6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During World War II, depletion of the male labor force opened nontraditional employment opportunities and new social roles to American women.

Summary of Event

With the advent of U.S. participation in World War II, employment opportunities for women increased dramatically, in both scope and number. As early as the summer of 1940, the U.S. government began to strengthen military and defense capabilities in preparation for war. Industry responded to this increased demand for war materials and, practically overnight, the rampant unemployment Unemployment, U.S. of the Depression years turned into a labor shortage. The entry of the United States into the war, prompted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, further increased the need for workers. Unemployment, which stood at 17.2 percent in 1939, plummeted to 4.7 percent in 1942, the first full year of U.S. mobilization. By 1944, at the war’s peak, it was at a twentieth century low of 1.2 percent. Labor;women Women;workforce participation World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];U.S. industrial production [kw]6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force (1941-1945)[Six Point Six Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force] [kw]Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force, 6.6 Million (1941-1945) [kw]U.S. Labor Force, 6.6 Million Women Enter the (1941-1945) [kw]Labor Force, 6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. (1941-1945) Labor;women Women;workforce participation World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];U.S. industrial production [g]North America;1941-1945: 6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force[00080] [g]United States;1941-1945: 6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force[00080] [c]World War II;1941-1945: 6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force[00080] [c]Women’s issues;1941-1945: 6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force[00080] [c]Business and labor;1941-1945: 6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force[00080]

By 1942, both government officials and industry leaders realized that, in order to maintain productivity, they must turn to the labor supply at hand women. In 1940, 11,970,000 women worked outside the home. As a result of war-related employment, their numbers had increased to 18,610,000 by 1945. These women worked in aircraft production, munitions, shipbuilding, and other arenas traditionally dominated by men.

The rise in female employment in the 1940’s provided a stark contrast to the previous decade a decade dominated by economic depression Great Depression . Historically, women had been tolerated in the workforce as long as they continued to fulfill their primary duties as wives, mothers, and homemakers. In the 1930’s, because of widespread unemployment and economic hardship, that tolerance existed only if a woman worker did not displace a man. Depression-era policies in both the private and public sectors encouraged employers to lay off women before men. Section 213 of the 1933 Economy Act Economy Act (1933) , for example, mandated that federal agencies reducing personnel must first release employees married to other federal workers. Approximately 75 percent of those whom such agencies subsequently dismissed were women. Many city and state governments, private employers, and school districts practiced similar policies during the 1930’s. Because men were considered to be the primary breadwinners, their jobs were viewed as more important than those of women, who were expected to rely on men for financial support.

Rosie the Riveter declares, “We can do it!” in this 1942-1943 propaganda poster exhorting women to join the war effort.

(NARA)

Despite the labor shortage in the early war years, the shift to women workers did not come easily. Only by overcoming or setting aside numerous cultural biases could Americans in the 1940’s readily accept women workers in factories. There was a stigma attached to women, especially married women, working outside the home; in addition, many employers feared that factory work would be too physically challenging for “the weaker sex.” Women themselves often believed they lacked the stamina to succeed at such heavy work, and some even felt that physical labor was beneath their dignity.

The media Propaganda;United States played a large role in allaying these fears. From films to advertisements, working women were shown supporting their fighting men by filling in at jobs back home. Although women were called upon to make sacrifices equal to those made by men overseas, they were expected to do so without sacrificing their femininity. Rosie the Riveter Rosie the Riveter , a fictional glamorous beauty in hard hat and work clothes, became the symbol for a nation of women laboring to help win the war and bring their men safely home. Such portrayals assured women that they could best serve their husbands and families by serving their country and that so doing would not jeopardize their womanliness. By emphasizing that such service would last only until the war ended, the media also reminded women that their traditional roles as full-time wives and mothers had been suspended only temporarily.

As women entered the workforce, they did so in new and challenging occupational arenas. Before 1940, one in every four female workers was employed as a domestic servant. During the war, however, this was the only segment of the female labor force that stagnated. Women became pilots, scientists, professors, and factory workers in record numbers. Such professional fields as engineering, an almost exclusively male enclave before the war, began to open to women. By the war’s end, the number of female defense workers had increased by 460 percent. Women flocked to these more upwardly mobile careers, leaving most service-oriented businesses facing labor shortages.

This new female presence in industry helped chip away at some legal obstacles that had long stymied women. Between 1941 and 1945, four state legislatures passed equal pay Equal pay laws laws, mandating that women receive the same pay as men for the same work. For the first time in history, Congress debated both an equal pay bill and an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. In 1942, the National War Labor Board required that women receive equal pay when the work they did was substantially the same as that of men. Several states passed laws protecting married women from employment discrimination. Under the provisions of the Lanham Act Lanham Act (1942) , passed early in 1942, federally subsidized child care was made available to some of the mothers who had taken jobs. Although such centers were not widely available, at one point, there were three thousand centers providing care for 130,000 children.

Although women were employed in much greater numbers during World War II than they had been previously, some of them still faced discrimination. Initially, married women were discouraged from joining their unmarried sisters in the workforce. Their duties at home were still considered too pressing. Economic realities, however, soon forced employers and the government to rethink this position. By 1944, for the first time in recorded U.S. history, married women workers outnumbered those who were single. The wives of men who were serving overseas were three times more likely to work than were those whose husbands remained at home.

Following Rosie’s example, a woman rivets a war plane at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California.

(National Archives)

Despite the continued labor shortage, many companies were reluctant to employ older women, often refusing to hire women older than thirty-five years of age. African American women, however, experienced the most discrimination. Employers who hired black men and white women still refused to hire black women. When black women registered with federal employment agencies, they were, almost without exception, referred to such positions as domestic servants, waitresses, laundresses, and cooks. The service sector was already understaffed, and most employers in the 1940’s still believed that African American women were better suited to fill such jobs than they were for other occupations.

Significance

Although World War II temporarily altered women’s labor history, it did not permanently change its course. More women did remain in the workforce in the immediate postwar years than during the Depression. Many of them, however, lost their jobs in industry and were compelled to return to traditional female occupations such as clerical work, service, and sales. Between June and September of 1945, one in four of the women who had held factory jobs was dismissed. During the war years, women held 25 percent of all jobs in the automobile industry; by April, 1946, they held only 7.5 percent of those same positions. After the war ended, society mandated that women’s patriotic duty be replaced by familial duty or rather, society insisted that fulfilling her familial duty was a woman’s primary patriotic duty.

Many women who had carried the double burdens of home and job while their husbands were overseas eagerly embraced their traditional role as homemakers. With the return of so many men from the war, the nation’s birthrate soon skyrocketed, expanding many women’s child-rearing responsibilities. The media continued to play an active part as a cultural mediator by encouraging women to ease the returning veterans’ adjustment to civilian life by resuming their prewar roles. Still, some changes remained in effect. Pay scales for women generally improved, and the door that had opened to allow women a greater range of career choices did not completely close again. Labor;women Women;workforce participation World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];U.S. industrial production

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. Examines women’s wartime experiences in the defense industry centers of Baltimore, Detroit, and Seattle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chafe, William. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Three chapters are devoted to women’s experiences in World War II, including those in the workforce.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gluck, Sherna. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An examination of the social upheavals in gender roles caused by World War II, based on interviews with ten women who worked in the aircraft industry during the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940’s. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Sets women’s work experience in the context of a decade that began with war and ended by ushering in the postwar decorum of the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Kenneth P., and Lynn H. Parsons, eds. The Home Front War: World War II and American Society. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Several articles in this collection of papers by noted World War II scholars discuss the female workforce.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sealander, Judith. “The Reaction to Rosie the Riveter: War Policy and the Woman Worker in World War II.” In As Minority Becomes Majority: Federal Reaction to the Phenomenon of Women in the Work Force, 1920-1963. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Summarizes federal policy regarding, and legislative reaction to, the expanded presence of women workers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Kathleen. Don’t Call Me Rosie: The Women Who Welded the LSTs and the Men Who Sailed on Them. Tigard, Oreg.: Thomas/Wright, 2004. Study of female welders and their role in the production of American naval landing craft during World War II. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yellin, Emily. Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II. New York: Free Press, 2004. Discusses women’s participation in the public sphere during World War II, both in the domestic workforce and in the war abroad. Bibliographic references and index.

World War II: Pacific Theater

World War II: European Theater

Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment

Roosevelt Signs the Emergency Price Control Act

United States Begins the Bracero Program

Inflation and Labor Unrest

Congress Passes the Equal Pay Act

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