Background: During the Great Depression, women had been discouraged from working outside the home in order to lower competition with men for limited jobs and also because many considered the home the proper place for women. By 1940, 30 percent of all women were employed, with only 15 percent of married women employed. After the United States entered the war in 1941, however, the federal government encouraged women of all ages to join the workforce as a patriotic duty. As American men were mobilized for military service during World War II, many women found jobs previously unavailable to them in aircraft plants, shipyards, and factories producing war materials. They gained independence and earned higher salaries than traditional “women’s work,” although lack of childcare and promotion as well as unequal pay and discrimination against women of color hampered the progress made. The number of employed women grew from 14 million in 1940 to 19 million in 1945, rising from 26 to 36 percent of the work force. As the tide of the war turned in 1944, the United States started making plans for the postwar period and the return of millions of veterans.
To learn more about the Home Front mobilization and the impact of women, visit the museum's latest exhibit The Arsenal of Democracy.
How do you think the average American responded to this February 1944 poll about women war workers after the war?
When factories are deciding which workers to keep on for peacetime jobs, what should be done about women war workers?
______ Fire them
______ Fire them unless they have dependents or are war widows, or unless there are plenty of jobs
______ Keep them
______ No opinion
Office of War Information Posters
Source: Gallup Poll, February 1944, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
What Happened: As can be seen in this 1944 poll, almost 85 percent of people surveyed thought that women should be fired from their wartime jobs after the war. By 1946, two million women had left the workforce and another million had been laid off. While many were displaced by returning veterans, most women, during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear annihilation, turned to the family as a safe space. They got married and had children, resulting in the “baby boom,” an unprecedented increase in birthrate. In addition, working women faced mounting societal pressure to leave work, especially from psychiatrists, psychologists, and popular writers who critiqued women for wanting to pursue a career.
The wartime trend of working women continued, however, as 2.75 million women took "pink collar" jobs, clerical jobs that were not as well paid and not as challenging as what they had done during the war, but still gave them a much-wanted independence. By 1952, at a time when the television show I Love Lucy depicted Lucy’s bungled attempts to work outside home, the number of working women exceeded the largest female workforce during the war.