Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about women laborers in the wartime industry is that, before the war, they were all housewives unfamiliar with work outside the home. It is true that approximately 5 million women who entered the labor force between the years 1940 and 1944 were first-time workers, many of them married, white, middle-class women responding to government recruitment campaigns directed at homemakers. Still, in total, some 19 million women worked for wages during the war years. Roughly three-quarters of these women had known wage work before World War II; the war industries provided long sought-after employment for the many women who had been laid off during the years of the Great Depression, and offered career opportunities, higher wages, and new challenges for the millions in low-paying or mundane positions.
The national drive to meet the demands of wartime mobilization also influenced public perceptions of women as workers. Historically, working women had been viewed as obstacles to full male employment, and even as low-class or neglectful mothers, but wartime propaganda helped change popular attitudes. As droves of American men shipped off for the warfront, the tremendous demand for civilian labor required new recruitment campaigns, ones targeted directly at women. The U.S. Office of War Information produced posters and sponsored magazine articles and advertisements that depicted women workers as heroines. "Rosie the Riveter," the popular image of the female war plant laborer, became a cultural icon, the female equivalent of "GI Joe"—powerful, confident, and patriotic. In the lyrics of a popular song released in 1943, "Rosie" worked,
All the day long,
Whether rain or shine,
She's a part of the assembly line.
She's making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter.
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
Sitting up there on the fuselage.
That little frail can do,
More than a male will do.16
In May 1943, the cover of the Saturday Evening Post featured artist Norman Rockwell's painting of a muscular "Rosie" clad in a blue workshirt and denim coveralls with a riveter in her lap and a welder's face mask atop her head. "Women power," Fortune magazine declared that same year, was essential to American victory in the war.17
In attributing to women characteristics historically deemed masculine—strength, ingenuity, and perseverance—wartime propaganda campaigns reflected the full potential of women workers long underestimated. Women from all walks of life proved to be efficient laborers, meeting and exceeding expectations in munitions plants, aircraft factories, and shipbuilding facilities. Loucille Ramsey Long worked in Mather Field, California, repairing military aircraft; she remembers: "the [flight] crew would look real anxious when they saw girls working on their plane." She explains, "Sometimes one of the crew would wait and watch what we were doing," but, as she points out, "all our work was inspected and approved."18
Munitions plants, aircraft factories, and shipyards employed millions of female laborers, but women also filled other critical jobs vacated by men who had been drafted. In the 1940s, women maintained railroad trains and rails, drove city buses and taxicabs, delivered the mail, repaired automobiles, held professional and technical jobs in broadcast radio, reported for the print press, picked crops, served as bank tellers and salespersons, worked as plumbers and roofers, and provided daycare services for other working women. Many jobs once held exclusively by men were open to women during the war emergency.
Despite the steep increase in the number of women in the labor force, national support for working women, and federally mandated support services for mothers such as daycare, health insurance with maternity benefits, and a guaranteed annual wage, World War II didn't thoroughly transform the workplace for women. Once the war ended and millions of men reentered the labor force, women once again found it difficult to find well-paid work, or any work at all. Employer-supported services—such as on-the-job daycare—disappeared, and working mothers once again faced familiar pangs of guilt and stress. Furthermore, discrimination in hiring, wage discrepancies, and unemployment polices that favored male employees remained significant obstacles for women decades after the war's end.
Although wartime propaganda helped deconstruct some conventional notions of femininity, many men and women were unwilling to give up their traditional roles in society and in the family. For those like Mourine Merrow who had not worked outside the home before 1940, the end of war brought "a powerful feeling of relief." They rejoiced in the homecoming of American troops and returned to their work as wives and mothers, proud to have "played a small part to help preserve the freedom we all enjoy today."19 Many simply accepted the end-of-the-war layoffs, understanding that their term of service had been temporary, like that of any soldier. Some concluded that it would be morally wrong for women to seek postwar employment when their true responsibilities remained in the home.
Not all women capitulated. "I think a lot of women said, 'Screw that noise,'" reflected Dellie Hahne, who worked as a nurse's aid for the Red Cross; "'Cause they had a taste of freedom, they had a taste of making their own money, a taste of spending their own money, making their own decisions."20 If ultimately the work place hadn't changed all that much, women had. Like Frieda Calvano, a munitions plant employee, many learned that when it came to skilled labor, little difference existed between men and women. "It taught me," Calvano explained, "that if there's something you think you should do, then do it."21
Even if the changes for women brought on by World War II were not entirely palpable at war's end, the booming postwar economy would set into motion a new set of ideas influenced both by the memories of wartime "freedom" and by the burden of what Betty Friedan called "the feminine mystique."