Women/Mother’s Role: Work Experience ~ WWII vs. Today   Leave a comment




The frame of reference in this paper entails historical information pertaining to women’s roles changing in social status during World War II as they had to face many hardships during the war, just as the women of today contend with their own battles. The rationale for this comparative paper is to explore the many similarities yet, not so similar experiences in the workplace of women that affected their lives, past and present. The topic was chosen to pose the question, “How have the female gendered roles within the workplace changed throughout history?” I shall argue that the statement “women’s place is in the home” is flawed.

Prior to the war period, cultural divisions and segregation of labor by gender placed women in the home and men in the workforce. The principle roles of women were as wives and mothers since a women’s place was in the home taking care of the family although, some women did work who were minority and/or in the lower class. Women were looked upon as mothers and nothing more. It was a woman’s job to keep the family together due to the economy crash and high unemployment rate before the war took place. Unfortunately, women were discriminated against as they were viewed as taking men’s jobs away from them. People who thought that women were supposed to stay at home and raise the children didn’t approve of women going to work outside the home. Hymowitz & Weismann (1978) commented on society’s reflection of women working, “In the 1930’s, the message to women had been “Don’t steal a job from a man,” and twenty six states had laws prohibiting the employment of married women” (in Douglas, 1995, p. 45). Similarly, discrimination is still prevalent today as in the glass ceiling and the wage differences. According to Ragins, Townsend, & Mattis  (1998), “The glass ceiling, the glass wall, and the sticky floor still prevent a large percentage of women from advancing to the top of organizations and being paid equitably” (Sullivan & Mainiero, 2008, 34). Furthermore, gender segregation of  labor appeared to lessen the opportunities for decision making as Bonvillain (2007) commented, “Gender Segregation in the workplace generally relegates women to jobs with low social prestige, low financial compensation, and few opportunities for decision making, control, and advancement” (p.251).

The government decided to launch a propaganda campaign to sell the importance of the WW II effort and to lure women into working. According to Rupp (1978), “The United States government had to overcome these challenges in order to recruit women to the workforce. Early in the war, the government was not satisfied with women’s response to the call to work.” (p. 98). Women were then called on, by necessity, to do work and to take on responsibilities that were outside their traditional gender role during World War II. Although, in today’s world women join the military voluntarily for a variety of reasons, but not because of a propaganda campaign. In 2009 the passion of these women showed through the number of females in the United States in the military was 155.8 million.[1]

Half of the women who took war jobs were minority and lower class women who were already in the workforce. They switched from lower paying traditionally female jobs to higher paying men’s factory positions. As Acemoglu & Lyle  (2004) stated, “As evocatively captured by the image of Rosie the Riveter, the war drew many women into the labor force as 16 million men mobilized to serve in the Armed Forces, with over 73 percent deploying overseas…only 28

[1]USA Today (2010). Gender pay gap is smallest on record. Retrieved March 5, 2011 from  http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2010-09-13-wage-gaps_N.htm

percent of U.S. women over the age of 15 participated in the labor force in 1940. By 1945 this figure exceeded 34 percent” (p.499).

The war resulted in the women running the house by themselves and had to act as a mother and father after the men were sent to war to defend their country. These women automatically became single mothers. Lewis (1978) stated that during World War II, “Bringing up children alone was one of the greatest stresses that women had to cope with” (p.55). Single parenthood was a complete reversal of the dependent prewar life that most women knew. Comparatively speaking, in today’s society, single mothers running a household by themselves are considered the norm. In 2010, there were 2,234,000 single parent families with children under 3 maintained by the mother, (91.5% of all single parent families with children under 3). 53.4% of those mothers were employed.[1]

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, Families and Living Arrangements, “Table FG5: One-Parent Unmarried Family Groups with Own Children Under 18, by Labor Force Status of the Reference Person: 2010″ (2010).  Retrieved march 12, 2011, from http://www.catalyst.org/publication/252/working-parents

Thousands of women began looking for employment as the war progressed. Women decided to leave their kitchens and learn new skills quickly to become successful. Women took on various jobs helping in war production in the nation’s factories such as, welders, drill pressing, riveters, electricians, painters, crane operators, machinists, truck drivers, making gun barrels, and other jobs in war material manufacturing.[1] The choices were limited on career options as other women found jobs within the war itself as nurses and in other fields such as, journalists and teachers who began to work for fewer wages in order to keep the education system going for the children. They were shipyard workers with many struggles as Goodier (2008) described, “as qualifying and obtaining jobs in the shipyards, the challenges of working in traditionally male occupations, struggles to obtain pay equal to that of men, efforts to obtain more lucrative positions, sexual harassment, and especially, the thrill and pride the women took in their work” (p.446). Whereas, today’s women the sky is the limit on education and career options. In addition, in both time periods, women learned to balance home, family and career and in today’s culture, the roles have reversed as both men and women are in the workforce while other individual’s male/female is a stay at home parent.

Instead of focusing on their careers and pursuing higher education during the war, it was expected of them to put their needs on the back burner. For some, women postponed having children in order for the main goal to be achieved: survival, while mother’s and young women worked outside the home. Women of the middle class or lower class had limited choices for good jobs, because society knew that their men would not want their wives to go out to work again after the war.

Whereas, in today’s society more women are attending college to further their careers as Tyson, (2011) commented:

[1] Goodier, S. (2008). Good Work, Sister! Women Shipyard Workers of World War II: An Oral History. Portland, OR: Northwest Women’s History. Retrieved March 12, 2011 from http://lsj.sagepub.com.library.esc.edu/content/35/3/445.full.pdf+html

The dramatic increase in college education among women is one major reason that the             earnings of female workers have increased, that the gap between male and female             earnings has fallen and that, in recent recessions, the unemployment rate for women has       been lower than the rate for men.

Even though the gap was closing which was good news, the reasoning was bad news. It was because men were losing jobs faster than women according to economist Drago (2010), research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “…women make up 49.7% of the workforce…men have been losing jobs at a faster rate than women in the recession because of troubles in manufacturing, construction and other industries…”

In both time periods, society viewed women becoming accustomed to the wages and fulfillment of outside employment and set out to regain it in their own right. Women enjoyed working outside the home because it gave them a sense of being independent, a contributor to the home, a sense of having more rights and the capacity to make their own decisions. In today’s economy unemployment is on the rise and for these single parents as the BLS website (2010) reported, “In 2009, families maintained by women with no spouse present were less likely to have an employed member (72.8 percent) than were married-couple families (82.4 percent) or families maintained by men with no spouse present (79.8 per-cent)…The share of families with an employed member declined over the year for all family types.”

During WWII, over 6 million women took wartime jobs in factories or filling in for men on farms, 3 million women volunteered with the Red Cross, and over 200,000 women served the military.[1]Though women survived many hardships when the war was over another battle had begun. As Douglas (1995) expressed hardship of the women’s workforce, “ Fueled by the fear that wouldn’t be enough jobs for returning servicemen and that depression conditions might return, the campaign to get women out of the workforce began immediately: in 1946, 4 million women were fired from their jobs” (p. 47).

In conclusion, both periods of history have proven that in patriarchal societies women were able to break out of the stereotypical traditional attitudes and modes and succeed far beyond any man’s expectations. The struggles we face today are the same as in WW II. Discrimination and segregation of gender still exists. Wage and salary between men and women are still not considered equal. The statement “women’s place is in the home” is flawed as women have proven to be a great asset not only in the economy but, in society as a whole contributing daily in the home, family and the workplace.

[1]Women during WWII. Retrieved March 8, 2011m, from http://www.womeninwwii.com/


Bonvillain, N. (2007). Women and Men: Cultural constructs of Gender. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Daron Acemoglu, D. & Lyle, D. H. (2004).  War, and Wages: The Effect of Female Labor             Supply on the Wage Structure at Midcentury. The Journal of Political Economy, 112 (3), 497-551. Retrieved March, 3, 2011, from              http://www.jstor.org.library.esc.edu/stable/pdfplus/10.1086/383100.pdf?acceptTC=trueW

Douglas, S. J. (1995). Where the girls are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New             York: Three Rivers Press

Goodier, S.(2008). Good Work, Sister! Women Shipyard Workers of World War II: An Oral     History. Portland, OR: Northwest Women’s History. Retrieved March 12, 2011 from             http://lsj.sagepub.com.library.esc.edu/content/35/3/445.full.pdf+html

Rupp, Leila J. Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945.  Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ: 1978.             http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/rosie.htm

Sullivan, S. E. & Mainiero, L. (2008). Using the Kaleidoscope Career Model to Understand the Changing Patterns of Women’s Careers: Designing HRD Programs That Attract and             Retain Women. Retrieved March 8, 2011 from             http://adh.sagepub.com.library.esc.edu/content/10/1/32.full.pdf+html

Tyson, L. D. (2011). Education and Women in the Labor Market. Retrieved March 10, 2011           from http://economix. nytimes.com/tag/women-in-the-workforce/


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