Women’s Role in World War II

During World War II, many married women in America joined the fork force and worked full time. Critics admit that World War II drew millions of women into the workforce; their numbers increased by 6 million, or nearly 60 percent. In 1940, women had constituted 25 percent of the labor force, but by 1945, they made up 36 percent. Women worked in different industries and had different employment schemes, different compensation, and benefits (Lichtenstein 33). Additional workforce supported the economic growth of countries and proposed new opportunities for industrial development. The main problem is different motivations and perceptions of working women expressed by historians.

A large layer of literature published after the war (the end of 940s-1950s) underline that financial gain was the main motivational factor for women. Frederick C. Lane, a male academician, suggests that in the airframe industry, they comprised 40 percent of the labor force; the United Auto Workers contained 250,000 female members and the United Electrical Workers, 300,000. Although discriminatory practices and other factors led to a decline in the female labor force participation rate immediately after the war, the trend was not completely reversed, and by 1960, women’s labor force participation rate had inched back up to 36 percent. The war also brought about significant changes in work settings. The exigencies of wartime mass production and the way wartime contracts were awarded stimulated big business at the expense of small. The 56 largest corporations received three-quarters of all federal war contracts, with the ten biggest receiving almost one-third. The number of firms employing fewer than 100 workers fell from 26 percent to 19 percent between 1939 and 1944, while the number of corporations with 10,000 or more workers increased from 13 percent to 30 percent (Lichtenstein 34). Similar ideas are shared by Aldrich, who states: “It is indeed true that women made major inroads into some kinds of factory work that had previously been the preserve of male workers.” (416-417).

Women joined the labor force because they received an opportunity to earn for living and become independent. With their massive labor demands, industries offered new work opportunities for both local residents and in-migrant workers. The influx of new, largely unskilled workers led to a major reorganization and deskilling of the work process and too bitter conflicts between old and new workers within shipyard unions. The study of such labor conflicts provides a window into the larger newcomer-old timer schism that soon pervaded all aspects of urban life (Aldrich 418). Women confronted the lack of available housing and restrictive ordinances based on race by organizing neighborhood improvement associations and by campaigning for equitable housing laws. These associations provided not only a political voice for African-American members but also a social network providing opportunities for meeting other black residents and sharing information (Lichtenstein 34). “This rise in women’s relative hourly pay suggests that the erosion of their weekly and annual earnings” (Aldrich 418).

Another layer of literature states that increased participation of women in the labor force was caused by new social changes and social consciousness (Lewis 34; Lichtenstein 44). The period of war proceeded development of new gender roles in society and equal rights wonderment. The increase in plant size, the massive migration of workers from the countryside to the city, and the interventionist role of numerous federal government agencies during the war accelerated the homogenization of the women working class. At the same time, its recomposition led to some tensions between white male workers and women, minority, and white male migrants of rural and small-town origins in the workforce. Offsetting these frictions were a number of factors. They included the waning of ethnic identities among many of the second generation of southern and eastern European background, who as early as 1930 numbered 25 million, making up one-third of the population. Reflecting the assimilation of those newcomers, the rate of naturalization increased dramatically during the war years (Lewis 76). “Many scholars find that large-scale federal manufacturing investments in World War II military production facilities and supply contracts established the platform for postwar expansion and, perhaps more significantly, created a qualitatively different economy than existed before the war” (Lewis 63).

Around the world, women and unskilled white males, many of them new to the Bay Area, were assigned to unskilled tasks with only limited opportunity for upward mobility. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders, and Helpers of America, which represented almost 70 percent of shipyard workers and which grew from 28,000 in 1938 to 352,000 by the end of 1943, did not welcome the newcomers (Lewis 77). Women very rarely held union offices, and black workers continued to be assigned to auxiliary locals. Although African-American workers challenged this exclusionary policy, they and other new shipyard workers turned to benevolent employers such as Kaiser and to the federal government for social initiation and services. As a result, newcomers were often more loyal to their employer than to their union.

Having grown to maturity in southern, two-parent, working-class families rooted in caring communities, these women sought to recreate in the East Bay the cultural traditions and institutions on which their lives had been built. Accordingly, they took on enormous responsibilities: they were not only homemakers and working women but also community builders, simultaneously struggling against discrimination (Barrett and Smith 349) These women, believing in the “ethic of care” that was so central to their lives, joined, built, and strengthened their churches and auxiliary services, sustained each other, offered assistance to children and the poor, and developed informal social services. Often employed in defense industries, they, nevertheless, found time also to work in the NAACP or other organizations, never viewing themselves solely as workers but as committed participants in their communities (Lewis 79).

In contrast to these viewpoints, feminist writers underline the great patriotism of women who went to work (Albrier 13; Stewart 26; Frank et al 87). Feminist historians underline improvement in the image of women and their role in society. The equality of women with men was also underlined in literature by the image of women trails as a group rather than as citizens. Not only were women considered equally to men, but women’s positions were depicted equally as significant as men’s work. The typical main image of working women popularized in the press was that of the self-sacrificing patriot, women’s war work produced strong images that competed with these traditional ones. Feminist writers state that women images stipulated certain women’s work identity. “Coping with the tragedies of war further contributed to women’s growing sense of self. The news that loved ones were prisoners-of-war, missing-in-action, or killed during battle required women to draw” (Barrett and Smith 349).

In contrast to modern feminists, other historians (Meyer 125; Lewis 65) underline that married women had a higher rate of absenteeism than men or single women. Because of rationing and other wartime conditions, home responsibilities became more time consuming than usual, and such pressures adversely affected women’s job performance. African-American women, compelled by economic necessity to enter the work force, were, like their male counterparts, relegated to low-paying, menial labor. For instance, many of Richmond’s produce and fish canneries relied on the labor of African-American, Filipino, Mexican, Portuguese, and Italian women. However, the overwhelming majority of Richmond’s prewar black female labor force were employed as domestic or “day workers,” earning $2 to $5 a week in the homes and kitchens of affluent whites living in Richmond, Berkeley, San Francisco, or the surrounding East Bay suburbs (Barrett and Smith 63).

These women labored under a triple yoke of oppression, confined by racism to the lowest rungs of the employment ladder, stigmatized by their presumed lower-class status because of their residency, and further constrained because of gender bias. The majority of black workers were compelled to settle into a cycle of low-paying domestic work or seasonal factory and cannery employment. Yet, a few women waged their own personal battles against racial, gender, and class limitations by employing the experience and money that they had gained as club operators. They were able to upgrade their work and educational skills in this way. Responding to discrimination on the job, the CIO conducted successful organizing drives in war industries and opened training programs for female and minority workers for the first time. This was bitterly resisted at times by both workers and employers (Lewis 98).

The migration and community-building efforts of African-American women who moved from the South to the San Francisco Bay Area during World War II. Drawing upon the life stories of four migrant women — stories that are interwoven with 46 additional oral interviews that were conducted with former migrants historians describe who these women were, how they experienced the migration, and how they used their southern cultural traditions to keep their families together and establish new communities in the East Bay Area (Barrett and Smith 63). Filling the least desirable, lowest paying jobs in the labor force, migrant women created alternate sources of status and identity as homemakers, church women, and community workers. Defining their labor on behalf of family and community as “real” work, migrant women resisted efforts to categorize them as menial or marginal laborers.

At the same time, however, much of their community work directly challenged employment discrimination, complementing their workplace resistance and suggesting that their labor force participation was, in fact, an important source of identity and self-esteem (Lewis 23). With such job classifications schemes, advancement from one grade to another was quite rapid, normally under 60 days. In order to facilitate this system, industries introduced a variety of new organizational techniques and practices. The proliferation of new job classifications was codified in a system in which each worker bore a trade symbol (Frederick 299).The list of insignias filled up several pages of the employee handbook, a printed booklet for new workers explaining basic shipyard procedures and regulations. The new system had other important implications for workers and their occupational mobility within the yards. The replacement of riveting with welding and the proliferation of jobs in welding facilitated quick placement of new workers (Frederick 298).

On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, the booming war industries quickly absorbed all available white labor. However, many employers who cried for more workers excluded workers of color. The number of nonwhite workers in some defense industries actually shrunk from 1940 to 1941. Nevertheless, the rapidly growing war economy was hungry for labor, and many blacks from the South migrated west to find work (Lichtenstein 72). The ILWU and other CIO unions mounted intense campaigns against employment discrimination in war industries. Responding to discrimination on the job, the CIO conducted successful organizing drives in war industries and opened training programs for female and minority workers for the first time. This was bitterly resisted at times by both workers and employers. As war production peaked, the employment of minority and women workers in 1943 increased, on the average, by two and a half times over 1942. The proportion of women working in California war industries doubled from January 1941 to comprise 26.6 percent of the work force in July 1943 in all manufacturing. The CIO, during the war years, had demanded training for women in war industries, better pay and conditions for clerical workers, pregnancy leaves as well as child care, protective legislation for working women, and equal pay for comparable work (Lichtenstein 87).

In sum, historians single out different factors and issues which motivated women to participate in the labor force, thus all of them agree that it had a positive impact on the economy and industrial growth. Feminist writers underline the struggle for equality and patriotism while male historians suggest that new social changes and an increasing number of jobs influenced their decision to work.

Works Cited

Albrier, F.M. Determined Advocate for Racial Equality. Berkeley: University of California, Regional Oral History Office, 1977-78.

Aldrich, M., The Gender Gap in Earnings During World War II: New Evidence.. Industrial & Labor Relations Review, 42 (1989); 415-435.

Barrett, J., Smith, D.C. U.S. Women on the Home Front in World War II. The Historian, 57 (1994); 349-355.

Frank, M., Ziebarth, M. Field, C. he Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter: The Story of Three Million Working Women During World War II. Emeryville, Calif. Clarity Educational Productions, 1982.

Frederick C. Lane, Ships for Victory: A History of Shipbuilding under the U.S. Maritime Commission in World War II. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951.

Lewis, B. World War II Manufacturing and the Postwar Southern Economy. Journal of Southern History, 73 (2007): 63.

Lewis, B.R. Women at War: The Women in World War II, at Home, at Work, on the Front Line. Readers Digest, 2002.

Lichtenstein, N. Labor’s War at Home: The Cio in World War II (Labor in Crisis). Temple University Press, 2003.

Meyer, S. Rough Manhood: The Aggressive and Confrontational Shop Culture of U.S. Auto Workers during World War II. Journal of Social History, 36 (2002): 125-135.

Stewart, J.N. Wacky Times: An Analysis of the WAC in World War II and Its Effects on Women. International Social Science Review (2000): 26.

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