The Integral Role of Women in World War II

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Women played crucial roles in WWII, both at home and in uniforms. Not only did they give their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers to the war efforts; they also gave their time, energy and some even gave their lives. During WWI only 21,000 women joined the military. World War II saw a huge increase in enlistment with nearly 350,000 women participating the war effort.

The attitudes towards women’s military employment during WWII was little changed from WWI thinking despite their favorable outcome in wartime industries during World War I. The same old clichés about women’s potential to engage in ‘men’s work’ continued. The American people were concerned about men’s pay being lowered and sought guarantees that women working in wartime industries was a temporary wartime measure and would not be permanent. It became almost essential for women to become a part of the war. At the time, most of the men in America were on the front so it was necessary for women to step up and fill their roles working in factories producing munitions, constructing ships, airplanes, in the auxiliary services as fire officers and evacuation officers, as drivers of fire engines, trains and trams and as conductors. The government compelled all men between the ages of 20 and 44 accountable for military service and made it mandatory for all men between the ages of 18 and 64 to register unless proven 4-F. You had to be “not acceptable for service in the Armed Forces” due to medical, dental, or other reasons in order to be classified as 4-F. In response to this need for more military personnel; in December of 1941 the government began to recruit women as auxiliaries to the Armed Forces, Civil Defense or wartime productions. Propaganda advertisements like Rosie the Riveter encouraged females to take part in the war effort.

Disinclined to join the war when it erupted in 1939, the United States briskly engaged itself in total war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This commitment involved making use of all of America’s assets – women included. The Axis powers, on the other hand, were hesitant to appoint women in their war industries. Hitler ridiculed Americans as having lost the mental and moral qualities considered normal and desirable for putting their women to work. The role of German women, he said, was to be good wives and mothers and to have more babies for the Third Reich; the official Nazi designation for the German government from January 1933 to May 1945. While the larger chances of hiring a women during WWII may be true, this was always thought of as something short term just for the length of the war and, despite the constant raise in women’s employment wages since the 1920s, a married woman’s place was still designed to be in the home.

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The munitions field heavily levied women workers, as represented by the U.S. government’s “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda campaign. The tough and brawny Rosie became one of the most flourishing recruitment tools in American history, and one of the most iconic embodiments of working women during World War II. The Rosie the Riveter campaign emphasized the patriotic need for women to embark into the work force—and it did, in large numbers. Though women were vital to all that was being done to win the war, they continuously were payed lower wages than their male equivalents: Working females hardly ever earned more than 50 percent of male pay. Some compromises were made on equal pay which allowed women the get balanced wages when they completed the same job as men had without supervision or assistance. Semi-skilled and unskilled jobs were labeled ‘women’s jobs’ and were excluded from the discussions about equal wages.

The entrance of women into jobs which were classified as highly skilled and thought of as ‘male work’ created discussion about equal pay. The people were bothered by women working in ‘male’ positions but were assured that once the war was over, men would once again be working these jobs. However, the government’s priority at the time was finding people capable to fill the empty positions – being men or women.

While women worked in diverse positions, the aviation industry saw the greatest amount of growth in female members. Prior to WWII, women were deemed incompetent to pilot an airplane. Until this time, female pilots such as Amelia Earhart had unsuccessfully attempted to advance women’s aviation with a highly publicized trip around the world. At first, servicewomen filled administrative and clerical jobs but as more and more men were shipped off to fight on the front, women began to fill in those “male” jobs in the aviation industry. An increased need for World War II combat pilots favored the use of qualified women pilots to fly aircraft on non-combat missions. Two female aviation units- The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) were established to alleviate this need. More than 1,000 women joined these programs as non-combatants linked to the USAAC (United States Army Air Corps), flying 60 million miles of non-combat military commissions. By 1943, more than 310,000 women worked in the US aircraft industry, representing 65 percent of the industries total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the years prior to the war).

At the war’s end, despite that a majority of women expressed that they wanted to keep their jobs, many were involuntarily replaced by men returning home and by the declining need for war materials. Women veterans faced barricades when they tried to utilize benefit programs for veterans, like the G.I. Bill which is designed to be a benefit for American servicemembers to cover the costs for education or training programs. The nation that needed their help in a time of crisis, it seems, was not yet ready for the greater social equality that would slowly come in the decades to follow.

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