The Home-Front War: World War II and American Society

By Kenneth Paul O'Brien; Lynn Hudson Parsons | Go to book overview

6
Remembering Rosie: Advertising Images of Women in World War II

Maureen Honey

It is now 50 years since women were recruited to fill nontraditional occupations during World War II, and it is with mixed feelings that I reflect on that watershed event. Being the child of parents whose lives were shaped largely by the war, I feel an emotional connection to Americans who went through that conflict, suffered wartime separation, anxiety, and losses, and who believed in the validity of the struggle. It is, indeed, the one American war of the twentieth century for which I can fashion a moral perspective, given the terrifying nightmare of Nazism and genocide. On the other hand, I am a child of the 1960s as well, so I look back on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, postwar McCarthyism, and the feminine mystique of the 1950s with deep misgivings about the outcome of the war and its legacy. The militarism that won the war was a double-edged sword that both defeated fascism and created new problems for America and the postwar world it dominated.

Here I will examine one facet of this complex knot of issues emerging from World War II: the changing roles of women. My work on wartime propaganda grew out of an initial interest in the contradiction between our image of Rosie the Riveter, a strong, capable woman in nontraditional work, and her ultimate replacement by Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and other stars of the 1950s, who embodied a childlike sexuality and comic naiveté that were far removed from the images of competence in wage work so recently highlighted by women's entry into war production. 1 How could we go from strength to weakness, worker to sexpot, muscles to mammary glands in such a short period of time? Did the public experience a mass amnesia that eliminated all memory of its reliance on women as home-front amazons? How were women themselves able to accept being stripped of so much power and authority? Finally, who or what was responsible for the change? Over the past 20 years, I have found partial answers to these questions, yet I must confess that World War II and its aftermath continue to pose unsettling feminist issues, with ongoing implications for today.

Let me begin with some important differences between then and now. We were at war in the 1940s, a long, global war that touched every part of the

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