A Woman’s War: The Female Experience in World War II

womanww2There is an old adage that behind every successful man is a good woman. If throngs of successful men are responsible for the most significant events throughout history, it stands to reason that women played an integral role in the assorted victories that shaped the United States of America. This is particularly evident when exploring the totality of World War II, a conflict that echoed The Great War of 1914. With such an expansive war in the country’s lap, the idea of outwitting and overpowering the enemy was becoming more of a necessity than an advantage. This meant that America would have to tap additional resources and find high-powered secret weapons capable of helping its men along the lines of battle. These weapons, as it turned out, were women. Previously relegated to secretarial jobs and housework, wartime suddenly forced women into positions previously held by men. This reversal of daily life created a new woman whose contributions had a profound impact on the outcome of the war and future generations.

Though the last embers of the First World War inspired a loose promise that such a catastrophic event would never transpire again, the end of the 1930s saw the rumblings of another skirmish. By the time the United States officially declared war on Japan after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Second World War had already been raging throughout Europe for two years. However, the material losses in the wake of Pearl Harbor placed the United States in a dangerous position. If there was any hope for victory, it would have to come on the wings of weaponry; in other words, the country with the most fire power would rise above all others. Building more tanks and amassing more artillery than the enemy seemed like an easy solution, but the men usually available for such work were fighting overseas, and their absence posed a menacing question. Who would build everything? Weatherford noted, “Ten million men had gone to war, and virtually all of those who remained at home were already employed; clearly the additional planes and tanks and ships that were needed would have to be built by women.”

The armed forces were being inflated by manpower, a term characteristically applied to mankind as a whole, but which now took on a more literal meaning. The majority of the fighting was done by men, so while the country’s manpower crossed oceans to defend its nation, the womanpower took over industry. This new, strong woman was depicted as an iron-willed, muscular worker who stood up to the challenge without an ounce of fear. “Rosie the Riveter” was a name applied to all women who dropped their aprons and picked up their overalls. The United States government, in calling out for women to work like men for the war effort, was slowly creating a new breed. Women were no longer a flock of dependent housewives; in fact, they had clearly defied all feminine stereotypes. Womanly involvement in the war would have a two-fold purpose. They would not only fill the positions left vacant in the absence of the men, but maintain the home front with the intention of raising a family once their men came home. Over the course of the war, more than six million women joined the labor force. Colman points out that those women worked “in the shipyards, lumber mills, steel mills, foundries. They are welders, electricians, mechanics, and even boilermakers.” Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of Rosie the Riveter in the May 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post showed her holding a rivet gun while eating a sandwich with a devil-may-care expression, all the while perching her feet on a copy of Adolph Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf. This was, however, only the first artistic incarnation of Rosie. The more widely recognized embodiment of the “soldier without a gun”, as she was known, came a few months later on a government-commissioned poster. This time, Rosie was softened without detracting from her strength. Yellin writes, “Rosie stares straight ahead with a pleasant but determined look, making one hand into a fist and using the other hand’s polished fingernails to pull back the sleeve of her light, denim work shirt to show off a gently flexed arm muscle. Quoting her, the words above the image read, ‘We Can Do It!’.”

If Rosie provided a much-needed reinvention of the female image in America, it was only partially effective while the United States was knee-deep in combat. For the most part, filling the jobs of men was thought advantageous for unmarried women with something to work toward. Despite the large amount of women who responded to the call of duty, it seemed as though there were never enough. The draft had begun to call men left and right, some who were initially exempt, to build a useful offensive against the Axis powers. After two years at war, the United States was grinding its workforce into the ground, desperately trying to meet the demands of battle. An article in the September 1943 issue of Newsweek weighed those needs against a solution, stating “in the next two months alone, at least 3,200,000 new workers are vitally needed for industry – principally munitions work. And most of these will have to be women.” Nearly all of the country’s unmarried women were already hard at work in the factories, leaving only married women, some with children, to call upon. Instead of forcing companies to hire only women, and after briefly considering the British idea of drafting women into the workforce (as suggested by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), the United States decided to use public relations as a way to persuade its softer sex. The War Manpower Commission and the Office of War Information, both formed a year earlier, were now working together to create a “sales pitch” for the American female. But even if such a campaign could succeed, there was one additional hurdle standing between the United States government and an agreeable woman: a not-so-agreeable husband. Many husbands who had not been shipped overseas staunchly rejected the idea of their wives enlisting in the stateside war effort. The opposition was partially attributed to the male perception of order; in other words, the woman’s place was in the home. The War Manpower Commission planned to overcome this resistance by continually reminding participants about the financial rewards of service. This, combined with an explosion of patriotic imagery in print advertisements and the creation of energetic radio spots, glamorized the idea of working for war.

Patriotism and a common goal united America’s women. While the new woman toiled in factories across the country, the other new woman worked in the medical field, a contemporary Florence Nightingale among the weak and wounded. However, there were some who still felt the shadows of old-world prejudice in their daily lives, despite the sacrifices they were making for the common good. This included African-American women who experienced racism, Jewish women who felt isolation (especially with the knowledge of Hitler’s atrocities), and lesbians who faced condemnation for their life choices. The Army Nurse Corps., which employed many African-American nurses, appeared to be full of bigotry, placing their black nurses on a lower rung of the ladder. These discriminatory practices, which included assigning menial jobs to black Army nurses, spawned outrage. A letter written in October 1944 by an unnamed African-American nurse to Mabel K. Staupers, Executive Secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), detailed some of the inequality, stating “…For five months we have had to do all our scrubbing and cleaning of quarters, while the white male officers have someone to do theirs. Apparently we are not considered officers by those in command, for we are never included in the command affairs and meetings called for all officers of the post to attend.”

Ladies in the medical field, both stateside and abroad, worked tirelessly at the bedsides of many soldiers. Back in the factories, production continued at breakneck speed to accommodate the immeasurable need for supplies. Aircraft was particularly vital to the war effort, and had been since the beginning of the war when President Roosevelt asked for “60,000 war planes.” The majority of women who had accepted the challenge were so unfamiliar with airplanes that they could not identify the different components; most had never seen the interior of a plane before. Douglas Aircraft, one of the largest aircraft plants in the United States, occupied 1.4 million square feet and “employed nearly 22,000 women during the war to help build many of the bombers and transport planes used in Europe and the Pacific.” Though Roosevelt’s brazen request for so many planes was thought impractical, 1944 found the United States producing “120,000 planes annually and many of these aircraft were built in plants where more than half of the employees were female.”

Rosie the Riveter may have represented every female war worker in America, but for the average woman, the depiction was more romantic than realistic. Days were not spent flexing muscles and applying makeup, but rather, pushing the limits of human endurance. When housewives and mothers stood in the assembly line, often they were juggling two and three full-time jobs. Long before the invention of such conveniences as automatic dish washers and clothes dryers, housework was a task requiring great physical stamina. Factory work, as it happened, usually demanded a six-day work week, and each day was nine hours as opposed to the standard eight-hour day. Many of the plants were located far off in rural settings; and with a lack of nearby housing, traveling to work became as tedious as the work itself. Because part-time work was rare, the typical woman’s work week spanned more than 60 hours between the actual work and the necessary commuting. This, of course, would be in addition to any wifely, motherly, or household duties that waited thereafter. Ruth Millard, a war worker and housewife who experienced this struggle first hand, explained her fatigue, stating “Of course we don’t take it without giving way, now and then. I understand that nervous breakdowns among women in factories have doubled. Of course they have…It’s just eat, sleep, and no other life left. Sunday is no good when you sleep through half of it from sheer exhaustion.” Rosie was, in effect, the female war worker as portrayed by the United States government, but whose infinite energy was foolishly optimistic. Real women had physical, mental, and emotional limits.

For all the support thrown behind America’s heroines, in print and broadcast, much of it seemed to be rooted in superficiality. Granted, the government spoke highly of its ladies and painted them in shades of fearlessness; but when it came time to protect them, there was a serious pothole on the road to victory. The breakdowns that many women were experiencing were not simply because their individual thresholds for struggle had been surpassed; rather, they had been dealing with massive amounts of work in hazardous environments. The factories were like colossal warehouses that churned out guns, bullets, planes, and other supplies vital to both offense and defense. Any atmosphere with so much running machinery was sure to pose a million and one threats. Some of these threats included dangerous chemicals and overheated rivets. Shirley Hackett, a factory worker who handled steel ball bearings, explained how the rough edges of the bearings tore into her heavy gloves, stating “By the time your foreman would bring over new gloves, your hands would be bleeding all over the place. That was one thing you had to watch constantly – that you didn’t cut your hands so badly you couldn’t work.” In many cases, threats also included sexual harassment from male co-workers. Women at work were not exempt from the same advances and catcalls that were prevalent everywhere else. Initially, the government tried to remedy the situation through sexual segregation, placing men and women in jobs where they would work apart from each other. But droves of women had been attracted by the financial rewards, many even surprisingly earning the same amount as men, and segregation gave some employers a convenient excuse to “categorize the sexes and pay them at different rates.” This clearly would not work as a solution and women were right back in the line of male fire. One unnamed woman, a welder, refused the advances of her boss and was subsequently sent out to work in the rain. Of the incident, she recalled “You were hooked up to electricity when you were welding, and because your stuff would get wet, it would shock you. And I finally got so tired of it that I finally told the foreman, and he just acted like it was all my fault.”

By the time the war was coming to an end in 1945, the new woman had served her country well. She had built weapons for hours on end, nursed soldiers back to health, and simultaneously kept her home in order. In addition, the ladies of America had even saved the country’s national pastime, professional baseball, from extinction. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in 1943 to compensate for the amount of male players who had been drafted. At first, the girls’ league was criticized and ignored by the baseball-watching public, most of which consisted of old men with feelings of male superiority. It mirrored the degradation felt by the women in the factories. However, all resistance was eventually conquered, and the ladies of the league bathed in a grateful nation’s adoration. Dottie Wiltse Collins, a pitcher with the Fort Wayne Daisies, later summed up the entire experience. “We were young. We were having a good time, and we had money in our pockets…This was the greatest thing that ever happened to us.”

In today’s society, though equality among men and women is sometimes debated, women have successfully taken on roles and positions previously thought inappropriate for them. One needs look no further than our public officials, politicians, and everyday working mothers to understand the enormous impact that the women of World War II have had on their lives. It is in the shadows of her tireless spirit that a new woman resides, a woman who takes every shred of opposition and turns it into an opportunity to break down walls.

Colman, Penny. Rosie the Riveter: Working on the Home Front in World War II. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995.
Litoff, Judy Barrett, and David C. Smith. We’re in This War, Too: World War II Letters from American Women in Uniform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Weatherford, Doris. American Women and World War II. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Yellin, Emily. Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front during World War II. New York: Free Press, 2004.
“More Women Must Go to Work as 3,200,000 New Jobs Beckon.” Newsweek, September 6, 1943, 74.