At the onset of World War II, the United States faced a major labor shortage that led to a drastic change in women’s role in the workforce. President Roosevelt had initiated the first peacetime draft in history in 1940 and after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US fully mobilized for war.
With it, men swarmed the ranks of volunteers to fight and still more were drafted to join the military as well. In order for the US to reach full military, economic, and industrial capacity, the country needed to redefine women’s role in the workforce during World War II.
The Role of Women in the US Workforce During World War II
Since the beginning of the Great Depression a decade earlier, the percentage of women in the workforce had steadily increased. By 1940 women comprised nearly 27% of the workforce. As the war effort escalated, the percent of women in the workforce increased to over 37%, its highest ever to that point.
The reason women joined the workforce varied greatly. Some had less duties to complete around the household with their husbands away at war. Others needed another source of income to make ends meet. Still other felt the call of patriotic duty to help in the war effort.1
A major contributor to the recruitment of women in the workplace was the iconic “Rosie the Riveter”. Loosely based on a real person, though mainly fictional, “Rosie” represented all the women who worked in the traditionally masculine jobs left by the men at war.
A total of 6.5 million women were inspired to join the workforce during the war, a nearly 50% increase. The most dramatic increase in workforce participation came from married women. Prior to the war only 14% of married women worked outside the home. This increased to 23% by 1944.
Once women joined the workforce however, they found that their pay was much less than the men that remained. A skilled female worker averaged a weekly pay of $31.11. A skilled male working the same position averaged $54.65 per week. Women in unskilled positions were often paid an even smaller proportion than that.2
Though women made tremendous advances in workforce participation in World War II, as soon as the war ended these gains were stifled. Men returning were often given their old jobs back, at the expense of women.
Even so, this setback was not for long as World War II proved that women could do many more jobs than previously thought and had a rightful place in the workforce.
Women in WWII Workforce by Industry
At the time of World War II only about a quarter of women were employed in the US workforce. Despite the steadily growing number of women working since 1920, women’s place in society was largely still considered to be “in the home”.
Even so, the US government needed more women to work and encouraged this through many efforts. The symbol of Rosie the Riveter inspired many women to step into industries typically dominated by males pre-war.
It symbolized the strength and determination of women and how they could accomplish anything a man could.
As seen in the chart the industries that saw the biggest increase in working women were for automobiles and iron and steel. Note that automobile production had largely shifted to production items like tanks, airplanes and other military vehicles during the war.
After the war ended, most industries saw a decline in the percentage of women workers. The most impacted were those of traditionally male industries as men returned home form the war and took their old jobs back. However, that downward trend was short term.
Women had proven they could perform in various industries and were here to stay. By 1950, the trends had once again reversed and the percentage of women workers were largely increasing. This was most seen in the Textile Mill products industry as their numbers skyrocketed.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Goldin, Claudia D. “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment.” The American Economic Review, vol. 81, no. 4, 1991, pp. 741–56. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2006640.
2) Hartmann, Susan M. Home Front and beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Twayne Publishing, 1982.