World War II and U.S. Working Women Roles

Women in the Workforce During World War II

It's a common misconception that American women first left their houses in great numbers to work during World War II. In 1940, about a quarter of women had jobs outside the house. But before World War II, women could only work for pay in positions traditionally held by women. Traditional occupations for women included sewing and typing, and many of them quit the workforce after having children, if not right away getting married.

The Impact of World War II on Women's Labor

The nature and quantity of the labor that women performed were altered by World War II. Five million women entered the labor force from 1940 to 1945. The gap created in the labor force by the departing men meant ample opportunities for women. Additionally, World War II led many women to get employment in factories and defense plants. These jobs offered unprecedented opportunities for women to move into occupations that were previously set apart for men. For instance, the aircraft industry was a place destined for male employees, but in 1943 most of the workers were women.

Working Women During World War II

However, a majority of the women who joined the labor force during World War II did not work in the defense industry. Most of them took over the office or factory jobs that were previously held by men. The wages and salaries of women increased to more than what they had ever earned. However, it was still below the amount paid to men for the same jobs. Nonetheless, several women achieved a level of financial self-reliance which was enticing.

Challenges Faced by Working Women

In contrast, the new role taken up by women in the workforce did not come without challenges. Working women, especially those with children, faced adverse challenges. To attempt to address the dual role taken by women as mothers and workers, Eleanor Roosevelt intervened. She urged her husband, Franklin Roosevelt Delano, to endorse the first childcare facilities by the USA government under the 1942 Community Facilities Act. As a result, seven centers that services 105,000 children were constructed. However, the first lady's effort was not enough to meet the complete childcare needs of working mothers.

The Rosie the Riveter Campaign

There was also cultural resistance facing women going to work in those environments that were male-dominated. The government came up with a propaganda campaign on Rosie the Riveter to be successful in recruiting women to fill the factory jobs. Rosie was feminine but tough. The propaganda was designed to reassure men that the war was not going to convert women to be more masculine. As a matter of fact, some factories gave their female workers lessons on how to apply make-up.

African American and Mexican American Women in the Workforce

African American and Mexican American women faced more difficulties in attempting to join the workforce during World War II. These women had to struggle to get jobs in the defense industry, but once they got hired, the white women were not willing to work beside them. Work opportunities in the factory made it possible for black women to escape their jobs as domestic servants for a while and earn better wages. However, immediately the war ended, most of them were fired and forced to take up their old jobs as cooks and maids. Further, western states Japanese American Women had little access to new opportunities in the labor force. The women lacked new jobs because the Japanese internment policy had resettled them in locations that were remote.

American Women in the Military

However, besides working in factories and the defense industry, around 350,000 American Women entered the military. The military women worked as truck drivers, nurses, repaired airplanes, and took up clerical jobs to free the male soldiers. The women who joined the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) were expected to fly the planes from the factories to the military bases. Other women worked as engineers and chemists developing war weapons. There were thousands of women recruited to take part in the Manhattan Project, which involved building the atomic bomb.

Challenges Faced by African American Women in the Military

In contrast, African American women faced challenges looking for jobs in the military. Despite their desire to be of service during the war, the Navy refused to allow them into its ranks. It was only in 1944 that the Navy became reluctant and allowed them to join. However, the African American women were not allowed to serve anywhere else but in the black units. Further, the black nurses were only allowed to attend to the black soldiers.

The Post-War Era

All through the war, social commentators had been worried that men would not have jobs to go back to after the war. Therefore, they admonished women to go back to their rightful place at home immediately the war ended. Contrary to the social commentators' desire, 75% of women reported that they wanted to continue working even after the war. However, once the war was over, a majority of them were laid off, but this was not the end of women in the workforce. Despite the 1950s housewife stereotypes, women bounced back into the workforce. In 1950, 32% of women were back into the workforce, and of this percentage, half of them were married. World War II had made it clear that women had joined the workforce and they were in it to stay.


Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern America: A Brief History. Cengage Learning, 2004.

Escobedo, Elizabeth. Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Khan Academy. "American Women and World War 11." Khan Academy. 2017. (accessed May 19, 2017).

Law, A. "Women do lot to keep 'em flying." Los Angeles Times. November 28, 1943. (accessed May 19, 2017).

Los Angeles Times. "Riveter Rosie asks man's pay, woman's right." Los Angeles Times. December 10, 1944. (accessed May 19, 2017)

-. "Rosie the Riveter keeps her glamor in shape." Los Angeles Times. October 1, 1944. (accessed May 19, 2017).

McEuen, Melissa A. "Women, Gender, and World War II." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, 2016: 1-27.

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