Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Venessa Andreas and Altus Coleson
Women today are independent and often remain single long after they move away from their parents. When they do marry, they frequently juggle their careers and families with little or no societal criticism. Women today are considered equal in intelligence and ability to men.
However, the pre-World War II American woman did not enjoy this standing in society. Society expected women to put their family first, and one survey of American men and women declared it was wrong for wives to work outside the home if their husbands were employed.
Everything changed on December 7, 1941, the day World War II came to America. Men departed to join the war effort, and women joined the work force. The stress placed on the American family by separation and death helped mark the beginning of the end for the nuclear family and made women stronger and more independent during the 1940s.
World War II drastically changed the nation’s marital statistics. As men volunteered and were drafted for the armed forces, sweethearts rushed off to marry. Some cities reported almost a 300 percent increase in requests for marriage certificates and licenses. However, the men soon left to fight, and the women were left to begin a new kind of life all alone.
The war took its toll on the family. El Pasoan Sofia Regalado remembers the effects the war had on people. “With the men off at war fighting for our country, women had to learn how to survive on the home front. This meant they had to find a means to support their families. Women found themselves overwhelmed with tremendous responsibility.”
The loss of the traditional breadwinner meant real hardships to many families. Households had to be combined, and even the elderly took jobs again, for military pay did not stretch far. Jack Provost, a merchant seaman during the war, says, "I made $27 a month.” The lack of money in a family produced great discomfort and marital strain.
The shortage of men brought women into work force in record numbers. Women picked up idle welding torches, hammers and hoes and filled the jobs left by deployed soldiers. At least 30,000 women were employed in shell loading, small arms ammunition and fuse plants at the end of 1941, according to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Women now had two jobs. They had to juggle their responsibilities between family and work. Grandmothers and other female relatives became important support figures as mothers went to work.
Rhonda Harness, a woman who rarely saw her mother, explains: "My mother was a seamstress and was never home. She was always working to put food on the table and clothes on my back. I never really had the chance to know her. My grandmother took good care of me, and I'd have to say I know more about my grandmother than I do about my mother."
Women's lives became hectic. Society expected women to engage in volunteer work such as rolling bandages for the Red Cross in addition to working at outside jobs and taking care of the family.
Housekeeping itself became more difficult as women dealt with food shortages and sorted out the complicated system of rationing.
In June 1943, the 1st Cavalry division from Fort Bliss was deployed to the Pacific. El Paso historian Leon Metz writes in his book Desert Army: Fort Bliss on the Texas Border that El Paso and Fort Bliss paid dearly during the war. "Thousands of El Pasoans went off to war and 558 did not come back." The loss of a husband made a woman realize that she had to be both mother and father almost instantaneously.
Families suffered not only from the death of servicemen but from the separation of families as well. The lives of many women were destroyed when they received letters from their husbands or sweethearts overseas, telling them they had found another girl or had gotten a girl pregnant.
Divorce was a viable means of dealing with the stress of separation and waiting. Divorces were granted in record numbers during the war years, with rates peaking in 1945 when 485,000 couples divorced, almost double the number who divorced in 1940, according to the U.S. Public Health Service.
Emotional problems encountered by soldiers returning from combat also caused families to break up. El Pasoan Ruben Paramo, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, recalls: "I was shot in the stomach and had to have surgery that left me with a seven and a half inch intestine. At that time I was told I only had three months to live. When I came back from the war, I began drinking everyday, which caused my wife to leave me."
All of these changes transformed America's image of women and transformed women's image of themselves. "Women in the public eye now wore blue jeans and safety boots and carried dinner pails" says Leila Rupp, author of the book Mobilizing Women for War. Because of separation from and death of their husbands and sweethearts and the sudden employment burdens placed on them during the war, women found a new freedom previously unknown to them. They took care of their families and courageously began to work, many for the first time. The big push to get women back into the kitchen and home after World War II and in the 1950s did not work for long. The independent woman was on her way.