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Women Changed Wartime Work Patterns
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Roseanna Aytes
As women turned from housework, school teaching and sales clerking to war work, industry was also reborn. Factories converted from producing lingerie to camouflage netting, lipstick cases to bomb fuses, beer cans to grenades, vacuum cleaners to gas mask parts, and baby carriages to field hospital food carts.
According to Weatherford, millions of women left their old jobs for new ones because of the better pay in defense industries and the glamour of working in a job that was connected to the "real war." During the war, about six million women worked in airplane factories, shipyards and other industrial plants. Women helped design planes, built them on the production line and operated almost every conceivable type of machinery from rivet guns to giant stamp presses. Women also worked in the railroad industry. With tons of additional material and millions of soldiers being transported by train, women were needed to fill the void of laborers. Although the vast majority of women worked as janitors, clerks and tickets agents, over 200 women were out on the tracks doing the real railroad work such as laying tracks and driving the locomotive.
Mrs. Eleanor Watzke, a worker at the El Paso passenger depot, recalls: "At the depot, many troop trains would stop and get supplies of food and water. These trains with military personnel took priority over passenger trains. My job was to charge all trains or cars for the use of the different railroad lines."
Many American women were not content to work for victory in factories on the home front. World War II marked the first time that women were actively recruited for the Armed Forces. During this time, more than 250,000 women enlisted in the Women's Army Corps (WACs) and the Naval organization, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services). It wasn't until 1944 that the Navy permitted WAVES in overseas assignments and then only on shore duty in safe areas.
As World War II continued, women began to face other challenges of their own back home. Women met with discriminatory wages, segregation into sex-defined occupations and little opportunity for advancement. Employers began hiring more women in teaching and clerical positions because it was cheaper to hire them. Although they met less discrimination at the top of the working chain, most females stayed in relatively low-paying jobs.
Other barriers women faced included hostility from male employees and some lingering public disapproval of women working.
Many of the men who did stay behind during the war became resentful toward women workers and felt they were taking men's jobs. For decades, a large segment of society felt women worked only for "pin money," money used only for nonessentials. Many people saw wartime work patterns, including large numbers of working women, as emergency variations which would change once again after the war.
And things did change. Eleanor Watzke says, "During the war it was easy for a woman to get a job, but when the war ended, I had a hard time finding one because military people who returned were eligible to get their old job back." Yet many women retained their jobs or found new ones. Women had begun to establish themselves as permanent fixtures alongside male employees.
The changes in society caused by World War II brought permanent acceptance and growth of women into the labor force. Today, more than 50 percent of all women work outside the home, many still juggling career and family life. And women are an integral part of our armed forces in the 1990s. The first female sailors will be serving aboard combat ships this year, and the first female fighter pilots are ready for active service.
All these changes had their impetus in World War II. Today it's sometimes difficult to determine who brings home the bacon and cook it. Sometimes the same people -- men and women -- do both.