The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview
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belied any notion of the war as a source of progress toward feminist goals. Nevertheless, the war had provided a critical lever that significantly facilitated the institutionalization of long-term trends and offered a decisive impetus toward legitimizing employment for married women of the middle class.

Carl Degler has observed that social change is more likely to occur as a practical response to specific events than as the implementation of a well‐ developed ideology.The events of the 1940s testify to the validity of that hypothesis. Some women may have been "ready" to assume a new economic role, but the outbreak of fighting gave them the opportunity and acted as a crucial catalyst.Moreover, having entered the job market, most women decided to remain. Their activity outside the home expanded rather than contracted with the passage of time, and by 1950, the wife who worked had become a permanent feature of American life.It could be argued that the growth of the female labor force simply increased the ranks of the victimized. But a shift of such dimensions inevitably affected the whole structure of roles played by men and women, with the potential of creating long-term changes that would challenge the very values that justified sex inequality.

Despite the persistence of traditional ideas on woman's place, therefore, the decade of the 1940s—paradoxically—marked a turning point in the history of American women.Economic equality clearly remained a distant goal. But the content of women's lives had changed, and an important new area of potential activity had opened up to them, with side effects that could not yet be measured. At the turn of the century, the young, the single, and the poor had dominated the female labor force. Fifty years later, the majority of women workers were married and middle-aged, and a substantial minority came from the middle class. In the story of the dramatic change, World War II represented a pivotal moment.For that reason, if for no other, the war and its aftermath constituted a milestone for women in America.

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