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

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
The Paradox of Change

WHEN JAPAN SURRENDERED in August 1945, the American people rejoiced in the victorious end to their long struggle.Church bells pealed, families prepared to welcome back loved ones who had been at the front, and national leaders praised the dedication of soldiers and war workers who had made the victory possible. No one knew for sure, however, what would happen to women in a world at peace. The nation had experienced fifteen years of uninterrupted turbulence, moving from a decade of depression through nearly half a decade of war. In that time span, attitudes toward women had fluctuated dramatically. In 1938, over 80 percent of the American people strongly opposed work by married women.Five years later, over 60 percent approved of such employment. In each case, public opinion had been shaped in large part by the exigencies of a crisis situation. Now with the return of peace, the future social and economic roles of women became a focal point for controversy. Anxious soldiers wondered whether the war had permanently changed their wives. Parents waited to see if their daughters would come back home and settle down in a nearby community. And social scientists speculated about the war's impact on marriage, the family, and morals. The postwar years thus became a period of testing, a time of transition, in which women themselves and the society at large sought to determine whether women still had a prescribed sphere, and if so, what its boundaries were.


— I —

The fate of women workers provided one obvious and critical measure of the war's effect on women's overall status. Despite the persistence of discrimi

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