Women Defense Workers in World War II: Views on Gender Equality in Indiana
Nancy Felice Gabin
The significance of World War II for American women remains a central question in analyses of the female experience in this century. Scholars have evaluated the short- and long-term impact of the war, debating the extent of change and continuity in social, political, and economic terms. There is much grist for the mill. Nearly half of the 11 million women employed in the United States in 1940 worked in low-paid, low-status clerical, sales, and service jobs. The 20 percent who worked in manufacturing were concentrated in a few low- paid industries such as textiles and garments. World War II substantially improved the economic prospects of women as the demand for labor to meet the nation's wartime needs exceeded the available supply of male labor and opened occupations formerly closed to them. Of the 18 million women employed in 1944, 36 percent held clerical, sales, and service jobs, while the proportion employed in manufacturing had increased in relative terms to 34 percent. The entrance of over 3 million women into manufacturing represented a striking 140 percent increase over the figure for 1940, but the 460 percent increase in the number of women employed in male-dominated basic industries that converted to war production was even more dramatic. The war also offered many women upward occupational mobility. Although 49 percent of the women employed in defense industries in March 1944 had not worked before the war, 27 percent of those so employed, attracted by higher wages, better working conditions, and the opportunity to learn new skills, had shifted from other occupations. 1
Many of the changes associated with World War II were only temporary, but their impact on the attitudes and behavior of women and men, unionists and employers, and policymakers and politicians has been hotly contested. The extent to which women for the first time took male-defined jobs in basic industries and challenged assumptions about the "naturalness" of the gender division of labor has been a principal concern in the debate over the impact of the war. The scholarship on this issue generally divides between those who view the influx of women into the nation's factories as a historical "watershed" because it validated their labor force participation--especially that of married, middle-class women--and those who regard the circumstances of the war as
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Publication information: Book title: The Home-Front War:World War II and American Society. Contributors: Kenneth Paul O'Brien - Editor, Lynn Hudson Parsons - Editor. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 1995. Page number: 107.
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