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 worked outside the home.
Women on the home front
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 stop working when they had children.
World War II changed the type of work women did. The departing soldiers opened new job opportunities for women. Many women took jobs in defense plants and factories around the country. These jobs were previously thought of as men's work, especially the aircraft industry.
Although women now earned more money than ever before, it was still far less than men received for doing the same jobs.
The challenges of wartime work
Working women, especially mothers, faced major challenges. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to approve the first government childcare facilities. She also urged industry leaders to build model childcare facilities for their workers.
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. Some factories gave female employees lessons in how to apply makeup.
Minority women faced particular difficulties during World War II. African American women struggled to find jobs in the defense industry, and white women were often unwilling to work beside them. Black women escaped jobs as domestic servants to work in factories and to earn better wages, but most were fired after the war.
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. Women in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) flew planes from the factories to military bases.
Many women also worked in a variety of civil service jobs. Some worked as chemists and engineers in military factories. Thousands of women worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
The Navy did not enlist black women 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.
Women after the war
People were worried that after the war returning soldiers would not find jobs, so they encouraged women to return to the home. Women were laid off in large numbers at the end of the war.
Source: American Women and World War II
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