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

By Kenneth Paul O'Brien; Lynn Hudson Parsons | Go to book overview
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women who may have wished to defy expectations and seek a man's job, particularly one that required some additional skill or training, saw no practical reason for doing so. "Women have not bid for men's jobs as they would just have to do harder work for less money than the men get and for the same as they get on the women's jobs," explained one woman. As another put it, "Women feel proud of being able to do men's work, [but] after working awhile, they don't like it because of the unequal pay." In other words, the absence of protest ought not be interpreted necessarily as either agreement or even acquiescence on the part of women in their own subordination. 20

The attitudes of working women in this period and the impact of World War II on them defy simple explanation. It is still a task of research to define the views on gender equality held by working-class women--those women who would have worked even had there been no war or who, because of the conditions of working-class life, were accustomed to a lifetime of employment. The extent of the evidence of women's acceptance of, and commitment to, wage work and their recognition, even if unspoken, of the problems of gender inequality and hierarchy in the workplace indicate that the middle third of this century was a critical period in the history of women and work. Marked by change as well as continuity, the decades were more volatile on the question of gender equality in the labor market and the workplace than we once thought. 21 By examining the history of working-class women, we alter our understanding of the years between the achievement of women's suffrage and the birth of the National Organization for Women, the period often referred to as "the doldrums" or "the nadir" for American women. Despite the large body of scholarship on women's experience during World War II, there still are important things to be said about women and work on the home front.

Mary Elizabeth Pidgeon, Changes in Women's Employment During the War, Special Bulletin No. 20, Women's Bureau ( Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1944), 9, 12, 15.
The secondary literature on women and World War II is vast. For assessments of the impact of the war on women in the labor market and the workplace see William Chafe , The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 ( London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 135-95; William Chafe, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 121-72; Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Sherna Gluck, ed., Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change ( Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987); Susan Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940's ( Boston: Twayne, 1992), 53-99; Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations and the Status of Women during World War II (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981); Leila Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945 ( Princeton: Princeton University Press,


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