Work: World War I and World War II

previous   1  |    2   |  3    next arrow

YWCA advertisement 1918

YWCA advertisement, 1918 - Library of Congress

World events played a tremendous part in women's changing roles in America over the course of the twentieth century. During World War I, thousands of young men left their homes to join the military and fight in the Great War. In their absence, women served as the heads of households while the men in their family were away, or took up jobs vacated by men. With more than 58,000 Americans killed during WWI, many women became widows. They shouldered the responsibilities they had taken up during the war and continued to support themselves and their families.

World War II had a similar but even more substantial effect on the role of American women. In addition to managing the home in the absence of male members of the family, women took up occupations and jobs that had previously been closed to them. The country's need for workers to support the war effort induced millions of women to enter the workforce for the first time ever. Women worked in banks, factories, and government jobs in order to fill positions vacated by men during wartime. A classic image of the time is that of "Rosie the Riveter," a typical American woman who supports her country by entering the workforce to build airplanes and munitions for American troops. The new message for women was that leaving their traditional place in the home was part of their patriotic duty in order to support the troops and keep the American economy stable. The tremendous influx of women entering the workforce began to change ideas about what kind of work was "acceptable" for women. Women's success in the wartime workforce also began to change ideas about what women were capable of.

Women at work assembling airplane parts 1942

Women's war work, 1942 - Library of Congress

However, these changes were stymied when WWII ended and the soldiers returned home. With waves of young men returning to the United States, women found themselves under increasing pressure to "go back home." Guion Griffis Johnson explains that, during the war, it had been a patriotic duty for a woman to leave her traditional place in the home; after the war, women were urged to return to their traditional roles in order to make their jobs available for returning GIs.

"Give them employment"
- Guion Griffis Johnson

listen button read button

Despite this pressure, for many women the floodgates had been opened. They had seized opportunities to pursue goals and ambitions outside of traditional norms, and they had proven to themselves and others that they were capable of succeeding and excelling. After the war, more women began to assert their abilities and their place in non-traditional career paths.