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World War II: The Home Front
Kristin Celello
University of Virginia

VUS.11b - The student will demonstrate knowledge of the effects of World War II on the home front by: b) describing the contributions of women and minorities to the war effort.

American involvement in World War Two called for the active participation not only of those men and women in military service, but also those citizens who remained on the home front. The mobilization for war helped to lift the country's economy out of the Great Depression, and demand for workers soared. For American women of all races, as well as men of color, these circumstances allowed each to make significant contributions to the war effort and to take part in the American economy in heretofore unavailable ways. As women entered traditionally "male" occupations, African-Americans began to demand that the war abroad be accompanied by a fight for equality at home. While improvements in the social and economic positions of American women and minorities remained incremental, the war years provided both groups with unprecedented opportunities to contribute to a national cause and to demonstrate their membership in and value to their country.

Perhaps the most enduring image of American life on the home front is that of "Rosie the Riveter." Inspired by a Norman Rockwell drawing, "Rosie" came to symbolize the ideal female war worker: she was strong and patriotic, yet retained her feminine look. Whereas the federal government had discouraged women, especially married ones, from seeking paid employment during the Depression, the need for workers in war industries led to a reversal of this policy. The number of employed American women increased from fourteen million to nineteen million during the war, and the number of mothers in the workforce grew seventy-six percent between 1940 and 1944.

The women whom Rosie represented, however, were hardly a uniform group. There were, in fact, at least two different types of women—or two "Rosies"—performing war work. The first group was composed of working-class women who had worked before the war, and who probably would continue to work after the war ended. The second group, about twenty-five percent of female workers, joined the labor force specifically as a result of the war. Many women in both categories worked not only out of patriotism but also because of economic necessity and the personal satisfaction that came with their work. They derived much of this satisfaction from working in skilled factory positions that had previously been deemed too difficult for women to perform. They helped to build airplanes, made ammunition in factories, and worked in shipyards. These new opportunities were especially significant for African-American women. Previously relegated to the lowest-paying domestic and farm work, over 300,000 black women found work with better pay and better hours in war-related industries.

Still, women faced challenges as they moved into traditionally "male" occupations. Historian Ruth Milkman convincingly argues that while the federal government leant support to the notion of "equal pay for equal work" in war industries, companies circumvented this rule by giving different job titles to men and women who performed the same task. Labor unions, as well, were more interested in maintaining gains made by male workers than in helping women achieve similar benefits. Furthermore, the American public generally believed that women should forfeit their jobs and return to their homes or to unskilled labor at the war's end, so that returning soldiers—even those with little practical experience—would be promptly employed.

Unmarried women also contributed to the war effort by joining the armed services. Women had participated in the nation's previous military efforts, primarily as nurses and in other "female" occupations such as cooking and sewing. But during World War II, they demanded—and won—a larger, more permanent role as each branch of the military incorporated women in groups such as the WACs (Women's Army Corps) and the WASPs (Women's Air Force Service Pilots). While those who joined the military were banned from war zones until 1944, many women served near the battlefields as nurses, mechanics, and clerical workers. A sexual division of labor, then, clearly continued to mark women's experience with the military. Additionally, black women battled racism as they served in segregated units and often were assigned to the least desirable positions. Women in the military enjoyed far less freedom than their male counterparts, as their officers enforced strict curfews and limited their movements in order to ensure that they behaved according to proper, feminine standards. Also, unlike male servicemen, these women were discharged "honorably" if they decided to marry.

Aside from their paid labor, American women performed important unpaid work on the home front during the war years. Record numbers of men and women married in the early 1940s; between 1941 and 1943, over 1,000 servicemen and "war brides" wed each day. Many of these couples decided to have children immediately, and by 1943, the birthrate was the highest it had been in twenty years. Many historians, in fact, locate the origins of the postwar "baby boom" in this wartime surge in births. Once their husbands went overseas, however, these women were left alone to cope with housing shortages and the lack of adequate child care facilities. Furthermore, as historian Amy Bentley demonstrates, the federal government called upon American women to manage their households (and specifically to feed and to clothe their families) in accordance with rationing guidelines. By canning and growing "Victory Gardens," women supplemented their families' diets; by shopping diligently, they often obtained hard-to-find items, such as sheets, for their homes. Their efforts, in turn, helped to foster a sense of sacrifice that was crucial to the maintenance of morale on the home front.

For many members of the nation's African-American population, the very location of their homes changed during the war years, as over half a million blacks migrated from the South to northern and western cities in search of war work. Upon arrival in cities such as Detroit, Michigan, and Richmond, California, they frequently found that the vast majority of defense jobs were reserved for white workers. In fact, at the beginning of the war, seventy-five percent of war industries would not hire African-Americans, and another fifteen percent would only hire them for menial jobs.

Black leaders and workers quickly called attention to the discriminatory practices of war industries and of the nation's segregated military. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (a black labor organization), proposed to raise awareness of these problems by arranging a march on Washington D.C. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing that such a mass demonstration would hurt the nation's interests abroad, agreed to help remedy the situation. He signed an Executive Order banning workplace discrimination in defense industries and the federal government, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to enforce the order. The FEPC, however, was chronically understaffed and under-funded, and thus unable (and at times unwilling) to effect substantive changes in hiring practices. As the war progressed, severe labor shortages, rather than government action, ultimately brought African-Americans into war industries.

African-American migrants faced hostility not only from employers but also from the white citizens of northern and western cities. Whites in Detroit, for instance, conducted strikes to protest the hiring and promotion of black workers. They also resented the construction of housing for African-Americans in previously white neighborhoods. In early June 1943, the tensions between white and blacks grew so intense that full-scale rioting erupted in Detroit's streets, leading to the deaths of nine whites and twenty-five blacks. That same month, violence broke out in Los Angeles. The federal government had encouraged the influx of Mexicans workers to the southwest through the "Bracero Program," but hostility to these newcomers ran deep. In an incident that became known as the "Zoot Suit Riots" (after the rebellious style of dress adopted by Hispanic youth), white servicemen attacked Mexican workers in retaliation for an alleged assault. The city's police did little to stop the servicemen, largely ignoring their actions and arresting instead those Hispanics who defended themselves.

As historian Ronald Takaki makes clear, the irony that minority workers and soldiers were making sacrifices for their country at the same time that they faced rampant discrimination and racism at home was not lost on African-Americans. Indeed, blacks drew frequent attention to the hypocrisy of fighting a war for democracy abroad when they were denied many of their own rights as citizens. In what many historians see as the origins of the modern civil rights movement, African-Americans launched the "Double V Campaign," a fight for victory on the foreign and the domestic fronts. The war years thus inspired black leaders and everyday citizens to mobilize for a fight to achieve full equality under the law.

American women and other minorities clearly made significant contributions to the nation's bid to emerge victorious from the Second World War. They found employment in occupations from which they had previously been barred, and demonstrated a willingness to make sacrifices for the good of their country. In the short run, many of these economic opportunities were lost after the war. Taking a longer view, it is evident that war years helped to open the gate for women to challenge sex segregation on the job and for African-Americans to organize for their rights.

Suggested Readings:

Ronald Takaki, Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2000)

Takaki strives to tell the history of the war from the "bottom up," by paying close attention to the voices and experiences of men and women from the nation's minority communities. His wide-ranging study includes an examination of how minorities—African American, Mexican American, Native American, and Asian American, among others—experienced the war as soldiers abroad and as workers at home. In doing so, he reminds us that discrimination ran deep in the early 1940s, and that through their experience in the war, these men and women began to call on their nation to reinvent itself as a "multicultural democracy."

Susan M. Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982)

Hartmann presents a broad survey that places women's experiences during the war in the larger context of the time period. The war was both a time of change in women's lives, and one in which the traditional claims of family remained strong.

Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation During World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987)

Milkman uses comparative case studies of the electrical and auto industries to explore the birth of sex segregation in these industries and the persistence of this segregation both during and after World War II. She argues that while women did assume "male" jobs during the war itself, many industries still labeled female work at these jobs as "different." This circumstance, in turn, explains the continuing existence of the pink-collar economy in the post-war era.

Amy Bentley, Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998)

Bentley's work is a reminder that the "wartime homemaker," (together with her more well-know sister "Rosie the Riveter") was an important image during the war years. Government policies such as food rationing encouraged women to participate in the war effort in specifically gendered ways. By canning food and planting victory gardens, these women helped to present an image of abundance and resolve against a common enemy.

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