Women During The War Decade

Published 06 Mar 2017

Researchers have put in tremendous amount of effort to study the extent of the change the World War II brought to women; however, in doing so, they have only capitalized their focus on general information. However, the information from other sources, like official governmental reports and documents, labor union records, public surveys, and contemporary media etc has some very reliable information and statistics for the subject. Though specifically the researchers have made their independent conclusion, nevertheless, what is common in these analyses is that women faced the changes only temporarily.

Women headed between 17% and 18% of all families in the United States–almost one in five–during the war. Some mothers worked to supplement low family incomes, still others to boost the family’s standard of living. Patriotism was an equally big incentive for majority of American women as that for American men. Nonetheless, the era witnessed eventual shift in women’ status. This included ongoing entrance into the labor market, involvement in various political movements, and gaining some noticeable positions in high levels of government.

Chafe approach women’ movement and mobilization from a very unique provoking viewpoint. He particularly focused on subjects that vary from French Revolution to World War II. He shares a unifying concept: each asks what more did the women expected by the necessity of war and revolution; what were the clear promises made by the leaders who looked for their cooperation, or by the concept they were asked to hold; and, lastly, what were the understood promises of the changes at work during these national crises? Chafe then learned, classified, and explained these prospects and assessed the limits to which they were fulfilled.

Chafe documents both the opportunities opened by the labor shortage–access to better jobs, higher wages, and unionized industries–and the continuing inequality between the sexes: failure to implement equal pay for equal work, inadequate child care and other community services, and the exclusion of women leaders from manpower policy decisions. He argues that despite limited progress toward equality, the war permanently expanded the accepted role of married women to include work outside the home. Whether this change was a result of the war or of long-term economic trends, and whether it represented a step toward equality, is debatable questions.

The appearance of Chafe’ The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 in 1972 was a pioneering event in the new field of women’ history. Not content to rest on the acclaim that work received, Chafe revised it so substantially that he brought it out under a different title, in part because he had concluded that the experience of women is so diverse that one must write about ‘women,’ not ‘woman.’ In such chapters as ‘From Feminists to Flappers,’ he explores the experience of women from the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 through the struggles over the ERA to the unresolved situation today, “with the best of times continuing to coexist with the worst of times.”

The Great Depression and World War II brought new forces that changed the situation of American women without disturbing the society’s underlying assumptions about masculine superiority. The New Deal addressed some concerns about the conditions of women in the workplace during the 1930’s, but not as part of any feminist agenda. Similarly, World War II produced opportunities for women to enter the labor force, but only while men were away fighting. Banner’s exploration of the effects of the Depression and world conflict in this book contributed to an enhanced awareness among historians of the importance of the period between 1920 and 1945. The Paradox of Change thus proved to be a stimulus to other historians to explore more fully this previously neglected phase of women’s history in the United States. Beyond the developments noted above, the rising divorce rate made it necessary for increasing numbers of women to seek employment in order to support themselves and their children. Others may have chosen to enter, or remain in, the labor force in order to be prepared in case the need should arise.

The rise of modern feminism began during the period after the end of World War II, and this significant change in the attitudes of women in the United States forms the natural climax of Chafe’s narrative. The process of militancy began slowly in the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s because traditional values toward men had reasserted themselves after the end of the war. In the postwar decade, American society emphasized home life and domesticity; feminist issues accordingly receded for a time.

The women’s movement that emerged in the mid-1960s significantly shaped the socioeconomic, political, and psychological terrain of the United States. Although such social movements span a number of years and create climates with widespread effects, some individuals are more affected by cultural change than others. There had been a steady movement among woman workers from the turn of the century forward, although it had been primarily, among young women, and single women, and poor women. It was generally expected that once you were married and once you achieved a family, it was in fact verboten, not something which was really permissible for a married woman worker to be out of the home.

One of the paradoxes of women at work in almost any decade is the contradictions that exist, between attitudes on the one hand and behavior on the other. During the Depression, there was a tremendous campaign against women working. They were basically attacked as being pin money workers, only getting jobs in order to afford frivolities, and there was a terribly intensive campaign against married women working. For example, in about majority of all school districts, if a woman teacher became married, she was fired. She could not hold her job.

During World War II, what was really significant was the question of who worked. In 1940, most women workers in the labor force were young, and they were single, and they were poor. And so there’s a very different kind of composition, and that’ why more than 60 percent of women who go to work during the war are over thirty; 75 percent of them are married women. And basically you have a change, which is ultimately very transformative in terms of the expectations that women have.

Through this work, Chafe has communicated all the delicacies of women paradoxical position in the United States, today. He has shown how women have steadily penetrated more fully into economic and political life, but without attaining complete social equality or economic justice. Regardless of the gains feminist activists achieved during the 1970s and 1980s, the tensions continued to abound between public and private roles, and the gap separating ideals of equal opportunity from the reality of economic discrimination widened. Women may have gained some new rights in the last two decades, but the feminization of poverty has also soared, with women constituting 70% of the adult poor. Moreover, a resurgence of conservatism, symbolized by the triumph of Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-ERA coalition, has cast in doubt even some of the new rights of women, such as reproductive freedom. Chafe captures these complexities and contradictions with a lively combination of representative anecdotes and archival research, all backed up by statistical studies. As in The American Woman , Chafe once again examines “woman’s place” throughout the 20th century, but now with a more nuanced and inclusive approach.


Chafe, William H. (1992) “The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century.” Oxford University Press: New York

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