Preferred Citation: Harrison, Cynthia. On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945-1968. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.

1 The Equal Rights Amendment and the Ambivalent Legacy of World War II

Postwar Backlash

The federal government had enticed women into the labor force for war work. Federal funds helped communities take care of the children, and the National War Labor Board promised equal pay with men, declaring wage differentials based on sex impermissible (partly to lure women to work and partly to keep wage rates up in preparation for the GIs' return).[2] A massive public relations campaign sang the praises of "Rosie the Riveter." Magazine story writers began to portray married women workers favorably, able to handle their jobs competently while meeting their family responsibilities. Work and love went together—but only for the duration. Advertisers who included working moms in their ads made it clear that Mom was


serving because it was her duty but that she would be home again full-time as soon as she could. Now, she had to take care of her kids not directly but by doing war work. As Maureen Honey describes it, "The role allocated to women in wartime propaganda, then, was a complicated mixture of strength and dependence, competence and vulnerability, egalitarianism and conservatism."[3]

In response to patriotism and new opportunities, the female labor force swelled from thirteen million in 1940 to nineteen million and more in 1944. By March of that year, almost one-third of all women over the age of fourteen were in the labor force, and the numbers of women in industry had increased almost 500 percent, to one woman worker in three. The opportunities created by the war allowed women to leave domestic service jobs: between 1940 and 1944 the percentage of working women who held domestic jobs dropped from 17.7 to only 9.5. Still, more than half of women who worked during the war held clerical, sales, service, or domestic jobs. These women did their duty, but they faced many burdens. The number of childcare facilities never approached the need, areas with military personnel lacked adequate schools, housing was scarce near military installations and defense plants, and few businesses adjusted hours to accommodate women workers.[4]

Even with all these difficulties, however, policy makers were concerned that women in nontraditional jobs would not willingly relinquish them at the end of the war. As a result, government propaganda, midwar, did an about-face. Because the original exhortations to women to do war work had never challenged the core of ideas about femininity, because no one had suggested that work was more than a sacrifice women had willingly made for the most motherly of reasons, the shift was an easy one. The message was clear: although women could do anything, authentic women would choose to be home with their families. Women's magazines fell in line with the government's efforts and spotlighted articles on the importance of mothers caring for their children.[5]

Public opinion polls, however, revealed that between 60 and 85 percent of women engaged in war work did not want to leave their nontraditional jobs at the end of the conflict.[6] Out of


anxiety that women workers might tenaciously hang on to their jobs, the federal government terminated daycare funding and gave veterans the right to displace wartime workers. The contraction of war materiel manufacturing alone displaced workers, male and female, without further ado. Within one month of V-J day, the government canceled $35 billion worth of defense contracts. Employers also began now to revise their judgment of their women workers: in the postwar version of the tale, they had not been very good after all, prone to high absenteeism and "bad attitudes." Women's organizations of all stripes worked against the notion that employers should force women out of jobs, but to little avail.[7]

Those women who had them lost their high-paying, high-skilled jobs, but the attempt to get women out of the workforce entirely did not succeed. The dismantling of war industries merely consigned these women once again to traditionally female occupations. Companies laid women off at a rate 75 percent greater than that for men, and the returning veterans reassumed the traditionally male jobs. The director of the Women's Bureau, Frieda Miller, suggested that women who had been laid off from the munitions industry look to the (lower-paying) service sector for employment[8] —which, given no other options, they did. Thus, although 3.25 million women either quit or were fired during the period from September 1945 to November 1946, nearly 2.75 million women assumed jobs, making the net decline only 600,000 women. But Rosie the Riveter had become a file clerk.[9]

Practical considerations had dictated the ejection of women from wartime employment: returning soldiers needed jobs. Americans worried about the return of the biting depression that had preceded the war. Then, jobs for "heads of households" had taken priority. Intense opposition to married women workers had resulted even in occasional legal bans against hiring them, and in some families in which the wife had been the sole wage earner husbands had suffered acute emotional distress.[10] No one wished to contemplate the recurrence of such a phenomenon. In the twelve months following June 1945, nine million military personnel were discharged, and policy makers now sought to ensure that the former GIs would not be displaced by


women from jobs they had a right to as "breadwinners." With the contraction of defense manufacturing, the economic dislocation of the postwar period added to the pervasive strain that had attended the war years.[11]

But a still more insidious backlash emerged following the war, separate from the economic considerations resolved in part by women's relinquishing their jobs. As the psychiatrist Edwin Krause and the novelist Pearl Buck had both warned, by making them the beneficiaries of the heroic male warriors, the war caused a major setback for women. Popular literature counseled women to forget their own needs in order to make their beaux more comfortable, and articles advised them to cultivate feminine characteristics, eschewing the independence, assertiveness, and competency they had acquired from their experiences on the home front.[12] Government planners had defined the major postwar domestic problem as the readjustment of sixteen million veterans, and they believed that readjustment would come sooner if the vets found their girls as they had left them, not as independent working women.

The anxiety of readjustment translated into a desire for the reinstitution of traditional family life supported by traditional sex roles. Everyone wanted to forget the trauma of the war, including the evidence that women could perform the work of men. A survey of women's roles as portrayed in magazine fiction in 1945 showed careers for women depicted more unsympathetically than since the turn of the century. Women themselves sought the peace and pleasures of marriage and motherhood. The marriage rate, which had averaged 121 per thousand during the war, peaked at 148 per thousand in 1946, and the median marriage age for women fell more than a year, from 21.5 to 20.3. More than ever before, women were trying for both work and love. Pushed out of high-paying "men's jobs," they acquiesced to doing women's work at home and in the office.[13]

1 The Equal Rights Amendment and the Ambivalent Legacy of World War II

Preferred Citation: Harrison, Cynthia. On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945-1968. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1988 1988.