Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States

By Alice Kessler-Harris | Go to book overview

10
Making History Working for Victory

Depression and war have opposite effects on the economy. One prompts efficiency, constraint, cautious investment; the other encourages industrial expansion -- even a spirit of reckless gambling. If the 1930s depression sloughed off workers, making every fourth one redundant, the war gobbled them up, then searched for more. Where workers had to plead for jobs in the thirties, in the early forties industry begged for workers. And when the army had soaked up the residue of unemployed men, employers turned to women. Unprecedented opportunity now confronted women who months earlier had pleaded for work. Was this to be a breakthrough? -- a turning point that would signal the end of discrimination against women in the labor market?

It certainly looked like it. In many ways, this war duplicated the experience of World War I. Women found jobs in areas previously closed to them and, once there, proved to be effective workers. The statistical data reveal a dramatic influx of women -- five million between 1940 and 1944 -- into the labor force and new openings in the heavy industries that had been tightly defended against them. Historians like William Chafe, Chester Gregory, and Sheila Tobias and Lisa Anderson have concluded, as a result, that World War II was, in Chafe's words, "a milestone for women in America," From that perspective, the war serves to explain and justify the new. expectations of the fifties. Tobias and Anderson see demobilization as the central issue, raised by the war years. 1 The war, they argue, opened doors, changed attitudes, made women aware of possibilities they had not previously considered.

To some extent this is undoubtedly true. As in World War I, women

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