Should Your Wife Take a War Job?
Should Your Wife Take a War Job?
By: Sherna Berger Gluck
Source: Gluck, Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
About the Author: Sherna B. Gluck teaches women's studies at California State University. She is also the coordinator of the oral history program at the school. In addition to writing Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, The War and Social Change, Gluck also wrote From Parlor to Prison : Five American Suffragists Talk about Their Lives. New York: Octagon Books, 1976.
Before America's entry into World War II in 1941, the Great Depression had created massive unemployment. As a result, more women joined the workforce during the 1930s but not in the most lucrative fields—manufacturing and professional jobs—which were reserved for men. Women took teaching positions, civil service and secretarial jobs, lower-scale factory work, and domestic positions. Cultural divisions were a factor as well. White middle-class women were expected to stay home; many of the twelve million women who occupied a quarter of the prewar workforce were minorities.
As Europe became embroiled in the war, American companies secured defense contracts for war equipment with the Allies. Auto factories were converted to build airplanes, shipyards were expanded, and new factories built. When the United States entered the war, the workforce shrank as men left to join the service. To fill the gap, the government launched a campaign to fill job vacancies with women. The ideal female worker was portrayed as loyal, efficient, patriotic, and pretty.
In 1942, the song "Rosie the Riveter" enjoyed enormous popularity, and Norman Rockwell created her famous "portrait" for the May 29, 1943 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. Companies began to recruit women when they graduated from high school. Demand for labor was so great, however, that even married women with children began to work, despite concern that this would contribute to social decline and juvenile delinquency. Of the six million war workers, most were married; 60 percent were over 35, and one-third had children under fourteen. Only three million war workers actually worked in defense factories; most filled traditional service sector jobs.
Half of the women who took war jobs were minority and lower-class women already in the workforce; many of them moved from lower-paying traditional jobs to higher paying worker jobs, although women were still paid only sixty percent of what men earned. The only true mixing of sexes in the workforce occurred in the blue-collar sector.
I started defense work in '42. I think a lot of it was because one of my neighbors found out about it, and she wanted me to go with her. I thought, "Well, now, this would take care of the situation." I still was getting along on next to nothing; it was still difficult. And my husband was talking about whether he should quit the school board or not. In those days, they didn't belong to any union, and they were paid a very small amount. As prices were going up it wasn't enough to cover our expenses. So I said, "No, I'll go see what I can do."
My husband didn't like it. He was one of these men that never wanted his wife to work. He was German and was brought up with the idea that the man made the living; the woman didn't do that. But he found that it was a pretty good idea at the time. It was a necessity, because he would have had to do something else. We couldn't live on what he was making, so that's the way it goes.
And my brother, especially my youngest brother, he thought it was terrible. My father, oh, he was very upset. He said, "You can't work amongst people like that." They were people just like me, but they thought it was people that were rough and not the same type I'm used to being with. They just couldn't see me going over and working in a factory and doing that type of work. And they were trying to protect me, I'm sure….
But I wasn't trained for just any type of work. See, most of the women I knew, they went into stores and into that type of work. It was easier to do. They wouldn't go into the war plants. My oldest sister worked at Lockheed and she was a drill press operator, but the sister right next to me, she was a waitress. When she looked at my wages and what she collected, she said, "No, no part of that." She was making more money by the time she figured her tips.
So, my family thought I was a little off for doing it. But if that's what I wanted to do, that's what I did. And my husband got used to the fact that his wife worked.
I went over and took tests to see about getting a job at Vultee. When I took the test, as far as using the hands and the eye and hand movements, I passed just about the highest. See, anything using my hands—I could take a little hand drill and go up and down these holes as fast as you could move, just go like that, where most people would break a drill. It was a very simple thing. The riveting is the same way. It's just a matter of rhythm. So it was easy to do.
They had a school set up in Downey to show us how to do assembly work and riveting and the reasons for things—what was a good rivet and what wasn't. We went there about two weeks before we started to work. It was mostly women on these jobs. See, so many young men were in the service that it didn't leave very many of them to do these types of jobs; the ones that were kept out of the service could do the more specialized work. They had to have men to make these jigs and to make the forms for the ribs. That was beyond us.
I was started on this job. The P-38 that Lockheed put out was a twin engine, and we worked on the center part between the two hulls. It was a much heavier rivet that went into this. It was what they call cold riveting; you took them out of the icebox real cold and riveted it….
But, of course, it was hard. I worked six days all the time and sometimes seven days—which was terrible. If I didn't have a family that supported me so much, I couldn't have managed it. I had a daughter that was very capable. She did all the shopping. See, by the time I got home from work, the shops were closed. She took the ration books and she figured that all out….
My husband helped me a lot with the housework; he was always good about helping. He was very strong and could do his work and then help me with some of mine, too. So whoever had time to do that did it. Typically, what I'd do, I'd get up before 6:00 and get things going. I was ready to leave at 7:00 and I was picked up. Then we got off at 4:00 p.m. and came home. I had dinner to fix and what could be done around the place. So it was a full day. If it hadn't been for my family, though, it would have been much harder for me.
Then things began to slow down. We knew the war was about over. For that matter, I think the bomb had been dropped already and we were just kind of waiting. You could see the difference; it wasn't that push and the trying to do more all the time.
I was laid off in September of '45. I just got a slip of paper saying that I wouldn't be needed again….
The idea was for the women to go back home. The women understood that. And the men had been promised their jobs when they came back. I was ready to go home. I was tired. I had looked forward to it because there were too many things that I wanted to do with my daughter. I knew that it would be coming and I didn't feel any letdown. The experience was interesting, but I couldn't have kept it up forever. It was too hard….
The women got out and worked because they wanted to work. And they worked knowing full well that this was for a short time. We hoped the war would be over in a very short time and that we could go back home and do what we wanted to do. So that was what I felt.
By the end of World War II in 1945, 18 million women occupied one-third of the U.S. workforce. Women were given economic incentives to work, and the government promoted the working woman as a patriotic, albeit a temporary solution to the job shortage. Having women work outside the home was accepted as a temporary solution but viewed as an undesirable permanent change because it was feared this would lead to a breakdown of family and social values. In addition, many feared that women would take returning soldier's jobs.
At the close of the war, most women were laid off and forced to return to their prewar occupations. Prewar domestic ideals were fostered with films like Since You Went Away and Mrs. Miniver, which showed faithful women tending the home front while their husbands were fighting. Cautionary tales such as Double Indemnity and Gilda implied that the war had given women too much freedom. Although much of society reverted to earlier ideals of women in the home and the men in the workforce, society had been altered by the entrance of women workers into the war effort.
Scholarly Technology Group: What Did You Do in the War, Grandma? "Women and World War II." 〈http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/WWII_Women/WomenIn-WWII.html〉 (accessed March 18, 2006).
National Park Service—Rosie the Riveter: Women Working during World War II. "The Image and Reality of Women Who Worked During World War II." 〈http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/rosie.htm〉 (accessed March 18, 2006).