Prior to World War II, women were mostly homemakers. Those that worked outside the home usually worked as secretaries, receptionists or department store clerks.
Once America entered World War II, however, men went off to war by the millions and women stepped into the civilian and military jobs they left behind. Women were proud to serve their country—but how did their service during the war inspire their fight for social change and equality?
WATCH: Women's History Documentaries on HISTORY Vault
Rosie the Riveter was more influential than glamour girls.
As America’s war machine went into action, the government initiated a massive publicity campaign to persuade women to replace men on assembly lines in factories and defense plants. They produced posters and film reels of glamorous women in the workplace to entice women to serve their country as part of the home-front labor force.
Yet the not-so-glamorous image of Rosie the Riveter depicting a confident-looking woman wearing coveralls and a red bandana and flexing her muscles under the headline, “We Can Do It!” remains one of the best-known icons of World War II.
Meant to inspire patriotism, the image of Rosie the Riveter was a new and different way of portraying women, and many historians cite her as an inspiration for female liberation.
Women in civilian jobs learned valuable skills.
According to Kevin Hymel, historian at the U.S. Air Force Medical Service History Office,“With their men away, women became more self-sufficient. Many brought tools home from work and used them on their own home repairs. They took on domestic roles they never had before.”
World War II mobilization affected women by introducing them to new lines of work not typically suited for women at the time. It’s estimated that up to six million women joined the civilian workforce during World War II in both white and blue-collar jobs, such as:
- streetcar operators
- taxi drivers
- construction workers
- lumber workers
- munitions workers
- agriculture workers
- government workers
- office workers
Women served in dangerous roles in the U.S. military.
Around 350,000 women served in the military during World War II. “Women in uniform took on mostly clerical duties as well as nursing jobs,” said Hymel.
“The motto was to free a man up to fight. Some women became translators in Naval Intelligence, enabling them to read classified enemy communiques. One woman said when she was inducted to Naval Intelligence, an admiral spoke to the assembled women and told them, ‘If you talk about anything you do here, we can legally kill you.’”
Women also served as truck drivers, radio operators, engineers, photographers and non-combat pilots. And the all-black, all-women 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was sent first to Birmingham, England, and then to Rouen, France, to process huge backlogs of undelivered mail.
According to Hymel, “The women in the most danger were nurses, who often came under artillery and aircraft fire near the front lines. They lived in the elements, sometimes in mud, heat and freezing temperatures, yet performed their duties alongside their male counterparts.”
Working women endured harassment, miserable working conditions and low pay.
Working women on the home front faced unique challenges, too. Those with children struggled with child care and caring for a household on their own. Many had to learn to manage their finances for the first time and cope with a tight budget further strained by war rationing and the call to buy war bonds.
At first, women weren’t always welcomed into the workplace. They received less pay and some men looked down on them and felt they weren’t up to handling a “man’s job.” They often faced sexual harassment, long hours and dangerous working conditions.
But as women performed their jobs admirably and the demand for workers increased, men’s attitudes toward them gradually became more positive.
Women’s roles continued to expand in the postwar era.
The call for working women was meant to be temporary and women were expected to leave their jobs after the war ended. Some women were okay with this—but they left their posts with new skills and more confidence. Women who remained in the workplace were usually demoted.
But after their selfless efforts during World War II, men could no longer claim superiority over women. Women had enjoyed and even thrived on a taste of financial and personal freedom—and many wanted more.
Though progress was slow over the next two decades, serving their country in the military and at home empowered women to fight for the right to work in nontraditional jobs for equal pay and for equal rights in the workplace and beyond.