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Women and War Work

Amanda Smith, an African-American woman employed in the Long Beach Plant of the Douglas Aircraft Company.

World War II proved a momentous time for American women. As men enlisted or were drafted into the military and went overseas, skilled jobs previously unavailable to women began opening up. Encouraged by the government to do their part at home, women participated in such wartime occupations as planting Victory Gardens, industrial labor and enlistment in the military. For many women, the opportunity to make a decent living and learn a trade was a chance they could not pass up.

Many women who chose war work found independence and liberation in it. The pay was more than they had ever made before (although not equal to that of their male counterparts) and release from economic dependence on husbands and family led women to factory floors in droves.
The media image of women industrial workers as “Rosie the Riveter” created a readily identifiable icon for the women’s movement. Such imagery helped propel women into skilled war work, which often provided them with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in knowing that they were doing their part in the war effort.

The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) offered one way for women to prove their mettle. By the end of World War II, more than 150,000 women had signed up to serve their country through WAC.

The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) offered another route for women to prove their mettle. Aside from nurses, these women were the first to serve in the ranks of the U.S. Army. By the end of World War II, more than 150,000 women had signed up to serve their country in WAC.

Many of them were women of color who had faced racial discrimination on the home front. Japanese-Americans served as Wacs, despite their families’ forced removal to relocation camps. African-American women served their country in industry and the military while facing racism, low wages, and the worst work assignments.

However, when the war ended in 1945, women’s newfound economic security suddenly was in jeopardy. As men returned home to family and friends, they also returned to the jobs they had left behind. It became clear that women were expected to resume their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Some scholars cite the unrest and discontent attributed to this abrupt shift as a major stimulus to the women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960’s.

After the war, 13 Japanese-American Women’s Army Corps members were sent to Japan to show the Japanese what Americans of Japanese ancestry were like and to help build bridges across a cultural gap.




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