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World War II began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, which resulted in France and Britain declaring war on Germany. Initially, the United States wished to remain isolated from the war, but the United States officially entered World War II in 1941 after the Pearl Harbor attack in which Japanese planes dropped bombs over the naval port of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, to the complete surprise of the United States. With men sent off to fight abroad, women at home and abroad were given the opportunity of socioeconomic mobility: “When the demand for workers in manufacturing jobs far exceeded the supply of white males in the civilian economy, the number of occupations open to women and minorities expanded enormously” (Anderson 35). It is therefore worth investigating the extent to which World War II served as an opportunity for women to gain more prominence within both the social and economic spheres.
At first, employers were reluctant to hire women due to the persistent stereotype of women only being useful in the household. Even “in spite of government propaganda and the intensifying shortage of male labor, a surprising number of war plants continued to ignore women” (Breen 64). In addition, some women living in Mobile, Alabama did not even want to work outside the home, “as the majority of Mobile women declined to take even part-time jobs” (Breen 66). Also, though it was assumed that women would only be working non-traditional jobs for the duration of the war, many “housewives, manual laborers, and service workers were the least likely to have left the Ford firm voluntarily. Many of them stayed at the firm until they had to be laid off”. Women were forced to go back to their traditional roles they had before World War II started. Another problem for the implementation of work for women was the fact that they had busy work schedules. Some women’s schedules were too busy to fit in a labor intensive job, as they still had to take care of the house and the children. In these cases, women could not increase their participation in society or the economy even if they wanted to.
On the other hand, the increase in job openings led to a significant upsurge in the number of women working in the United States, starting at “10.8 million in March, 1941 to more than 18 million in August 1944” (Miller 42). Government agencies and private businesses recruited women to work in “defense plants and in heavy industry to provide the military with the necessary munitions and supplies”, and millions of women “left their jobs as waitresses, teachers, secretaries, and garment workers to become welders, riveters, assemblers, and inspectors” (Anderson 35). During the war, women assumed jobs that were traditionally held my men, such as working as accountants. Accountancy was considered to be a career for men, hence “women who graduated with accounting degrees in the 1940s found it very difficult to secure employment with public accounting firms”. However, accounting firms were forced to hire women during the war due to the shortage of male accountants: “accounting firms had lost 50 percent of their young male accountants and reported that firms had offset this loss with the hiring of women” (Wootton and Spruill 247). Due to a shortage in male employees, “in the twenty months, from September 1941 to May 1943, the number of women in 954 public accounting firms more than doubled, from 341 to 821 accountants”. In addition, “immediately after the war’s end, most women retained their positions in major accounting firms. In many cases, their numbers and responsibilities actually increased in the year following the war’s end. The reason for this was that men returning from the service and of the proper age to obtain an entry level accounting position did not have necessary college degrees” (Wootton and Spruill 247). However, as the oversupply of accountants increased and the demand for accounting services temporarily declined, many major firms elected to eliminate women when cut backs in personnel were needed” (Wootton and Spruill 247-248). In St. Petersburg, Florida, “white middle class women experienced a great expansion of economic opportunities during the war years, prompting politically active women to demand recognition for their labor and patriotic endeavors” (Babb 45). In Lowell, Massachusetts, “the 1940 census listed 38 percent of Lowell’s 35,000 women over age twenty in the workforce, double the national figure”.
Women’s participation in the war effort promoted the idea that women could contribute so much more to society than just limiting their sphere of influence to the home and to the family. In fact, “a survey taken at Ford shows in 1943 showed that women outproduced men and a major study of 174 firms in New York concluded that women’s productive efficiency was the same or better than men’s” (Kossoudji and Dresser 440). Thus, the image of a hard-working woman emerged in the public eye. For example, the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster and other forms of propaganda inspired women to fill the positions of men while the men were fighting overseas. The “Rosie the Riveter” poster depicted a woman with her sleeve rolled up and her arm flexed with a slogan above her that reads, “we can do it!” The “Rosie the Riveter” campaign became a symbol of women’s independence.
A permanent shift had occurred for women as a social group after World War II: “for as early as 1948, the percentage of married women working was actually greater than in the peak war years” (Wootton and Spruill 248). At first, women were not paid nearly as much as men were, but “women’s wages rose substantially as occupational discrimination diminished”.
Overall, World War II allowed for women to play a more prominent role in society and in the workforce to a great extent. Many more job opportunities were made available to women than ever before since the men were off fighting in international countries. The women had to take up the jobs and responsibilities that the men had previously held, which led them to lead completely different lifestyles that they were unfamiliar with. Women’s contribution to the war effort caused the public to change its traditional view of women and opened its eyes to see that women are of great importance in society.
Throughout this investigation, I have become familiar with some of the methods historians use when they conduct their research. While exploring various methods, I encountered some obstacles that make an investigation difficult for a historian. Firstly, I found it hard to find primary sources, meaning that I could not find first-hand accounts from women who actually worked during World War II. The difficulty in finding primary sources made me realize how historians might have trouble finding primary sources depending on how much time has passed since the historical event occurred. A method I used throughout the investigation was trying to use as much objectivity as possible. I identified any potential bias a source would have, and I did not use it if I thought it had bias that would affect the credibility of my investigation. I made sure that my sources were credible and of an academic sense. Finding academic sources was easily accessible to me through technology. I did not have to read mountains of library books to find information, as historians in the past used as their primary mode of investigating. I was able to use database websites such as JSTOR and Questia that provided a plethora of credible and reliable sources.
One limitation I had was only finding sources that supported the idea that World War II allowed women to play a more prominent role in society and in the workforce. I did not find many sources that offered different perspectives, such as the viewpoint that World War II did not provide women with adequate opportunities for socioeconomic mobility. The inclusion of various views on my research topic would have added more validity to my conclusion.
This investigation allowed me to see what researching as a historian feels like and made me aware of all the difficulties historians face. I was able to overcome some difficulties, while others were unavoidable.
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