Women's WWII Service

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 deeply shocked Americans. Debate about the country's foreign policy effectively ended. Instead its citizens united in support of war. Debate did not end, however, about the ways the war would be fought. One controversy that spanned the war's duration involved proper roles to be played by women.....some fifty million adult women, often widely separated by divisions of class, ethnicity, religion, and education, comprised the country's wartime female population. Nevertheless, the country's women can be divided into three general categories: soldiers, paid workers, and homemakers.

Women soldiers, the first category, were a rare minority. Fewer than two percent of members of the military were female during this war. Far fewer than one percent of American women, some 350,000 in all by the end of 1945, contributed to the war effort by enlisting in the segregated female branches established within each service.

The Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard each required that women enlistees in the Women's Army Corps (WACS), the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), the Women Marines, or SPARS (Semper Paratus: the Coast Guard motto) be at least twenty years old, though the nation drafted males at eighteen. The military strongly discouraged married women applicants, and more than 90 percent of women soldiers were single. Moreover, each women's branch stressed educational experience. During a war in which only about a quarter of the men in the huge, largely drafted, male armed forces boasted high school diplomas, half of the country's women soldiers were high school graduates. Almost a quarter had been to college. [Don't forget the Fly Girls - WASPs]

So, women in the U.S. military were a motivated group of volunteers, older and much better educated than their male counterparts. Such a reality did not guarantee their acceptance within the armed forces or by the American public at large. Rather the history of WWII women soldiers is one of constant frustration. Even if they had been trained for other tasks, most women enlistees received assignments to do conventional "women's work." WACS and WAVES in fact spent their days as typists and stenographers. Only in late 1943, forced by critical labor shortages, did the services expand the job opportunities open to their women members. By war's end, women in the services worked in dozens of heretofore untraditional jobs, as parachute riggers and air tower controllers, for instance. Most women soldiers, however, continued to do clerical work. Most served stateside. Those few who went abroad were kept, by strict policy, away from combat zones.

Women in British, German, and other combatant armies did see action, often as members of radio or radar crews. In America, however, neither the Congress, military brass, nor the general public seemed willing to accept such an open threat to traditional gender roles. Hostility, rather than enthusiasm, characterized public response to women in uniform. Throughout the war, unfounded rumors circulated widely that female soldiers were sexually promiscuous women whose primary spur for enlistment was a chance to satiate their appetites with other women's men.

While completing their tours of duty, women recruits often faced work assignments beneath their abilities and endured unfair, vulgar jokes. After the war, they endured a final insult. The Veterans of Foreign Wars created a new constitution with by-laws that banned women from membership. The only group of military women who received respect and exercised influence were the 70,000 military nurses. These women were members of the Army and Navy medical corps, held officer status, and commanded male corpsmen, in direct contrast to their counterparts in the women's branches, who never commanded men. Military nurses were RNs, not practical nurses. Widely admired, these women spurred the emergence of nursing as a true profession.1

The public praise for military nurses was unstinting. Of course, nursing was traditional women's work. In truth the typical WAC, WAVE, or SPAR was also engaged in traditional women's work. She was typing a male superior's reports. In fact, as a relatively powerless subordinate, she was behaving in a far more typically "feminine" fashion than were Army and Navy nurses, who served throughout overseas theaters, faced considerable danger, and utilized a critical wartime nursing shortage as a lever to negotiate increases in their own independence and authority. Nevertheless, public perception never really jibed with reality.

The reality of women's employment in war work also emerged in blurred focus. Like nurses, women war workers received praise. Female workers who only a few years earlier during the depths of the Great Depression had been told to stop stealing jobs from deserving men, now won adulation as heroines. The female labor force expanded dramatically. Between 1940 and 1945 the number of employed women jumped from twelve million to over eighteen million. By the end of the war, over one in every three workers was female. More than in any previous decade, women workers were increasingly married and middle-aged, challenging long-time images of women's work as restricted to the young and single.

Media attention focused on the women who worked in the nation's vastly expanded war industries. Few newspapers or magazines neglected to include a story of a waitress or a housewife transformed by wartime patriotism into a dynamo: an eager hand at riveting gun emplacements or aircraft parts, cleaning blast furnaces, or operating heavy machinery in a shipyard. Indeed, war industries did attract some 700,000 women from other occupations. Waitresses tripled or quadrupled their salaries when they became welders or riveters. Female contribution to war industries was crucial. In heavy manufacturing industries, where as late as 1942 only 200,000 women held jobs, almost three million female war workers released men for military service and dramatically boosted production of such wartime essentials as ships, steel, tanks, and aircraft. Manufacturing work was overwhelmingly segregated by sex, with jobs divided by gender into "heavy" and "light" categories, often with little connection to actual work required. Even though women shipbuilders took home on average $37 a week, a far better wage than the $14 a week typically earned by waitresses, they received less pay for equivalent work than did their male counterparts. In the Brooklyn Navy Yard, for instance, women, called "helper trainees," and men, known as "mechanic learners," did the same work, but the women earned lower wages. Women war workers faced job segregation, unequal pay, hostility from male unionists, and a general attitude that they were eager to return to their homes, even though Women's Bureau surveys reproduced here repeatedly indicated the untruth of such claims. Wartime newsreels reassured the American public that women workers in untraditional jobs still saw themselves in clearly domestic terms. An announcer for the film Glamour Girls of 1943, for example, proclaimed:

Instead of cutting the lines of a dress, this woman cuts the pattern of aircraft parts. They are taking to welding as if the rod were a needle and the metal a length of cloth to be sewn. After a short apprenticeship, this woman can operate a drill press just as easily as a juice extractor in her own kitchen.2

Given the inherent fascination of such "glamorous" war work, it is not surprising that contemporaries neglected to mention that the average employed woman during the war never got near a welding torch or drill press. Less understandable is the fact that most scholars also still emphasize the wartime contributions of Rosie the Riveter. Nevertheless, by war's end, still only one in six employed women held work in the war sector. In fact, women's greatest occupational gains came in clerical and sales jobs, not in heavy industry. Rosie did not keep her job as a welder, but many women who entered previously all-male levels of the white collar sector did. For example, the banking industry emerged from WWII dramatically changed. Before 1942, it had been all-white and uniformly all-male above the job category of secretary. The shortage of male workers forced banks to begin to hire women as cashiers, tellers, even loan officers. Female bank tellers certainly did not share the glamour that clung to the jobs their sisters held in war manufacturing, but they did share an inequitable wage scale. Pay for cashiers, tellers, and low-level loan officers dropped so significantly during the war that after 1946 returning men no longer could be induced to hold these positions. They had become "women's work."

Anyone who spent even the occasional night at the movies between 1942 and 1945 was treated to newsreels of heroic nurses and patriotic female riveters. Nobody went to movies about women loan officers. But the "average" American woman was neither nurse, nor riveter, nor even banker. She was a housewife. She received public attention as a gold star mother, or a noble young wife bravely seeing her husband off to war. Indeed, some eight million American women did have a child, overwhelmingly a son, in the service. But far fewer wives had husbands at war. Only 8 percent of all American married women had husbands in the military between 1942 and 1945. Obviously for those who were young, especially for wives in their twenties, that percentage rose dramatically. But despite the impression given by print and movies, the "typical" American wife during WWII neither worked outside the home nor suffered the absence of her husband. The average American family remained intact during the war, experiencing steep increases in family prosperity.

Wives no longer faced the Depression specter of their husband's unemployment. In fact, most families were even able to save. However, the American housewife did not face idyllic conditions. Government regulations prohibited or drastically reduced production of a wide variety of household staples. Refrigerators, irons, toasters, coffee percolators, and dozens of other items were often not to be found, at any price. Production of wool for civilian use also completely halted. Blankets, rugs, and many types of clothing ceased to be available. Housewives stood in long lines for rationed meat and sugar. Housing shortages led to high rents for even poorly built trailers and tiny apartments. In comparison to the privations eventually suffered by civilian women throughout Europe and Asia, American women were lucky. Nonetheless, their wartime lives brought many frustrations....

Judith Sealander
Department of History
Wright State University