great Depression and forge new ways to ensure their fiscal survival through social and labor movements. Women entered politics, took the reigns of the federal government, and passed some of the most revolutionary social legislation in American history. Yet even as women began to secure government support of their rights, gender and racial stereotypes limited their ability to take advantage of new opportunities. Discrimination stifled women political leaders’ attempts to provide all women and people of color with equal access to government relief and economic opportunity. In sum, women’s rights took major steps forward due to the need for drastic changes in response to the Great Depression, but gender discrimination continued to present a formidable challenge throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s.

1940s—World War II

Women at Work

On December 8, 1941, the United States entered World War II. One of the most remarkable aspects of the war effort was the sudden change in governmental and, subsequently, social attitudes towards women’s participation in the workforce. As one commentator put it, “the war caused a greater change in women’s status and outlook than a prior century of reform and rhetoric had been able to achieve” (Chafe 1991, 121). By 1943, with men away at war, the combination of an almost-full labor force participation on the part of single women and the demands of war production meant that housewives and mothers were now acceptable industrial workers. When World War II ended, the percentage of employed married women had risen from 15 to 25 percent of all married women. For about one-third of employed married women, their wartime job was the first time they had worked outside of the home.

Just as remarkable was the radical shift in beliefs about what jobs women were capable of performing. Prior to the war, women in industrial jobs, by a universal but unspoken rule, were limited to using tools that weighed less than two pounds, and were consigned to the most tedious and repetitive of tasks. Seemingly overnight, women became precision toolmakers in shipyards, maneuvered giant overhead cranes, ran lathes, read blueprints, and became blacksmiths, drill press operators, and welders. These jobs not only provided women with newfound status, they also provided for instant access to upward mobility. In 1942, Kay Wells from Pittsburgh talked about making nuts and bolts for airplanes, saying, “[t]hey started you out at $1.72 per hour. That was a lot of money. So many women were working. We learned how to do a lot of things. People were shocked. The women were not going to sit at home. Our boys were doing a job, and we were going to work” (Yellin 2004, 46). More women were making more money, and they were controlling their money, resulting in groundbreaking economic independence for women war workers.

Black women, for the first time, had widespread opportunities in industry, overcoming employers’ discrimination, because all other laborers were already employed or unavailable. From 1940 to 1944, black women’s percentage of the factory workforce increased from 6.5 percent to 18 percent. The number of black female farm workers decreased by 50 percent as they migrated to cities to work in war industry. Nevertheless, black women were limited to the lowest-paying and most dangerous industrial jobs. Furthermore, many black women were able to move out of domestic work or farm labor, and into federal agency white-collar jobs, clerical work, and nursing careers. In the apparel industry, black women’s employment increased by 350 percent. However, black women faced a double bind of both gender and racial discrimination, which the civil rights and feminist activist Pauli Murray termed “Jane Crow.” During the 1940s, black women actively resisted this double discrimination. For instance, in 1942 and 1943, black women joined with the United Automobile Workers in Detroit to demonstrate against Ford Motor Company’s racially discriminatory practices.

Women’s entry into the war industry was encouraged by a ceaseless propaganda campaign by the government and the media. Radio stations sponsored a “working women win wars week.” There were national broadcasts by Commando Mary. “Why do we need women workers?” the broadcast would ask. “Because you can’t build ships and planes and guns without them” (Streitmatter 2008, 148). In November 1941, advertising agencies were frustrated by losing accounts due to the drop in consumer goods manufacturing and the absence of any federal assistance to make up for the drop in business. In response, they established the War Advertising Council (WAC). In 1942, President Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI). Both the WAC and the OWI defined their purposes as merely presenting war information to the public, but these organizations were unequivocally influential propaganda machines. In 1943, the OWI’s director, Elmer Davis, declared, “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized” (Koppes 1977, 88).

The recruitment of women into industry jobs and military service was a major WAC campaign, and it was carefully managed by the OWI. Perhaps the most famous image from these campaigns was Rosie the Riveter with her “We Can Do It!” caption, originally drawn by Norman Rockwell. Like other propaganda images of working women from World War II, Rosie’s picture in magazines (as well as other advertisements featuring women in overalls and lipstick) were meant to not only encourage women to work in industry jobs, but to show that those jobs did not threaten a woman’s femininity. The propaganda also stressed that women were only replacing men for the duration of the war, increasingly showing women happy to give up their jobs to returning soldiers. In 1944, the national Women in the War project was launched, an extensive joint endeavor between the WAC, the OWI, and a number of military agencies. This enormous campaign included a saturation of posters, booklets, films, and fiction literature, with the pictures and stories of beautiful, feminine women adeptly handling heavy labor in industrial and military occupations. In addition, the advertisements also emphasized the temporary nature of women working in industrial jobs, and pushed the agenda that once men returned from war, women should happily relinquish their jobs. Magazines constituted a large part of this propaganda, publishing tales of war, work, and inevitable romance in the Saturday Evening Post and pulp magazines like True Story.

Even as women entered the workforce as full-time laborers, they were expected to maintain their domestic responsibilities with little assistance. This meant that women were expected to spend a full day at work and then come home to cook and clean. Moreover, childcare during the day was a major concern for working mothers. The Lanham Act was passed by Congress in 1942, and over three years, $51.9 million was spent on 3,102 childcare centers serving 600,000 children. However, the need drastically outweighed federal funding, and only 10 percent of working mothers ever used the centers. Many women relied on family, friends, and limited corporate childcare centers. In 1943,Fortune magazine pointed out how women were overwhelmed with responsibilities, writing, “The problems do not stop with child care. A working mother still has marketing, cooking, laundering, and cleaning to attend to. These stretch her working day another four to six hours. Unless she receives concessions, not normally given, it is questionable how long she can stand up under a twelve-or fourteen-hour day” (Yellin 2004, 59-61). These women were overburdened, as society demanded that they fulfill both the role of full-time breadwinner and that of homemaker with limited outside aid.

During the war, however, industry itself changed in response to women’s arrival on the shop floor. Management took the opportunity to practice what is called job dilution or de-skilling, the introduction of mechanization that requires workers to do lighter tasks more often, rather than several tasks that require more movement. A manager at Vultee Aircraft described the gendered justifications used by the company: “[i]t definitely was in Vultee’s favor that the hiring of women was started when production jobs were being simplified to meet the needs of fast, quantity production … Special jigs were added to hold small tools, such as drills, so that women could concentrate on employing more effectively their proven capacity for repetitive operations requiring high digital dexterity” (Milkman 1987, 60). Management had wanted to introduce many of these changes for a long time, but had hesitated because of fears of union resistance. In part because of the de-skilling of jobs and in part because women worked for less money than men did, unions responded to the introduction of women into the workforce with hostility.

Despite union hostility towards women, women’s participation in unions increased as female employment increased and women demanded the same protections from labor organizations as men. From 1940 to 1944, women’s percentage of union participation increased from 9.4 percent to 21.8 percent, about 3 to 3.5 million women members out of 15 million total union memberships. The CIO had always admitted women workers and, as women’s employment increased, so did their union membership. The AFL once again united with the woman-dominated ILGWU, adjusted its policies in the 1940s, and admitted more women. Unions like the UAW and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) began to stand up for female workers in order to protect wages for male workers, who were viewed as eventually returning to those jobs. As a consequence, these unions were able to successfully defend against wage reductions and achieve equal pay for women workers who were working in formerly male-only occupations. Unions became even more disposed to admit and support women members when the War Labor Board ruled that women workers must be paid the same as men workers.

Women on the Home Front

In addition to going out to work in war industries, women served in other ways on the home front. Many women volunteered towards the war effort, working for organizations like the Red Cross. The marriage rate jumped as young couples rushed to take their vows before war separated them. Close to two million weddings took place in 1942 alone. These brides joined other war wives and mothers forced to take care of their families without their spouses, in increasingly difficult times. Women faced government rationing of sugar, coffee, and red meat, as well as shortages of butter, milk, and eggs. Many women grew Victory Gardens, and learned canning to make up for the lack of fruits and vegetables. In 1944, a pregnant newlywed named Rose Truckey described how women learned to rely on each other and themselves, to get through the shortages. She explained, “You could always make sure that somebody would be there if you needed them because you couldn’t depend on a man, there weren’t any around. So it was really what we could do for ourselves” (Yellin 2004, 20). Women were gaining new independence and confidence by taking on these staggering responsibilities, even as they endured insecurity and loneliness.

Women also provided emotional support by writing letters to their sons, brothers, boyfriends, fiancés, and husbands serving abroad. Through their writings, women sought to encourage their loved ones, send stories to remind them of home, and share their heartache. The government encouraged women to keep their letters to military personnel positive, but amid such adversity, it was nearly impossible for life’s realities not to enter women’s correspondence. In October 1944, Natalie Mirenda wrote to her husband Frank Maddalena, who was killed in action a month later, saying, “I see you everywhere—in the chair, behind me, in the shadows of the rooms. Everyplace I go you are always with me in the back of my mind. I seem to have a continuous headache because I’m so worried about you” (Yellin 2004, 33). The letters women received from their men were assurances that they were still alive. Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, Alice Woods received (almost a month later) her first piece of mail from her brother-in-law, Ray Woods, who was wounded in the attack. She wrote back, “I couldn’t put down on paper how we felt when we received your letter (Dec. 29th). To say we were elated is putting it mild. It just seemed like a black cloud was suddenly lifted. Like hearing from someone we thought (and prayed not) didn’t exist anymore” (Litoff 1991, 7). Overall, the mail served as the principal means for men and women to stay connected and share their hardship during World War II.

Women in the Military

Approximately 350,000 women served in the U.S. military during World War II. Many women served and experienced combat overseas as members of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and the Navy Nurse Corps (NNC). In addition, there were women’s branches, in which 140,000 women served in the Army (WACs), 100,000 in the Navy (WAVES), 13,000 in the Coast Guard (SPARS), and 23,000 in the Marines (MCWR). The 1,000 women who served as Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) had civilian status during the war and were granted veteran status in 1977. A book published in 1943, titled The WAVES: The Story of the Girls in Blue, stated the following:

A few months ago the very word WAVES was a kind of joke, and the thought of women in uniform was barely acceptable to the so-called protective male animal. But the organization is functioning now, developing surely and fast, and wiping out laughter about itself as it goes. (Treadwell 1954, 22)

Many women joined the military for the same the reasons that men did: to overcome the limitations of their civilian lives, serve their country, and see the world. However, they were denied full military status, including not having authorization to carry weapons. Navy personnel were limited to shore duty, and members of the WASP were restricted to American airspace. In addition, women in the military faced vicious rumors of widespread promiscuity and venereal disease, rumors that essentially accused them of having no other purpose than to sexually service male personnel. Despite these obstacles, women served bravely in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific.

As in the industrial workforce, black women also faced harsh discrimination in the military during World War II, but in 1941, 56 black female nurses were permitted to join the ANC. These nurses were only allowed to treat black patients and prisoners of war, but by 1945, the ANC included around 500 black women, due to the advocacy of civil rights groups. Despite these advances in the Army, only four black women served in the Navy Nurse Corps during World War II.

Women of Japanese Descent

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, commanding the internment of 120,000 Japanese American people living in the western United States at 10 relocation camps. Fifty thousand were Japanese American women. Forty percent were Issei, or people born in Japan and denied U.S. citizenship, and the remaining 60 percent were Nisei, or citizens born in the United States. Upon relocation, Japanese Americans were allowed to take only what they could carry and, consequently, they had to sell real and physical properties at a drastic loss. Akiko Mabuchi Toba was 19 when she and her family were relocated. She described the trip to the relocation camp as follows:

[t]he train was one of those rickety old trains, a real antique. It was awful. It hardly moved and it was hot. And then they made us keep the shades down. I don’t know why. Maybe they didn’t want us to see anything. We were told we were going to Topaz, Utah. We heard it was in the middle of the desert. But you don’t really realize how bad it is until you get there. (Yellin 2004, 269)

When they got to the relocation camps, many Japanese Americans encountered 20-by-25-foot rooms in which eight people would sleep, and communal bathrooms shared by 250 people, all surrounded by barbed-wire fences and armed guards. Even though Japanese American women had higher employment rates than white women, both men and women experienced the disconcerting deterioration of traditional gender roles, as men no longer worked to support their families, and women struggled to care for their families with minimal resources. For almost three years, until the end of World War II, Japanese Americans remained imprisoned in these miserable conditions.

After the War—Reconversion

On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered, World War II ended, and the reconversion began. The reconversion consisted of U.S. government propaganda and measures aimed at persuading and coercing women to leave their wage-paying jobs and return to the domestic sphere. On April 18 and 19 of 1945, the Women’s Bureau of the UAW convened a conference, during which women delegates reported their overwhelming desire to continue working in their wartime jobs. One union survey of shipyard employees revealed that 98 percent of women wanted to keep their jobs, and another survey of New York factory employees found that 82 percent of women wanted to keep their jobs. In 1945, Ottilie Juliet Gattuso wrote to President Harry Truman after she was fired, stating, “I happen to be a widow with a mother and son to support … I would like to know why after serving a company in good faith for almost three and a half years, it is now impossible to obtain employment with them. I am a lathe hand and was classified as skilled labor, but simply because I happen to be a woman I am not wanted” (Yellin 2004, 68). Despite their resistance, women were fired from these well paying jobs as factories closed and industries moved from manufacturing war materials to consumer goods. The amount of women working in the Detroit automobile industry decreased from 25 percent to 7.5 percent. Millions of women left their jobs, many turning to unpaid labor in the home. Yet, in 1946, 75 percent of women who worked during the war were employed in some fashion, and 45 percent of those women still had their wartime jobs. However, nearly 9 out of 10 had experienced a wage decrease. The remaining 55 percent of those women had to seek employment in lower-paying, female-dominated industries like hat making and clerical work.

Women took to the picket lines to protest, but usually did so without the backing of unions. However, Mildred Jeffrey and Lillian Hatcher were in charge of the Women’s Bureau of the United Automobile Workers and, under their interracial leadership, the UAW became an influential postwar advocate for women. As members of the Council of Women Delegates at a UAW convention in 1946, Jeffrey and Hatcher raised the pressing issue of the classification of jobs as either male or female, which consistently resulted in lower pay and separate seniority lists for women. Consequently, the Women’s Bureau was allied with the UAW’s Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department, and women in the UAW suddenly possessed a powerful platform from which they could coordinate a labor movement focused on women’s rights.


During the 1930s and 1940s, women’s roles radically changed, even as old expectations about women’s place in society persisted. For example, concerning employment, women both had lost jobs and had worked for wages for the first time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many women gained higher paying wartime jobs in the early 1940s, but then a lot of these women lost the status of those higher-paying industrial jobs during the postwar reconversion. By the end of these two decades, women had experienced a certain degree of equality in politics, the workforce, and the military. Moreover, social and labor movements underwent vital transformations in the 1930s and 1940s that would have a notable impact as those movements continued to evolve in the 1950s. Women were not going to give up their new rights and freedoms without a fight.