Women’s Part in the War Effort Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As US women mobilized nationwide to contribute to World War II both on the home front and in the military, US leaders looked to the experiences of British women for inspiration in organizing women's efforts. British women had been deeply involved in the conflict since their nation entered the war in 1939. According to British official Sir Gerald Campbell, women had stepped up valiantly to protect their country amid turmoil. Millions of women joined the industrial workforce, producing war goods and freeing the men who had previously held these factory jobs for service in the British military. With the United States mobilizing its own war machine in early 1942, Campbell advised a similar strategy to ensure the United States could fight both militarily and economically.

Summary Overview

As US women mobilized nationwide to contribute to World War II both on the home front and in the military, US leaders looked to the experiences of British women for inspiration in organizing women's efforts. British women had been deeply involved in the conflict since their nation entered the war in 1939. According to British official Sir Gerald Campbell, women had stepped up valiantly to protect their country amid turmoil. Millions of women joined the industrial workforce, producing war goods and freeing the men who had previously held these factory jobs for service in the British military. With the United States mobilizing its own war machine in early 1942, Campbell advised a similar strategy to ensure the United States could fight both militarily and economically.

Defining Moment

Women have always been an important part of the American labor force. Women and girls helped run family farms and staff small artisan shops during the colonial era. With the rise of industrialization in the early 1800s, young, single women left their homes to take jobs in textile mills and factories, mostly in the Northeast. For the most part, this first wave of women production workers stayed in the labor force only until they married and focused their efforts on the domestic sphere; over the following decades the expectation that women would leave their jobs remained intact. As late as the 1930s, more than 80 percent of Americans agreed that married women should not hold jobs outside the home. Economic realities, though, meant that both single and married women needed to contribute to the household coffers in working-class families. Urban immigrant women in the late 1800s and early 1900s toiled in factories or took in sewing or laundry to generate income. Middle-class women, although rarely formally involved in the workforce, became educated and lent their skills to volunteer and community organizations. Thus, since its inception, the United States has had a history of formal and informal female participation in both society and the economy, although their contributions have typically been valued below those of men.

World War I offered a boost to women's employment as factories and offices turned to civilian women to replace the fighting men called to military service. For the first time, women were seen as central to the wartime support. Their gains were short-lived, however. Millions of men who returned from the battlefields reclaimed their jobs, and a brief economic recession hampered any efforts women might have made to find new ones. The national economy roared back to life, driven by high levels of production and consumer spending. Despite low unemployment, women's workforce participation remained relatively low. Then, in 1929, the Great Depression began and all economic indicators plummeted.

As World War II began in Europe in 1939 and spread through Asia to the United States in 1941, the international economic community was still battling the lingering effects of the Great Depression. The Depression had forced declines in female employment just as it had to employment as a whole. Employers were reluctant to give jobs to women, especially married ones, and when women did find employment, it was usually poorly paid and confined to industries such as garment making. Science, medicine, engineering, law, and managerial positions remained largely closed to women, as did heavy industries, which limited women's opportunities greatly.

Author Biography

Sir Gerald Campbell was a British diplomat who served in the United States for much of his career. During the 1930s, he was the British consul general in New York; after a brief period serving in Canada, Campbell returned to the United States at the behest of British prime minister Winston Churchill for the duration of World War II. As diplomat, propagandist, and all-around British spokesperson working under the auspices of the British Ministry of Information, Campbell gave countless speeches aiming to connect the US and British national interests. His wit and storytelling verve made him popular among influential Americans, and newspapers regularly quoted his comments on international affairs. He also oversaw the expansion of Ministry of Information operations in the United States by growing existing information bureaus and opening new branches in Washington, DC, and Chicago. His wartime work, therefore, was central to the development of pro-British sentiment among the American public and to international morale as the war wore on.

Historical Document

THE population of Great Britain is between forty-six and forty-seven millions, under one-third of that of the United States and under one-half of that of the German-speaking nations, and its area is under ninety thousand square miles. People tend automatically to think of its war effort as on a par with that of the United States with three times its population, and the U.S.S.R. (which has four times its population). This is very fit and proper, for the war effort of the British Isles is truly out of all proportion to its size and population, and must be measured by none of those ordinary considerations on which the prophecies of our enemies—and of some of our more fainthearted friends—have often been based.

Our wartime economics have been aptly described by Dr. Hugh Dalton as “fortress economics.” Everything unessential has been cut out to the limit of human endurance. Until the Germans burst through the French defenses in Western Europe, the war was conducted by us and our Allies as if the forces pitted against us were not unlike those against which we fought in 1914–1918. The summer months of 1940 showed us that the last great world struggle was as nothing compared to this new onslaught upon western civilization. The way in which our people rose to this greatest menace of their history is known to the entire world.

Field of Production Most Vital

This war is largely a war of machines and the most vital field is the field of production. The men engaged in our plants and mines and fields, protected by the most advanced labor legislation in the world, accustomed to high standards of living and very wide civil and political liberties, did not need others to tell them what to do.

Things began moving in the field of production when Mr. Churchill appointed Mr. Bevin as Minister of Labor. They moved, but even then for a while they did not move fast enough to keep up with the enemy's pace. After the experience of Dunkirk the entire nation rose like a giant from its troubled sleep; working hours leaped to a fantastic height—men and women worked for twelve, fourteen, fifteen continuous hours a day, but such a pace could not and should not have lasted.

After the initial shock which summoned every man and woman to the walls of the fortress, a planned system was reintroduced and fifty to sixty hours a week was found to be the maximum of which the average worker at his best was capable. The twenty-three millions of able-bodied men and women capable of fighting and working in industry were the reservoir from which everything had to come— fighters at home and abroad, workers, organizers.

Everyone did everything: thousands of soldiers helped gather in the harvest, school boys worked in the fields and at the lathes.

With so small a pool to draw upon and so much to do and so little time in which to do it, the vital question of how to apportion our manpower to meet military and industrial needs is ever present.

The centralization of industries, the substitution on a large scale of womanpower for manpower, the elimination of the businesses and plants not essential to the war effort, the dilution of labor, the conscription of labor into the army and the reverse process of removing skilled men from the army into the industrial field, were accomplished with an absence of friction which is miraculous compared to any other country or any other period.

Essential Work Order

This process was largely voluntary. The business firms whose work is now performed by government-controlled combinations of manufacturers and traders have been guaranteed the restoration of their previous status after the emergency. By a unanimous vote of Parliament, the restoration of every privilege and every right which labor has relinquished for the sake of the war effort has been guaranteed to the Trade Unions, which today have a larger membership than in any previous period of history—well over seven million, in fact. Unemployment has dropped to the lowest figure on record—less than one hundred thousand men and ninety thousand women, and the figure is still falling fast. Some of those who are termed unemployed are permanently unemployable and some are in course of transference from one type of work to another.

The greatest single labor measure passed in Britain in this war is the Essential Work Order. It has affected production immensely. Inspired by Ernest Bevin, this far-reaching provision guarantees a minimum weekly wage to all workers in industries declared to be essential to the war effort. This has the effect of eliminating the problem of casual labor and chronic unemployment in the most important industries.

The Order does not affect the ordinary bargaining machinery which exists between management and workers; it does not “freeze” either wages or hours; what it prevents is free dismissal of workers by employers, and conversely, stoppages of work by the workers, by obliging both parties to have recourse to special arbitration tribunals.

Many prominent British labor leaders look upon this piece of legislation not merely as a wartime necessity but as a great step forward in securing the rights of British labor, which they hope to see continued after the war. Sir Frederick Leggett, Chief Industrial Adviser to the British Ministry of Labor, and Mr. Will Lawther, President of the British Mineworkers, used practically the same language, when they visited this country last fall, in praising this Order, for it provides security of livelihood to a large proportion of Britain's workers without depriving them of those rights of collective bargaining upon which the trade union system is founded. It may therefore well become the new foundation upon which the social structure of British labor will be rebuilt after the war.

The successful operation of the Order can be gauged by the fact that no criticism of it has been heard in the ranks of either management or of labor. In this respect it is probably unique in the history of labor legislation.

After Dunkirk it was agreed that production should not be interrupted by stoppages of work and that disputes should be settled by arbitration if other means failed. Before this the number of strikes and lockouts in England, although not excessively high, was on the average comparable to that in other free democracies. Since May, 1940, no major strikes have occurred—the time lost since then is one day per man in fifteen years—a situation which could only have been achieved by common consent of employer and employed, the sort of thing which cannot be achieved by a mere legislative act.

This could not have been achieved if our people did not feel that the struggle was their struggle, and did not put their hearts and minds and bodies into it spontaneously, acting as one common whole. Of course it could not have been done if the economic and social conditions under which work is performed had not been regulated—there was a rise in prices, but there was a compensating rise in wages; the rationing of essential goods controls possible alternatives of expenditure, and the population of Britain—workers, soldiers, farmers, employers and government officials—cannot spend their income as freely as they could invest it in peacetime.

All this has undoubtedly improved the quality and quantity of production.

And here is another illustration of the machinery of our all-out effort. This month joint advisory production committees, composed of representatives of the workers and the managements, have started work in all ordnance plants in Britain. Their object is the regular exchange of views between management and workers on matters relating to the improvement of production, on which they will make recommendations. They will discuss such matters as the maximum utilization of existing machinery, the elimination of defective work and waste, and safety precautions. All employees of a plant—men and women—are entitled to vote for their representatives on the committees, every one of whom must have served at least one year at the plant. The ballot is conducted by the Trade Unions. The extension of this system to private factories is expected soon.

The greatest weapon in the gearing-up of the production machinery in Britain has been the “concentration” of industry whereby non-essential production supplying the home market has been concentrated in nucleus plants, freeing manpower for the armed services and releasing much factory space.

Among women, too, more and more workers in nonessential industries have been either transferred to essential industries or into the women's military services. Less than half of the total production of Britain supplies civilian needs today. Boot and shoe factories produce torpedoes, toy factories make airplane frames, hairpin factories make airplane parts.

Since Britain is a beleaguered fortress, the part which every man and woman plays is determined solely by the criterion of where a given individual is most useful to the war effort, and when I say “every individual” I mean not only every man, but also every woman. The problem of manpower has become the problem of womanpower.

Five Million Women Registered

The part which women have played in the British war effort is so remarkable, and, as it has turned out, so vital and indispensable that I feel I ought to explain it in some detail so that you may see how, in Britain, our women have come to the rescue, and how, in spite of the immense effort which they have been called upon to make, their labor standards have not fallen, but on the contrary have risen, and are rising still.

In July, 1939, there were over four million women workers in Britain. Since then, the Minister of Labor, acting on the principle that “nothing that a woman can do, or can learn to do, should be allowed to absorb a man of military age,” has ordered the compulsory registration of all women between the ages of sixteen and forty-one.

Five million women have thus far been registered. They have responded nobly to the appeal of Miss Caroline Haslett, adviser to the Minister of Labor, who said, “This is no time for any woman to avoid responsibility. We have great opportunities; let us use them greatly.” As Mr. Menzies of Australia has said, “The new freedom of women, so much debated a few years ago, has flowered quickly and magnificently. The women of Britain are not only warred upon; they are at war.”

In England we have a law that in a statute the masculine shall include the feminine unless the context otherwise requires. The underlying idea is truer than ever in this war-women are doing men's jobs except where this is proved humanly impossible. We have come a long way since women were classified by the law with insane incompetents, children and chattels. Now they stand shoulder to shoulder with men on the production line and even on the firing line. Nearly four million women between the ages of twenty and thirty have been conscripted for war work. Over thirty per cent of the women thus far interviewed by Labor Ministry officers have chosen industrial work, while about forty per cent are being enrolled in the services.

The women in industry are faced with no easy task. These women's work is never done. As Mr. Bevin remarked, “No woman must say good-bye to me until the end of the war.”

Industrial workers are trained in Government Training Centers or in the plants themselves. A woman is today officially estimated as the equivalent of four-fifths of a man. And the jobs which require filling are as diverse as women's infinite variety.

Few women start by being experts at the jobs they are called upon to perform, but their ready adaptability has risen magnificently to the occasion. They have proven capable not merely of the comparatively light semi-skilled labor, but as machinists, welders, riveters, electricians, even concrete mixers, capable of performing heavy tasks for many long hours on end, or of delicate precision work surpassing the skill of men. They deliver milk, drive trucks, and are employed in operating the power presses of the Mint.

Let me give a few concrete examples: one girl, formerly a dressmaker for a famous firm, is now making incendiary bombs. A celebrated photographic model is driving trucks. The granddaughter of Charles Dickens is engaged on a heavy industrial job.

Industrial Shock Troops

Women in industry are classified as either “mobile” or “immobile”—the latter are registered as due to remain in their own particular district: an arrangement made necessary either by family reasons or by special aptitudes. The “mobile” category may be described as industrial shock troops ready to be thrown into the front line of the battle of production wherever they are most needed.

The idea of conscription has appealed to British women. Hundreds of thousands had volunteered early in the war, but no machinery existed for utilizing their skill or their enthusiasm. Conscription has solved this problem. The Minister of Labor has said that although during his two years in office he has had to disturb the lives of nearly a million persons, he has not had one real complaint.

Much has been done in the field of industrial welfare in Britain in recent years. We have had for the last twenty years a good system of industrial welfare inside the factories. But the Ministry of Labor and National Service created an entirely new department called “Welfare Outside the Factory.” This department is growing and is solving most of our problems—housing, transportation, care of children of working mothers, shopping facilities for the workers, and so on.

Many mothers of young children, though not liable to conscription, have volunteered in large numbers for industry. Their children are looked after in wartime nurseries, the number of which will soon be well over a thousand.

As there are various shifts in the factories, mothers get together and arrange to feed each other's children or take them to school so that each may do her appointed hours of work. Half shifts have been introduced to enable two mothers, or a mother and daughter, to do one man's job between them. Women who cannot do full-time work go around on bicycles collecting the shopping lists of the factory workers and delivering the goods to the factory gates or their homes. Many local Chambers of Commerce have issued shopping cards to war workers which allow them to pass straight to the head of the line of waiting shoppers, give them access to shops at specially arranged hours, or reserve to them their share of non-rationed goods received by the shopkeepers.

Women's Wage Regulations

You may wish to hear something on wage regulations for women. Take this for example: women machinists work under a comprehensive agreement between the Union and the Employers' Federation, which fixes terms for the duration of the war. The general principle adopted is that, whoever does the work, “the rate for the job” will be paid. Where the women who enter the industry in this way are fully qualified to perform men's work, they are paid at the men's rate, and the same applies to bonuses. In the case of women not fully qualified, special rules apply until the women reach the men's standard, when full men's rates are paid.

This system of payment is gradually extending to all other industries employing women by agreement with the men's trade unions.

What we are proud of in this war, and I hope you will agree with me that we have good cause to be, is this: the gigantic effort which we have had to make has naturally entailed the curtailment of our peacetime liberties. But this has been achieved not by compulsion, but by the free consent of the entire people as expressed in its national and local institutions, and this proves to us that what we on both sides of the Atlantic call the essential democratic way of life can be maintained by free men in the midst of what is nothing short of a struggle for life itself.

And the second thing of which we are proud is that the struggle has not for one moment blinded us to the end for which we are fighting—the liberty of the human individual to live and think and to speak and worship as he pleases; for there has been the most complete freedom of discussion of our wartime measures when the enemy seemed literally at our doors—discussion of conditions of health and wages, and prices; and the liberties of employers and of workers were debated at moments during the fall of 1940 when, you will agree, we had one or two other things to think about as well. And this has not weakened us, but, on the contrary, has given us greater strength.

I have dealt at some length with British women's part in the war of production because it is apt to be assumed that whatever work is done is done by the men of a country, that the courage and the endurance and the patience and the enterprise are predominantly theirs. And I do not need to tell you how much of this it took to carry us through the dark months of 1940 and 1941.

As Lord Halifax said a few days ago, “From July, 1940, until May, 1941, enemy planes were over Britain ninety days out of a hundred and all but thirty nights.” And yet we are turning out five times as many tanks as in August, 1940, and, compared with 1918, there was an increase of a million more men at work in British munitions plants at the end of 1941.

No Limit on U. S. Production

The people of Britain, harassed by bombs and blackouts and severely rationed, compelled by the greatest crisis in their history to break family ties and work at heavy and unaccustomed tasks, have increased their productive capacity to a height never hitherto attained by them.

German air attacks were designed to level our industrial plants: factories and shops have risen in the wake of bombs.

You, in this country, have so far happily been spared these horrors: with your immensely greater natural wealth and manpower and industrial capacity there is no limit to what you can produce.

And the United Nations will need it all—all that we can produce and all that your even vaster effort will bring about, in order to put an end to this most brutal attack in history upon the liberties and the standards which we are all fighting to defend, and are extending in the course of our very struggle to defend them.


apportion: to distribute or allocate proportionally; divide and assign according to some rule of proportional distribution

arbitration: a process designed to settle of differences between opposing parties

beleaguer: to surround with military forces; to surround or beset, as with troubles

chattel: a slave; any article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to land

dilution: the act of diluting, which is making a liquid thinner and weaker by adding water or something similar

Document Analysis

Campbell's speech reflects the breadth of British women's involvement in World War II as a model for what US women could achieve if they, too, were willing to serve their country on the home front to protect “the essential democratic way of life.” The speaker explores the successes of British women as industrial workers keeping British war production humming by joining the workforce and by giving up ready access to the types of consumer goods that would have been otherwise produced. Campbell's claims supported a conclusion that women were central to a hoped-for Allied victory, and were able to perform duties previously regarded as outside of their sphere. Further, he asserted that the United States could benefit even more from mobilizing women than had the beleaguered British: “with your immensely greater natural wealth and manpower and industrial capacity there is no limit to what you can produce.”

For Campbell, British home-front labor was just as vital to the possibility of victory as the battlefield, and he saw Britons' willingness to forgo some consumer and labor liberties as a mark of their commitment to broader goals. Campbell broadly applauds British women for their contributions to wartime production. Working first alongside men and then increasingly on their own, these women workers quickly gained manufacturing skills and put in long days and weeks in order to meet production needs with “an absence of friction.” Campbell credits part of this immense shift to the companies and labor organizations that agreed to follow government mandates, particularly the Essential Work Order. This law protected workers' wages and jobs in defense industries in exchange for a prohibition on striking, thus compromising between the desires of employers and labor. Nearly as significant were companies' agreement to shift production from consumer to defense goods and women workers' willingness to help one another with domestic responsibilities in order to allow more women to join the labor force or military support team.

In nearly all respects, the British government and industries treated their new women laborers as equals to men. Law required that they be paid fairly, and opportunities for training in traditionally male fields abounded. British women flocked to the chance to take jobs, drive trucks, and perform other duties. Campbell suggests several benefits of this policy. Unemployment declined, women made production possible, and men were freed to join the armed services to fight abroad. Millions of British women workers, according to Campbell, were vital to the national war effort.

Essential Themes

Campbell's speech strongly promoted the idea that women on the home front could be vital partners in winning World War II, thanks to their willingness and ability to join the workforce and support military action. The events of the next few years proved these contentions true. Demand for new workers was rising so quickly, as industry expanded and men who normally filled industrial jobs left their posts for military service, that the US Congress considered a bill drafting women for industrial work just as the military drafted soldiers.

Such extreme measures were unnecessary, however. American women, including many who had never held a job before, volunteered to take jobs in wartime industries in droves. More than 6 million women joined the labor force during the World War II, from about 12 million women employed outside the home in 1940 to about 18.6 million five years later. These women were lionized in the image of “Rosie the Riveter,” the name of a popular song later associated with widespread images of women factory workers. By the end of the war, nearly 40 percent of all US women worked for wages, and women comprised more than one-third of the civilian workforce. An additional eight hundred thousand women accepted positions with the government. Married women who had been reluctant to take jobs in the face of social mores eventually formed the majority of the female workforce for the first time in history. Women also enjoyed access to professions long dominated by men. Like their British counterparts, American women entered heavy industries that had previously been essentially closed to them, manufacturing ammunition, vehicles, and airplanes. At least half of all women who had worked in consumer industries gave up their existing positions to join the well-paying war industries.

Although the end of World War II eliminated many of the jobs that women had held, an immense social and economic shift resulted from the new view of themselves that women workers developed. The percentage of women in the workforce rebounded during the 1950s, despite the more limited job opportunities open to female workers. As the twentieth century progressed and a vibrant feminist movement emerged, barriers preventing women from seeking careers and economic independence continued to decrease.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Campbell, Gerald. Of True Experience. New York: Dodd, 1947. Print.
  • Weatherford, Doris. “British Women/American Women in Britain.” American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  • “Women in the Weather Bureau during World War II.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA, 8 June 2006. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
  • Yellin, Emily. Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front during World War II. New York: Free P., 2004. Print.
Categories: History