I started reading when I was a toddler, and it has long been both escapism and passion to me. However, whereas I used to devour fiction, my love for the written word has expanded in the past year to include historical works of non-fiction. If you think of the books in the world as existing in a candy store, you could say that I’d been enjoying one floor my entire life, blissfully unaware that thousands of equally delightful options existed.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is how little I really know, and this is as true of some of the historical bases for feminism as it is anything else.
I’d heard of Rosie the Riveter, of course, and had read a fair amount of feminist literature (from Mary Wollstonecraft to Andrea Dworkin) in college, but the “touched upon” nature that one receives in a survey class is completely different than diving …
… full-long into a defining time and history and considering its repercussions in 2011.
Consider this—how many of you knew that women have World War II to thank for opening up the workforce to them? A year ago, I would have said, “Yeah, they had to let women do jobs that men had historically done because men were all off at war … haven’t you seen A League of Their Own?”
I understand better now, particularly when you consider that six million women entered the workplace for the first time during WWII.
That’s huge, in large part because there was an expectation that these women would do their part for the war effort by working in factories creating both consumer goods and war supplies until the war was over, then going back to their traditional “housewife” role or more acceptable female employment like nursing or teaching.
Even before they entered the workforce, though, women had to receive specialized job training and often even relocate … oh, and of course overcome the conventional wisdom that they just couldn’t hack it.
To persuade women that they could handle such jobs, munitions making was likened to running a sewing machine or vacuum cleaner—activities with which women were familiar and proficient, according to Dr. Stacey Robertson, director of the women’s studies program at Bradley University. An American War Manpower Campaign in 1943, for example, featured a billboard that read, “If you’ve used an electric mixer in your kitchen, you can learn to run a drill press.” Even Caterpillar posted advertisements in local papers encouraging women to join the company. Some read: “Women Help Yourself and Uncle Sam by Getting a Good Job at Caterpillar,” “Help the Boys Overseas by Working at Caterpillar,” and “Women You Can Learn to Weld at Caterpillar.”
I’d long had the impression that wartime women went to work out of a love for country, but it turns out that there was another, arguably stronger motivation: cold, hard cash.
Jobs previously held by men paid much more than those typically held by women, and women who were struggling to make ends meet were quick to jump at the chance to earn more money.
Manufacturing jobs allowed women to move up the ranks, accepting more responsibility as they went, but defense jobs were even better, as they paid 40 percent more than jobs that produced consumer goods. These jobs were primarily filled by white women. “African American women were pretty much squeezed out of these jobs,” noted Robertson. They took on the jobs that white women had left, receiving slightly more pay than at their original positions, which had consisted primarily of service and agricultural jobs.
Overall, women were paid less than their male counterparts who left for war; the rationale, said Robertson, was lack of experience. “By and large, pay depends on not only the type of job you’re working, but on experience, so certainly women with less experience, say, as welders or riveters, would be paid less.”
You know, it’s very interesting that we’re fed this whole “America is a melting pot” thing in school, yet the truth of the matter is that there has always been a hierarchy of power, and I suppose there always will be. I mean, think about it, white women are below men in the great scheme of things, yet when they are given the opportunity to move on up, their spot on the totem pole is replaced by African-American women.
And of course not all men went to war … and their reactions toward working side by side a force of females were not always positive.
Despite filling a critical niche during the war, women were often met with hostility by the men they worked for and alongside. “Men were concerned that following the war, the women would find these jobs satisfying in the way that they found them satisfying,” explained Robertson.
This fear turned out to be justified, and it’s a fear that echoes in the workplace even today. Women had been given a taste of controlling the direction of their own lives through making their own money, and giving this up understandably left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.
Many women returned to their lives as mommy and wife without complaint, a large number went back to the more “traditional” careers, but some would never forget their taste of what amounted to freedom.
Societal norms were altered to fit a certain workplace need during the war. Although these norms reverted when there was again an influx of able-bodied men to fill the factories, there were many women that saw the opportunities available to them.
In other words, if they were good enough to do the work when it was a necessity, they were good enough to do the job any time. This was a lesson that endured, a message that was unforgettable to the collective inner psyche of women and led to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” … and ultimately to employment opportunities that are essentially equal today.
Of course, I’m a teacher, a job that would have been “acceptable” for me as a woman to hold even in the early 1900s, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt …