How Much Did Rosie Really Do?
History tends to pays inadequate attention to women, and the 1940's appears to be the one exception. This was the era when women donned military fatigues and transformed from homely housewives to pilots, where wives abandoned cooking and cleaning to work in munitions factories. For the first time since the women's suffrage movement, females were garnering attention in the public eye for their participation in the war effort. However, this surprising change in the actions of women does not necessarily reflect a change in their viewpoints, goals, and personal motivations. Though the era seemed to be provide women with different spheres of work and lifestyles, conventional ideologies considering women altered very little throughout the war years. In her book Women at War with America, D'Ann Campbell explores the various ways women adapted to the war environment and the motivations behind that change. Campbell seeks to "assess how and in what ways…the war experience altered women's and men's perceptions of women's roles and aspirations."1 By carefully analyzing the incentives of women during the World War II era, Campbell challenges the idea that World War II was a turning point in the feminist movement of the 20th century.
The book begins with the most direct relationship between women and the war: those who served in the military. The Second World War marked the birth of many female units, such as the Army WACs (Women’s Army Corps), Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), Coast Guard SPARS (named for the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus), and female units in the Marines. Campbell makes clear that the allotting of women into the military was a move initially received with great reluctance, as women were given positions only to free men for combat. Consequently, females in the armed forces faced a great deal of discrimination from their male counterparts. Women in the WACS or WAVES served primarily as typists or storekeepers, and were generally treated inferiorly the men, even if they were of a higher rank. Women in the military also encountered copious public scrutiny. 75% of men surveyed stated they would not recommend enlisting to their female friends. Civilian women also criticized female WACs and WAVES, attacking them as the reason their husbands, boyfriends, or sons were sent off into combat. Conversely, nurses in the military were held in much higher regard than their WACs and WAVES comrades. While the government played a major role in convincing women to enlist, third-party organizations such as the Red Cross organized the recruitment of nurses. Because nursing was already a typical “woman’s” job and did not threaten traditional gender roles, it was deemed appropriate by the public. In fact, Campbell calls the Second World War a major turning point in how women were viewed in the nursing profession. It was during this period that nurses created a positive public and professional image of themselves. Furthermore, women’s access to medical school increased vastly throughout the war years, due to the efforts of the American Medical Women’s Association and the need for Army and Navy doctors. Clearly, the views of what was acceptable in society remained stagnant in terms of women's roles in the military, as only those with "feminine" jobs were treated with respect.
The author's focus then shifts to the roles assumed by women outside of the military in response to the war, such as joining volunteer groups or finding employment. Older women with financially stable backgrounds were the most active in volunteer work, as they had the most time and resources to sacrifice. Women helped to organize regional or national services such as the Office of Price Administration, which administered prices, rents, and rationing. However, volunteer work by women in the U.S. was mainly a form of moral support, uniting communities during a period of national emergency. Groups that focused on producing material items, such as salvaging supplies and constructing care packages ultimately did not produce much to assist in the war effort. 2 The influx of women into the workforce, on the other hand, served a practical purpose. Based on surveys from the Women’s Bureau Special Bulletin, the vast majority of women worked not out of patriotism or other personal interests, but out of necessity. Driven by the absence of the typical male breadwinner, women faced no choice but to find employment in order to support themselves. The result was tremendous; women's employment rates increased from 12 million to 18.2 million over the course of only 4 years. However, the number dropped again later in the 1940's, showcasing the fact that many women planned on working for only the duration of the war. There was great concern among the general public about how long women would remain in the workforce and if their presence would result in a high veteran's unemployment rate after the war. Male workers feared being replaced by women, and many expressed a strong desire for women to return home as soon as possible. The rising marriage rates and fertility rates during World War II also showed that women wanted to return home and generally had no desire to stay in employment longer than was necessary.
While women were employed, the workforces and labor unions adapted in order to accommodate them. In turn, women brought change to the offices and factories in which they worked. In both blue-collar and white-collar spheres, women began to challenge “the commonly accepted standards of what was proper behavior."3 From 1940 to 1950, there was a 65% increase in the number of women in white collar jobs, correlating directly to the increased number of female high school graduates. Teachers, lawyers, and clerk-typists were in high demand, and were all occupations viewed as acceptable for younger, unmarried women. Because there was a general fear among the public that women would replace their husbands as the primary source of income for their family, married women were hired much less often, and corporate policies often barred them from obtaining supervisory positions. The public disdain for women in the workplace could be seen more clearly in blue collar jobs. Factory work and labor were considered “masculine”, an inappropriate environment for women to work in. Even with the rapid increase in factory jobs, women were only hired after there were no more men available, and rarely in supervisory positions. As popular as "Rosie the Riveter" and "Wendy the Welder" were, most people were still unconvinced at the ability of women to do a man's job, to dirty their hands in grimy factories. Even though factory reports later commented on the "surprising" efficiency of women working on assembly lines, the general attitude towards women in blue collar sectors was negative. While working in the factories, women were highly concerned with issues of safety, welfare, and working hours. Yet despite this, women did not take on a very active role in unions due to many unions' male dominated system. Certain American Federation of Labor unions vehemently maintained their policy of allowing men to take jobs first. In 1944, 85% of those fired or rehired in an inferior position were women. This blatant alienation of women from many unions made women unable and unwilling to join labor unions during the war.
The last section of the book focuses on how women changed their private lives in order to cope with the war. Volunteering, enlistment in the military, and factory work were not the only ways women contributed to the war effort. Campbell points out the importance of civilian activities in shaping the nation’s economy, as wartime taxes and bond sales were instrumental in funding the war effort. As the ones who managed the household and had to make do with ration coupons, housewives were the ones most directly affected by the war economy. Had they participated in “passive resistance to the war in the form of tax evasion [and] tax evasion”, the war effort would have been hindered greatly.4 Women’s cooperation and compliance with government policies were instrumental in furthering the U.S.’s war economy. Campbell also explains exactly how women dealt with the new policies and changing economy, stressing their “flexibility, creativity, and general competence” in dealing with issues such as inadequate housing, a lack of household goods, and food shortages.5 The book then goes beyond the concrete effects of the war and discusses how women, specifically those with husbands or fiancées in the military, dealt with emotional and mental problems. Beyond worrying about the safety of their significant others, women had to cope with the stress of raising children and handling finances on their own. With their husbands on extended periods of leave, many married women realized exactly how emotionally dependent they were to their husbands. World War II made women value the companionship of their husbands more than ever, and certainly heightened desires for a strong, traditional nuclear family. This yearning for a close family unit resulted would shape the family structures of the 1950's.
Campbell believes that the actions of women during World War II were dictated mainly by their personal, private goals and not from outside influence. She calls the period from 1941-1945 an era where women "waged wars against [national goals] which they frequently viewed as subversive of their own most deeply held values."6 Campbell asserts that women during the war simply sought security, not a revolutionary change in traditional gender roles. Women of the 1940's placed their sense of personal fulfillment in having a solid family life, and decided that "a solid family life was more likely to result from acceptance of, than from war against, the norms of inherited values." 7 Thus, the seemingly drastic actions that women took, such as enlisting in the military and finding employment in previously male-dominated sectors, were a result of economic necessity or patriotism, an effort to survive the war and bring it to an end as quickly possible. The Second World War had no effect on gender roles or the feminist movement. Rather, it was a radical change in the way the same traditional ideas regarding women were expressed.
Much of Campbell's research and work was conducted during the second wave of feminism, from the late 1960's to the early 1980's. The feminist movement of the mid-20th century was driven by desire for equality in regards to reproductive rights, family issues, divorce, and legal protection. Later on, in the 1980's, feminism became closely tied with issues of sexuality, LGBT rights, and pornography. Campbell understands that such radical issues could not have been prompted by the relatively vapid problems that women faced during the 1940's, and therefore seeks to dispel the idea that modern feminism was a direct consequence of the World War II era. Feminism in the 70's and 80's was instead a reaction "against the suburban family ideal that…became so prevalent in the 1950's."8 As a daughter of the generation of women that survived World War II and a witness to the modern feminist movement, Campbell acts as a liaison between the two time periods. She writes about an issue that would have heavily influenced her own family and sense of identity, giving her more depth in analyzing the motivations behind women.
Women at War With America has generated a variety of feedback, both lauding and critical. Raymond Starr, of the Journal of San Diego History, presents a critical view. Starr complements Campbell’s wide range of sources, such as raw census data and work from sociologists. However, he also calls much of the information “trivial...abstract data” that could be organized better.9 Starr implies that the information is rather shallow and superficial, criticizing Campbell for not thoroughly explaining what caused the patterns in data. He also points out that while Campbell attempts to provide information on diverse groups of women, such as women of different social class and African American women, she does not cover other groups such as women of varying age ranges or other races. In contrast, Cynthia Enloe of the American Quarterly cites Campbell’s “racially differentiated data” as a strong point of the book, especially how Campbell addresses sexism and racism simultaneously.10 Enloe also draws attention to Campbell’s unique standpoint on how women’s private decisions rather than government policy shaped their role during the 1940’s. Enloe praises how Campbell seeks to show women as something other than “[mere] targets of manipulative government policymakers”.11 Starr's review focuses more on the overall effect of the book, while Enloe’s review seeks to explain the purpose and thesis of the work.
Women at War with America looks at the entire spectrum of issues faced by women in the 1940's. Campbell's thesis presents a refreshing stance on the role of World War II in shaping modern feminism; by asserting that the era was not a defining moment in the feminist movement of the 20th century, it differentiates itself from other works that cite World War II as an important watershed for all aspects of American history. The book provides insight into all aspects of women's lives in the 40's, compared to other books that focus solely on women in the military or workforce. Campbell incorporates a plethora of census results, survey results, and government studies in order to provide a fully accurate and comprehensive look at what women were doing during World War II. Statistics and surveys also provide insight into the motivation and principles of women during the era. At times however, the reader may feel inundated with excessive factual information and data. Though the numbers are important in supplying the reader with evidence for Campbell's argument, it is easy to become absorbed in the numbers and forget about their purpose.
With so many iconic images of women in military uniform or working in shipyards stemming from the World War II era, it seems safe to assume that the 1940's marked a major turning point in changing women's roles and sectors. However, by analyzing the motivations and reasons behind women's war efforts, it becomes clear that the attitude towards women and female roles did not change. Traditional gender roles towards women were not substantially altered by the period. Women reacted to the war "on the basis of their identities as women."12 Their choice to enter the work force was not a desire for personal freedom, but out of obligation to their duties to support the family. Furthermore, women's personal goals and view of themselves did not change, as seen by the revival of family values in the post-war era. 50% of the women that quit their jobs after the war listed "familial obligations" as their reason for leaving. And while they changed their activities, women did not sway in their "interpretation of their primary roles."13 At the surface, the role of American women in World War II marked a significant change in gender identities, and provided a perfect occasion for women to begin exiting the realm of the home. A closer investigation yields this assumption incorrect. The failure of the 1940's to change the public opinion on established gender roles cannot merit the era as a watershed in the history of women.
1. Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War with America. Cambridge: Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 1984. 9.
2. Campbell, D'Ann. 71.
3. Campbell, D'Ann. 103.
4. Campbell, D'Ann. 166.
5. Campbell, D'Ann. 185.
6. Campbell, D'Ann. 215.
7. Campbell, D'Ann. 238.
8. Campbell, D'Ann. 15.
9. Starr, Raymond. "Women At War With America (Book Review),"1986.
10. Enloe, Cynthia H. "Was it 'The Good War' For Women?" 1985.
11. Enloe, Cynthia H. 2.
12. Campbell, D'Ann. 236.
13. Campbell, D'Ann. 236.