Women, War, and the Limits of Change

By Hartmann, Susan M. | National Forum, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Women, War, and the Limits of Change


Hartmann, Susan M., National Forum


When World War II called 16 million men out of civilian life, American women acquired new responsibilities and unprecedented opportunities. The need to produce enormous amounts of military and civilian goods for the United States and its allies meant that women were allowed - and even encouraged - to do what had previously been reserved for men. Moreover, the war created a moral atmosphere that heightened public sensitivity to injustice, particularly racial discrimination but also discrimination against women.

Equally powerful forces, however, put the brakes on change. Americans acknowledged the critical need for women's contributions to the war effort, but they also cherished conventional gender roles and worried about how women's new activities outside the home would affect male-female relations and family life. Stable family life took on even greater importance as wartime disruptions contributed to rising rates of juvenile delinquency, divorce, and illegitimacy. Women themselves demonstrated their attachment to traditional roles: their employment rose steeply - from 12 million to 19 million - but so did marriage and birth rates. Thus, the World War II era saw increasing tension between women's traditional roles of wife and mother and their growing roles in the world outside the home.

Official policy and propaganda reflected efforts to resolve the conflicting goals of recruiting women to the war effort and preserving women's primary commitments in the home. Policy statements, propaganda, and advertising accentuated gender differences, and appeals to women to assume new responsibilities carded two conditions: they were to do so only for the duration, and they were to retain their primary identifies and duties as homemakers and mothers.

Policies on Women in the Military

The emphasis on conventional gender roles accompanied women's entry into one of the last bastions of male exclusivity - the military. For example, leaders of women's organizations advocated military service on the grounds of simple justice - that women, like men, should enjoy the right to participate in all the responsibilities of citizenship. In contrast, military leaders pointed to the requirements of modern, global warfare for a vast and functionally diversified military that included typists, switchboard operators, and nurses as well as combat soldiers and bombers. They could use women because, according to one Army official, "we have found difficulty in getting enlisted men to perform tedious duties anywhere nearly as well as women will do it."

Gender differences also took center stage in military propaganda aimed at women. Recruitment materials proclaimed that military women retained their "femininity" and even "developed new poise and charm." Advertisements proclaimed that the Army needed women's "delicate hands" for "precision work at which women are so adept" and women for hospital work because "there is a need in a man for comfort and attention that only a woman can fill."

Once in the military, some servicewomen filled jobs generally considered to be men's work, including motor vehicle maintenance and pilot training. In fact, once the WAVES got underway, every Navy combat pilot received some training from a woman. Nonetheless, the vast majority of 370,000 military women performed jobs similar to those held by women in the civilian economy. In the racially segregated Army, African American women felt even tighter constraints; they were assigned the most menial jobs and confined stateside until 1945.

Women's opportunity for military service survived the end of the war because they had proved worthy and because technology continued to increase the need for support personnel. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a staunch proponent of women's service, indicated how change would be contained when he testified at congressional hearings: "[A]fter an enlistment or two. . . women will ordinarily - and thank God - they will get married. …

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