Some 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II, both at home and abroad. They included the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, who on March 10, 2010, were awarded the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal. Meanwhile, widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the industrial labor force and defense industry. Women were critical to the war effort: Between 1940 and 1945, the age of “Rosie the Riveter,” the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. World War II opened the door for women to work in more types of jobs than ever before, but with the return of male soldiers at war’s end, women, especially married women, were once again pressured to return to a life at home, a prospect that, for thousands of American women, had shifted thanks to their wartime service.
Women in the Armed Forces in World War II
In addition to factory work and other home front jobs, approximately 350,000 women joined the Armed Services, serving at home and abroad. At the urging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and women’s groups, and impressed by the British use of women in service, General George Marshall supported the idea of introducing a women’s service branch into the Army. In May 1942, Congress instituted the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, later upgraded to the Women’s Army Corps, which had full military status. Its members, known as WACs, worked in more than 200 non-combatant jobs stateside and in every theater of the war. By 1945, there were more than 100,000 WACs and 6,000 female officers. In the Navy, members of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) held the same status as naval reservists and provided support stateside. The Coast Guard and Marine Corps soon followed suit, though in smaller numbers.
One of the lesser-known roles women played in the war effort was provided by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. These women, each of whom had already obtained their pilot’s license prior to service, became the first women to fly American military aircraft. They ferried planes from factories to bases, transporting cargo and participating in simulation strafing and target missions, accumulating more than 60 million miles in flight distances and freeing thousands of male U.S. pilots for active duty in World War II. More than 1,000 WASPs served, and 38 of them lost their lives during the war. Considered civil service employees and without official military status, these fallen WASPs were granted no military honors or benefits, and it wasn’t until 1977 that the WASPs received full military status. On March 10, 2010, at a ceremony in the Capitol, the WASPS received the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian honors. More than 200 former pilots attended the event, many wearing their World War II-era uniforms.
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“Rosie the Riveter”
Though women had been joining the work force in greater numbers since the hardships of The Great Depression, the entry of the United States into World War II completely transformed the types of jobs open to women. Before the war, most working women were in traditionally female fields like nursing and teaching. Post-Pearl Harbor, women worked in a variety of positions previously closed to them, though the aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers. More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, representing 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as represented by the U.S. government’s “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda campaign. Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker, but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women during World War II.
In movies, newspapers, posters, photographs, articles and even a Norman Rockwell-painted Saturday Evening Post cover, the Rosie the Riveter campaign stressed the patriotic need for women to enter the work force—and they did, in huge numbers. Though women were crucial to the war effort, their pay continued to lag far behind their male counterparts: Female workers rarely earned more than 50 percent of male wages.
Working Conditions For Women in World War II
With many fathers off fighting, mothers were faced with the burden of balancing childcare and work, and absenteeism became the symptom that caused factory owners—and the United States government—to finally acknowledge the issue. The Lanham Act or 1940 gave war-related government grants for childcare services in communities where defense production was a major industry. In 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt stepped in, encouraging her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to pass the Community Facilities Act, which led to the creation of the first U.S. government-sponsored childcare center. Roosevelt also urged for reforms like staggered working hours at factories to allow working mothers to go to grocery stores—stores that were often either closed or out of stock by the time women clocked out of work.
Not all women were treated equally in the workplace. African American women found that white women were not always welcoming at work—if they were even granted the same job opportunities in the first place—and were paid less than their white peers. Japanese American women fared even worse, as they were sent off to Japanese Internment Camps under Executive Order 9066.
Though women, as a whole, had access to more jobs than ever before, they were paid far less than men (roughly half, in most cases), and most found themselves pressured to relinquish jobs to the male soldiers returning home at war’s end. But something had permanently shifted: World War II empowered women to seek new opportunities and fight for equal pay in the decades to come.