Women, Employment of

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The involvement of the United States in major wars between 1898 and 1945 presented new and challenging employment opportunities, both civilian and military, for women. Expanding war economies and the departure of large numbers of men from civilian jobs to military duty created labor shortages that led to the employment of women in untraditional jobs usually denied to them during peacetime. At war's end, women were encouraged to return to traditional work patterns and ways of life. However, the long-term consequences of women's war work have been substantial.

spanish-american war

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a relatively short war, lasting only three months. Yet this brief war propelled the United States into the position of a great world power. Despite its global significance, the impact of this war on the American home front was negligible. Casualty rates were low, rationing was unnecessary, shortages did not exist, and there was simply not enough time to convert to a large wartime economy.

With the exception of nurses, the Spanish-American War had little impact on America's working women, who made up about 18 percent of the labor force. However, over 1500 nurses were contracted by the government to help care for the 200,000 troops who volunteered to fight in the war. Working for the U.S. Army, these nurses were stationed in the United States, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and on three ships as well. Nurses assigned to stateside duty mostly cared for soldiers suffering from typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. At the conclusion of the war, the number of nurses under contract to the government was quickly reduced. Nonetheless, recognition of the important work of these nurses paved the way for the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908 as permanent organizations within the Army and Navy.

world war i: civilian women

The entry of the United States into World War I in April 1917 had a much more profound impact on the lives of working women. During the fall of 1917, as increasing numbers of young men were drafted for military service, the U.S. Employment Service launched a campaign to recruit women to work in war industries. Government posters, carrying messages such as "Will you have a part in Victory?" implored women to join the war effort. Yet the government emphasized that these job opportunities would last only "for the duration." At the end of the war, women would be expected to return to their former activities.

Approximately 400,000 women, out of a female labor force of 8 million, joined the work force for the first time. More significantly, millions of working women switched to better, higher-paying jobs in steel mills, railway yards, oil refineries, chemical plants, automobile factories, and many other war-related industries. In addition, some 15,000 women joined the Women's Land Army of America to replace farmers who had been drafted. To protect their new status as war workers, women joined labor unions and worked with middle-class "allies" in the National Women's Trade Union League. However, many men resented the presence of women on the shop floor and supported union women only in gender-segregated circumstances.

For African-American women, the situation was far more troubling. Doubly exploited because of their gender and race, they found far fewer job opportunities available to them than their white counterparts. African-American women became part of the "great migration" of southern blacks that left the rural South for cities of the North during the early decades of the twentieth century in search of better employment opportunities. Unfortunately, many black women were disappointed to discover that the only positions available to them in the North were the same type of domestic jobs that they had left behind. In fact, the percentage of black women domestics in the North increased by 7 percent between 1910 and 1920.

Only 1.2 percent of African-American women were employed in manufacturing during World War I. Most of these women were concentrated in the tobacco and food processing industries. Black women also worked in the garment trades, government arsenals, and the railroad industry. Segregated from white workers, the wartime employment opportunities available to African-American women did not equal that of white women. However, when compared with the drudgery and demands of domestic work, the minority of black women who secured relatively good-paying jobs in factories experienced marked improvements in their lives.

world war i: military women

World War I also opened up new opportunities for women to serve in the military. Following the U.S. entry into the war, the recently established Army and Navy Nurse Corps immediately began recruitment campaigns. At peak strength, the Army Nurse Corps totaled approximately 21,000 members, about half of whom served stateside. Some 1500 nurses served in the Navy Nurse Corps. Of this number, approximately 200 served in the United States. Throughout the war, the status of military nurses remained unclear. Neither commissioned nor enlisted, they had no rank or status. In June 1920, the Army granted nurses relative rank, meaning the women had the pay of officers but not full command authority of officers. Not until July 1942 did Navy nurses gain relative rank. In 1944, both Army and Navy nurses were finally granted full officer status.

Under the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916, the Navy recruited over 11,000 women to serve as Yeomen (F). Receiving the same pay and allowances as their male counterparts, Yeomen (F) served in all naval districts and at training stations and navy yards across the nation where they performed crucial clerical skills. In addition, they worked as telephone operators, fingerprint experts, cable decoders, translators, medical technologists, and in munitions factories and torpedo plants. A few of these women served overseas. Joining the Yeomen (F) were 305 women Marines who performed valuable clerical services in Washington, D.C. area offices and at recruiting stations around the country. Opportunities for African-American women in the Navy were severely limited; only 14 of the 11,000 enlisted women have been identified as black. Following their discharge at the end of the war, Navy and Marine women achieved veteran status that entitled them to certain benefits. However, Yeomen (F) received a crushing blow when, with the exception of nurses, the Naval Reserve Act of 1925 specifically limited membership in the Naval Reserve to men. An additional 233 women served as bilingual communications specialists for the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France. Affectionately known as the "Hello Girls," these women finally received military status retroactively in the late 1970s.

Whether employed in military or civilian jobs, women were expected to return to their prior activities at the end of the war. Nonetheless, women took advantage of the wartime emergency to seek out jobs that had previously been closed to them. In the process, their self-worth as workers and as women was significantly enhanced. In partial recognition of women's war efforts, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the woman's suffrage amendment, was ratified in 1920.

world war ii: civilian women

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, women made up 25 percent of the work force. As increasing numbers of men were drafted or volunteered for the military, it became clear that women were needed as war workers. Using World War I as a model, the government launched a vigorous campaign to recruit women into the industrial and agricultural labor force. Posters depicting strong, muscular women as workers appeared across the nation. The largest gain occurred in the defense industries where 3 million women were employed as welders, riveters, and in other "men's jobs." Despite continued discrimination and prejudice, the participation of African-American women in factory work more than doubled, and the number of black women employed as domestics dropped by 15 percent. Heeding the call of the government that "raising food is a real war job," millions of women joined the Women's Land Army or found farm work on their own. By the end of the war, women made up 36 percent of the civilian work force.

world war ii: military women

Another 350,000 women found work as members of one of the women's branches of the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, or Marines or in the Army or Navy Nurse Corps. While most of these women were assigned to stateside posts, members of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were assigned overseas, sometimes close to the front lines of battle. Another thousand women served in the United States with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a quasi-military organization loosely affiliated with the Army Air Forces. Women also served overseas with the American Red Cross where they drove clubmobiles to isolated posts, organized Red Cross clubs for American troops, and worked as recreational staff for military hospitals. While opportunities for African-American women to serve in the military increased substantially compared to the World War I years, most military units were segregated and black women were often assigned to menial jobs such as cooking and cleaning.

At the end of the war, female civilian war workers, especially those employed in defense industries, were laid off from their jobs at about double the rate of men. African-American women, who had been the last to be hired, were the first to be fired. Women in the military were also speedily discharged. Yet women war workers, whether civilian or military, developed a new sense of themselves and their capabilities, and they emerged from World War II as much stronger individuals because of their wartime experiences.


World War I and World War II, and to a far lesser extent the Spanish American War, provided expanded job opportunities for working women that had both an immediate and long-range impact on the role and status of women in society. Building on the experiences of their foremothers, each generation of women was better equipped to confront the challenges of war. While the immediate economic gains experienced by women war workers were only "for the duration," many women emerged from the war with a new sense of empowerment that had significant and long-term consequences for them and for the nation.

Historians continue to debate the larger meaning of the World War II experience for working women. Some have emphasized how expanding wartime job opportunities represented a watershed for women. Others have argued that these changes were temporary and only "for the duration." A third group of historians has asserted that the long-term effects of the war were quite profound. They note that recognition of the important role played by military women during World War II led to the passage of the 1948 Women's Armed Services Integration Act, a law that gave women permanent military status. They also maintain that the war provided the foundation for the rejuvenation of the woman's movement of the 1960s and 1970s as the daughters of the wartime generation drew upon the experiences of their mothers to demand better treatment of women in the work force and in society at large.


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Ebbert, Jean; and Hall, Marie-Beth. The First, the Few, the Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002.

Gluck, Sherna. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

Greenwald, Maurine Weiner. Women, War, and Work: The Impact of World War I on Women Workers in the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Hartman, Susan. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Litoff, Judy Barrett, and Smith, David C. We're In This War Too: World War II Letters from American Women in Uniform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Piemonte, Robert V., and Gurney, Cindy, eds. Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps. Washington, DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1987.

Schneider, Dorothy, and Schneider, Carl J. Into the Breach: American Women Overseas in World War I. New York: Viking, 1991.

Judy Barrett Litoff

See also:African Americans, World War I; African Americans, World War II; Feminism; Labor, World War I; Labor, World War II; Regional Migration, World War I and World War II; Rosie the Riveter; Women, World War I; Women, World War II.

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