Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900-1995

By Julia Kirk Blackwelder | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
Women Answer the War Call THE 1940S

T he Second World War called women to new tasks and challenges at home and in the labor force as they replaced military husbands and brothers in the civilian economy and accepted supportive roles in the armed forces; for many it proved the most profound experience of their lives. In historical perspective, World War II emerges as a conflict over empires--building, preserving, conquering, or destroying them--and a war about genocide. For most Americans, however--especially those who did not actually fight in it--the war served as a clumsy, traumatic, but crushingly effective economic mechanism that ended the misery and uncertainty of the Great Depression. By July of 1945, the size of the overwhelmingly male armed forces had reached 12.3 million persons, individuals who otherwise might have staffed the nation's offices, factories, and farms. World War II mobilized more women, especially married women, than had ever previously worked for wages and kept them at defense-related jobs for a longer period of time than had World War I.

The United States met wartime demands by tapping new labor markets and achieving higher productivity through managerial and technological innovations. Both the reach for a broader labor pool and the structural changes in production rewarded women's talents and efforts. Experienced female production workers in industry and agriculture had their choice of jobs, and the white-collar labor force grew more rapidly than it had during the Depression. Women's wages reached unprecedented levels, although the gender gap in pay persisted. Some of women's wartime employment advances proved temporary, but the war so profoundly altered labor demands and women's expectations that women entered the workforce in even greater numbers after the war.

In the early 1940s the female labor force grew by 6.5 million women, a gain of

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