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women in the weather bureau during world war 2

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Based on available literature, the rights of women in the United States advanced considerably between the two world wars. Their participation in World War II was more extensive than during the First World War although their contribution should not be belittled during the latter. During World War I, women's contributions were mainly in the area of conserving food, raising gardens, knitting clothes for the armies, serving as nurses, and participating as volunteers during such events as raising money for the war. During World War II, the demand was for women in the work place.

During the First World War, the emphasis for women to join the work force was not as pronounced as during World War II. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson stated, "Every housewife who practices strict economy puts herself in the ranks of those who serve the nation." That same year, the Secretary of Agriculture stated, "Every woman can render important service to the Nation in its present emergency. She need not leave her home or abandon her home duties to help the armed forces. She can help to feed and clothe our armies and help to supply food to those beyond the seas by practicing effective thrift in her own household."

The Great Depression cast a long shadow over the decade of the 1940s. When the economy hit its low point in 1933, the gross national product had plunged from $149.3 to $107.6 billion; national income stood at one-half its 1929 level; and more than 30 percent of the work force-12 million men and women could not find jobs.

On the eve of World War II, the country was still recovering from the Great Depression. Unemployment rates, though reduced, remained high and working married women were not acceptable. In fact, on December 8, 1941, the lives of most women closely resembled those of their mothers.

In 1941, one-third of all households were still cooking with wood or coal; and water often had to be carried from an outside source. Even though bed sheets were changed less frequently than now, laundering them was a backbreaking task for that half of the female population who scrubbed the laundry by hand or used a hand-cranked washing machine. Both farm and city women spent over 50 hours a week! in household responsibilities. Over one-half of the population still lived in rural areas or in towns of under 50 thousand where traditional values prevailed. The family concept dominated and was idealized in the mass media. Under this concept, the role of the husband was to provide for the family, and the role of the wife was to provide a suitable home. The place for the wife was at home.

During the 1930s, as the effects of the Great Depression deepened, it was basic economic need that drew married women into employment outside the home. By the end of the decade, almost 15.5 percent of all married women were gainfully employed. The husbands of over one-third of these women made less than $600 annually, barely half the median income in 1939. The majority of these working wives of the poor were not likely to earn more than $200, but their economic contribution often provided something as basic as a roof over their head or enough food for their children to eat.

Most wage-earning wives did not have the luxury of choosing to work or not. Nevertheless, public opinion was against them. In 1936, 82 percent of the population felt that wives should not work if their husbands had jobs. Furthermore, a majority believed that laws should be passed to prohibit wives from working. These restrictive laws were never enacted, but the federal government did prohibit a married couple from both holding government jobs, and as late as 1939, legislatures in 26 states considered laws limiting married women's work. Both men and women believed that married women should give up their jobs if their husbands wanted them to. In the Depression decade, those wives who worked outside the home were viewed as selfish, greedy women who took jobs away from male breadwinners. A Gallup poll in 1936 reported that 82 percent of the respondents believed that wives with employed husbands should not work outside the home, and three-fourths of the women polled -agreed.

When the United States entered World War II, the country had to move quickly into high gear. Almost overnight, auto factories were converted into aircraft plants, shipyards were expanded, and new factories were built. In order to quickly fill the demands for workers in these new or expanding industries, complex jobs that formerly had been performed by highly skilled workers, like machinists, were broken down into smaller tasks that could be quickly learned. The promise of new, well-paying jobs attracted not only the urban unemployed, but also people from rural areas and small towns. The mass migration from the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest into the industrial centers of the West and North would have an important and lasting affect on the nature of American society.

Recruitment campaigns directed at women played upon their patriotism. The messages appealed to their domestic and nurturing roles. Self-sacrifice was required to bring their loved ones home safely and to preserve the way of life they cherished. The temporary nature of this required shift in roles was stressed.

Novel approaches were developed to get the message across. The Womanpower Commission in Buffalo, New York, set up Cape Cod cottages downtown in order to welcome potential applicants. In Los Angeles, married Lockheed women workers served as "Victory Visitors" going from door to door in their neighborhood to recruit full-time homemakers for the factories. As the federal budget grew to $100 billion in 1945, new means were devised to procure revenue. Deficit financing provided about one-half the war costs as the national debt rose from $43 billion in 1941 to nearly $260 billion in 1945. While the government continued to borrow money by selling securities to Federal Reserve Banks, it also launched massive campaigns to sell war bonds in low denominations and got 25 million workers to purchase$25 bonds through payroll savings plans. Increased taxes provided the remaining half of the Treasury's needs. New legislation increased corporate taxes, raised the excess-profits tax to 90 percent, initiated the income-tax withholding system, and broadened the tax base. The number of Americans who paid federal income taxes rose from about 7 million in 1940 to more than 42 million in 1945. Higher taxes and the encouragement of savings through war bonds were not sufficient to limit the inflation which resulted from increasing consumer purchasing power chasing a limited supply of goods. The government succeeded in curtailing the rise in prices to 29 percent between 1939 and 1945.

The labor force expanded from 56,180,000 in 1940 to 65,290,000 in 1945. Workers saw their average yearly real earnings rise from $754 in 1940 to $1,289 in 1944. The increase resulted not simply from increased rates of pay, but also from overtime work and expanded employment in already high-paying jobs.

The Census Bureau estimated that 15.3 million people moved during the war, half of those having crossed state lines. Some of the migration consisted of servicemen's families moving to military base areas, but most of it resulted from the lure of higher paying jobs. Between 1940 and 1945, the female labor force grew by more than 50 percent, as the number of women at work outside the home jumped from 11,970,000 (with an additional 2.19 million unemployed) in 1940 to 18,610,000 (420,000 unemployed) in 1945. The proportion of all women who were employed increased from 27.6 to 37 percent, and by 1945, they formed 36.1 percent of the civilian labor force. Three-fourths of the new female workers were married; by the end of the war, one of every four wives was employed.

The number of women in civil-service jobs jumped from fewer than 200,000 in 1939 to more than 1 million in 1944, a 540 percent increase. Their share of federal positions increased from 18.8 to 37.6 percent. Although clerical work continued to be the typical female job, by 1943 women were being hired as mechanics and press, crane, and tractor operators as well as in professional classifications usually filled by men. During the war, all new civil service appointments were limited to the duration plus six months. Thus, the postwar prospects for these new employees depended upon the degree of contraction of the federal bureaucracy and the extent to which veterans would want civil service jobs.

Since wages in munitions plants and aircraft factories averaged 40 percent higher than those in female fields, the hiring of women in durable goods represented a significant step up the occupational ladder for women workers. In Detroit, a typical war production center, the average weekly take-home earnings of women in war industries were $40.35 whereas those of women in laundries, restaurants, hotels, retail and wholesale trade, and consumer goods industries ranged from $24.10 to $29.75. As a result, massive shifts occurred in the labor force as women abandoned these fields to seek work in war production plants. In the ten major war production areas, 50 percent of all women who had been in trade and personal service and 66 percent of those who had been employed in eating and drinking establishments shifted to war manufacture. The greatest changes in wartime economic behavior took place among married women. One in every ten married women entered the work force during the war, and they represented more than 3 million of the new female workers, while 2,890,000 were single and the rest widowed or divorced. For the first time in the nation's history there were more married women than single in the female labor force. While housework and voluntary activities continued to occupy the majority of married women, the percentage of all wives who worked outside the home grew from 13.9 in 1940 to 22.5 in 1944.

In Rosie The Riveter Revisited (by Sherna B. Gluck), one of the messages which came to the surface was the women saying, "I never realized what I could do." Many of the women interviewed by Ms. Gluck said that their wartime work experiences changed the way they felt about themselves. Being able "to hold their own with men," gave a new sense of self, of competency, not only to women new to the world of work outside the home; but, also, to those who had worked at traditional women's jobs. During the war, for the first time in their lives, many women performed jobs that were viewed by the public as necessary and valuable. Women who worked during the war were faced with the double burden of maintaining the home. After 8 to 10 hours on the job, these wives and mothers had to stand in long lines in the stores and cope with rationing. By the time they reached the market at the end of their workday, the limited supplies were depleted unless they were fortunate enough to have a grocer who looked out for them. The shoppers who were lucky enough to have a washing machine still had to contend with the search for laundry soap. Those who used a commercial laundry had to wait as long as two weeks or a month for the return of their clothing and linens.

The war permeated every aspect of daily life. News from overseas was regularly broadcast on the radio. One network devoted almost 40 percent of its broadcast time to news programming about the war. War themes were incorporated into the dramatic and variety shows as well. The popular comedy programs often originated from army bases and joke routines touched on life in the service. Many of the old standbys, like " Fibber McGee and Molly," incorporated war messages into the body of their programs, dealing with issues like the black market and the recruiting of nurses' aides.

Movie attendance was at an all-time high with women the major audience. War themes were regularly served up, but most movies were escapist in nature, especially after 1943. The genre of women's films that had first appeared in the 1930s were still popular, and the strong characters portrayed by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck continued to survive in a male dominated world. They were offset by the emergence of a new model, the " girl next door, " as portrayed by actresses like June Allyson. Still, the workwomen were performing during the war was treated seriously.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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